Food prices putting strain on budgets
Across northeast Kansas, consumers feeling pinch in grocery checkout lines
Mike Smith's job isn't getting any easier.
Smith, general manager of Checkers Foods in Lawrence, recently attended a food show and found himself taking yet another bite of bad news: the price he pays for corn oil and vegetable oil had risen to $1.78 a bottle, up from $1.15 less than a year ago.
Dairy prices already had climbed, and eggs were up nearly 30 percent last year. Now it's near-record wheat prices feeding higher costs for cereals and baked goods.
Overall, the government tells him, food prices should climb 3.5 percent to 4.5 percent this year - on top of last year's 4.2-percent increase.
And not a single category will offer relief.
"It's frustrating, but you have to work within the confines of the marketplace," said Smith, whose store shuns fancy displays and other frills to keep prices low. "That's the frustrating part, I guess: I haven't seen anything go down yet."
But some northeast Kansas residents refuse to accept the financial pain without a fight.
Whether it's price trackers or coupon clippers in Shawnee, a gardener in Baldwin City or buying-cooperative members in Tonganoxie, folks are finding ways to soothe the economic indigestion brought on by increasing food prices.
Dave Konovalske tracks local grocery prices almost religiously.
He said he's not much of a coupon user because he finds buying store brands often saves him just as much money. Instead he has always tracked ads to compare prices, noting sales at the former Dillon's, the Cosentino's Price Chopper and the Wal-Mart in Shawnee.
"If I can save more money at one place, I stop there while I'm out running errands," he said.
But the western Shawnee resident said it's now all but impossible for residents in his area to save money. For example has noticed that the price for 80 percent lean ground beef has risen 30 cents from $1.89 in the past few weeks at the nearest store to his home.
While all grocery prices are generally on the rise, he attributes some increases to the fact that there is now only one grocery store west of Interstate 435, and it's harder to shop around when he feels like he would be burning gasoline driving to Bonner Springs stores or stores farther east in Shawnee.
"The lack of competition in my opinion has hurt us really bad," Konovalske said. "Prices are up 10 to 30 percent."
Shawnee groceries report they haven't seen much of an increase in coupon usage, but that could be because many shoppers already are big coupon clippers. At Shawnee Hy-Vee, 13550 W. 63rd St., the store sees evidence customers are more price conscientious.
"I'd say the trends are moving more toward private labels instead of national brands," said Kevin Thalken, store manager, referring to the Hy-Vee and Country Fresh brands the store carries.
On the soup aisle at Hy-Vee, Carol Tawney of Shawnee debated for a moment between the store brand and a name brand of chicken broth.
"My husband usually does the grocery shopping, and he's good at using coupons," Tawney said. "We definitely shop our prices; we probably spend more on gas driving from store to store to save 5 or 10 cents."
But as retirees, she said, coupons are important.
At Ball's Price Chopper, 12010 Shawnee Mission Parkway, managers reported no increase in use of coupons, though there is more interest in in-store coupons.
But as she left the store, Molly Jones of Kansas City, Kan., said she was making more of an effort to clip coupons.
"Oh, yeah, definitely," she said. "I try to grab the Sunday paper for coupons each week."
in a box
In the past year, Carlee Bunch, Tonganoxie, has noticed it costs about $100 more each month to feed her family of four.
"I think (grocery prices) are crazy," Bunch said. "But that's to be expected with everything else going up as well."
To help offset increasing food prices, programs such as Angel Food Ministries at Cornerstone Family Worship church in Tonganoxie offer boxes of groceries to families at reduced prices.
A $30 box of groceries includes meats, vegetables, fruits, pastas and desserts. Each month, menu items vary and may be viewed at Angel Food Ministries' Web site, angelfoodministries.com. There are no income restrictions for people ordering food and no limit on the number of boxes purchased.
"We have a very dedicated group of people that come back every month," said Bunch, who until recently was the program's director. "I've used it a lot of times. It's a great program to supplement your everyday groceries, and it's been a blessing to a lot of low-income families."
In Shawnee, Shawnee Church of the Nazarene, 5539 Quivira Road, is an Angel Food Ministries host site. For more information, call the church at 631-5555.
A growing system
Bill Neuenswander isn't concerned by the high price of vegetables or even honey. His large garden and beehives take care of that.
There was a time when he "pinched pennies" by growing huge gardens and canning the produce, but it's now more of a hobby for the rural Baldwin City man.
"When my kids were young and my wife canned, it provided food for us year-round," said Neuenswander.
In addition to tomatoes, potatoes and beets, he grows cucumbers, onions and radishes. He has fruit trees and grapevines. His bees generate "the best honey you can get." But cutting costs is not his motivation.
"Gardening is just kind of enjoying God's goodness," said Neuenswander, who has been in education his entire career and is now a special assistant to Baker University President Pat Long.
Sometimes Neuenswander barters, which got him out of the corn-growing business. He smokes a ham every Christmas for a friend of his son. The friend, in turn, gives Neuenswander as much corn as he wants. He puts up 150 quarts of corn each summer.
"I don't want to give my age away, but I've been gardening for 50 years," he said. "At one time, I had 2 acres. There was a time I grew so much food that people would lock their cars so I wouldn't put stuff in it."
A military benefit
As northeast Kansas residents look for ways to slice their grocery bills, the military continues to offer more reasonable prices on food and household items to its members and some retirees.
Maj. Scott Holland, an active duty officer who lives in Lansing, said he and his wife, Kippy, have used commissaries at U.S. Army installations for years.
"It's cheaper," Holland said.
Commissaries are run by the Defense Commissary Agency - or DeCA - under the U.S. Department of Defense. Shoppers are exempt from sales tax.
"Commissaries are affected by the same market forces as commercial retailers, but because commissaries sell at cost plus a 5 percent surcharge, shoppers will always benefit from lower prices in the commissary and an average savings of 30 percent or more on their purchases," said Nancy O'Nell, a public affairs officer with DeCA West.
Between a call from his wife telling him to pick up bananas and crossing items off of a long grocery list, Holland explained that the price of some foods - milk and meat, for example - has increased recently. But for the most part, prices are steady.
Store director Glennie Morris said commissary shoppers have seen a small rise in grocery prices - but the prices still beat what nonmilitary shoppers are finding.
No good news
This year's rising food prices come on top of last year, when such costs climbed by 4.2 percent, USDA said. Rising costs for grains - ingredients in many grocery products, and feed for animals that produce other products - helped push up prices for beef by 4.4 percent, dairy products by 7.4 percent and eggs by 29.2 percent last year.
Smith's seen all of those costs rise at Checkers.
"We just react to what the market bears, really," Smith said. "Dairy was the first to go up - cottage cheese, milk. The next thing to come is anything wheat-based because of the rising price of wheat. That's flour, anything with pasta in it."
Escalating fuel costs also figure in. Buying cereal and bakery products - items particularly reliant on wheat, a commodity now selling at near-record price levels - will cost consumers another 5.5 percent to 6.5 percent this year, the USDA projects. Increases for dairy, eggs and meats will ease somewhat, according to USDA, but nobody expects any dramatic drops.
"We've been calling it an inflationary spiral," Smith said. "Inflation is coming, so we have to react to it."
- Baldwin City Signal editor Jeff Myrick, Tonganoxie Mirror reporter Estuardo Garcia, Lansing Current reporter Joel Walsh and Shawnee Dispatch reporter Caroline Boyer contributed to this report.