Rising food prices mean families sometimes do without

Posted: Friday, June 06, 2008

Editor's note: This is the final story in a weeklong series looking at the effects of rising prices on the Kenai Peninsula.

Going without isn't a concept that frightens Tracy Eckert. A single mother of three boys and a girl, ages 19, 15, 11 and 6, Eckert says going without teaches you what's necessary and what's frivolous.

But as gas and food prices continue to climb, Eckert finds herself rationing out what food she can afford on a budget that's already tight so her kids won't go hungry.

"Each one of them gets the same amount and then they get seconds before I eat," she said. "There's usually not enough for seconds. If there's only a tablespoon versus a cup, I'll eat the tablespoon. It's easier to go without."

Eckert shops once a month, bringing home milk and bread and finding ways to make them last. Her family skimps on pre-packaged foods and she finds it's cheaper to dredge chicken in flour than store-bought bread crumbs and to make a batch of homemade cookies than buy a bag of Oreos. But it's hard to eat healthy, she says, and buying water is frivolous, but it's a necessity to have good water.

"(You have) to do your research on who you know that has clean water and load up in the proper containers to keep them freshly available to us," Eckert said.

She typically shops at IGA and Safeway supermarkets, the two that are closest to her home in Nikiski, but can't justify clipping coupons because of the gas it costs to drive to and from the nearest newspaper stand.

"I would use the food bank, but it is so far away. If I can't afford the food it's just kind of canceled itself out," she said. "The food was a big issue with me even before the rising costs, so this has made an extreme impact on my family."

Many Kenai Peninsula residents are feeling the pressure from rising fuel and food prices. According to a survey taken by students in Ray Zagorski's Kenai Peninsula College junior marketing class in April, food prices have increased by almost nine percent this year, affirming what they already knew. There were four different stores involved in their survey: the Kenai and Soldotna Safeways, IGA and Fred Meyer. Teela Clegg, the survey's project leader, said each student chose a store, went there with a list of items to compare prices at each store. They compared a small basket, a list of 30 items, and a large basket, a list of 177 items, at each store.

"Grocery prices increased nine percent from last year," Clegg said. "If you bought all of (the items in) the large basket at Fred Meyer it was a 16 percent savings over the most expensive store."

Zagorski said his students began with a list of 177 items for the large basket, but because many of those items were either unavailable at one or more stores or had changed container size, the number of items the large basket contained was reduced to 124 items.

As of April, the cost for all the items in the large basket at Fred Meyer was $346.23, Zagorski said. If they bought the same items at IGA the cost would be $366.29, he said. At the Kenai Safeway the large basket would cost $379.49 and at the Soldotna Safeway the cost would be $393.43.

"That's about a $50 savings if you go to Fred Meyer," Zagorski said.

Clegg said her group broke the survey into three segments such as meat, dairy and produce, but purchasing all the goods at Fred Meyer was still cheaper than driving to each grocery store because of the gas involved. She said when the shopping list was prepared the brand of each product was already decided upon. The team shied away from store brands, she said, because not every store makes its own brand.

"If you think about it, based on the size of the company, it may be cheaper for them to produce flour than it would be for company two," Clegg said, "whereas Gold Medal flour is Gold Medal flour across the board."

Even though bulk stores such as Three Bears and Save U More didn't factor in the survey, Clegg and Zagorski said it's cheaper to buy products in bulk when they are on sale. And food prices may be high now, but Clegg and her peers see a significant decrease once WalMart opens in Kenai.

"If WalMart has the food items that we anticipate it will have, I think local grocery vendors will have to reduce their prices to meet the competition," she said.

Bulk stores like Three Bears and Save U More benefit programs like the Boys and Girls Club's summer free breakfast and lunch programs. Shanette Wik, unit director for the Nikiski clubhouse, said the program is possible through a USDA grant, the same one the club uses to fund its snack program. The cost comes out of the clubhouse's pocket, but it gets reimbursed per meal, Wik said.

The program is available to kids ages 18 and under. Breakfast at the Nikiski Boys and Girls Club lasts from 8:30 to 9 a.m., lunch starts at noon and ends at 1 p.m. Wik said the club is required to serve certain portions and certain food groups, including fruits and vegetables. The club house combs the sales to bring the kids the best selection possible, Wik said, shopping at IGA, Safeway and Three Bears.

"We have such a variety of working parents, if your kids are going to have cereal and we serve French toast sticks, it makes more economical sense," Wik said. "We always try different fruit. Even with the cost of kiwis, we got them. We don't do it every day, but it's nice."

Because of the convenience and price, many of Wik's employees feed their kids at the Boys and Girls Club, including Eckert. And even though trips to the movies are out, Eckert says, family bonding activities have gotten better with excursions to the beach.

"We don't drive to Homer because it's a nice day," she said. "We don't go and buy kites, we've learned how to make them with scraps. It's just putting together what we have versus going and getting them."

The upcoming personal-use dipnet season will also give Eckert the opportunity to put protein on her kids' plates, she said. Being from a fishing family, Eckert said she and her kids can't wait to get out on the beach this summer. Eckert catches just enough fish to last her family through the winter, she said, canning and smoking it.

"Fish just seems to go longer," she said. "Especially if you cook it like my mom does. And it guarantees the kids will eat it too."

Even though times are rough now, Eckert says she knows it won't last forever.

"I just know it's kind of like holding your breath and waiting for it to get over," she said. "There's got to be an end to it one way or another. If it's a temporary thing, just hold your breath to see if it's temporary or not."

Jessica Cejnar can be reached at jessica.cejnar@peninsulaclarion.com.

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