An analysis of 14 common grocery items from USDA’s Marketbasket Survey showed that prices have risen significantly since the first quarter, as have USDA’s latest projections for food-cost increases during the remainder of 2011.
That’s merely a reflection of ongoing food inflation, as the “Food at Home Index” registered an increase of 0.5% for the month of May—the same as the previous month of April. The index for meats, poultry, fish and eggs increased the most, according to the Department of Labor’s Bureau of labor Statistics.
The market basket analysis was reported by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine online. Now, for those who aren’t familiar, Kiplinger’s publishes a slew of magazines and newsletters, in Personal Finance, Mutual Fund investing, Retirement Planning, a Tax Letter and various “insider” investment newsletters. They’re basically the financial world’s equivalent of those tabloids that line the grocery store checkout lanes, with articles titled, “20 Financial Innovations That Will Change Your Life,” “Trendy Teen Retailers Make Totally Hot Stocks,” and “Insiders’ Secrets on How to Eat for Less in Restaurants and Spas.”
About the only title missing is “Thinner Taxes in Thirty Days.”
Of course, nobody disputes the reality that food costs are on the rise. As energy prices increase, the cost of agricultural commodities dependent on fossil fuel-based inputs goes up, and transport and processing costs rise as well. But what’s interesting is how Kiplinger’s editors size up the hit consumers are taking at the supermarket cash register and the advice they offer, which often seems like the writers rarely leave the confines of Washington, D.C.
At least not to do their own shopping on a regular basis. Here’s a sampling:
Apples. Current average price: $1.56 per pound. Price change: up 11 cents or 7.6% Projected increase of 3% to 4% for 2011.
Savings tip: Buy apples by the bagful rather than individually to reap a lower unit cost. Stow your Granny Smiths and Red Delicious apples in the refrigerator to keep them crisp and juicy.
Comment: Wow. These Kiplinger people are good! Refrigeration. Who knew?
Whole milk. Current average price: $3.62 per gallon. Price change: up 16 cents, or 4.6%. Projected increase of 5% to 6% for 2011.
Savings tip: Reserve your regular milk for your morning bowl of cereal. For recipes that call for milk, use the less expensive powdered version instead. Just add water. You won’t taste the difference.
Comment: Dear God, no! Won’t taste the difference?? Yes you will! I grew up with parents who subscribed to Kiplinger’s and they’ve been pushing the use of foul-tasting powdered milk for 40 years now. Don’t fall for it. That stuff sucks!
Eggs. Current average price: $1.65 a dozen. Price change: up 3 cents or 1.9%, with a projected increase of 4.5% to 5.5% for 2011.
Savings tip: Visit your farmers’ market near closing time for a better deal on fresh, locally produced eggs. At day’s end, vendors are more likely to slip something extra into your bag.
Comment: Yeah, that’s how I like to pocket some serious savings. Roam the farmer’s market as they’re taking down their tents and packing up and start bargaining like it’s a Mideast bazaar. That’s how you know you’re getting your food fresh!
Orange juice. Current average price: $3.18 a half-gallon. Price change: up 4 cents, or 1.3%, with projected increase of 4% for 2011.
Savings tip: Head to the frozen foods aisle for cheaper-per-ounce and just-as-refreshing orange juice concentrate. Add water, stir and enjoy the very same vitamin C rush.
Comment: Maybe if you live in Orlando, Florida, you’re drinking OJ for a little over three bucks a carton, but you’d be lucky to find “just-as-refreshing” frozen concentrate at that price in the Northwest. (By the way, geniuses, there’s a reason frozen concentrate costs less. It’s not fresh!)
Russet potatoes. Current average price: $3.07 for a 5-pound bag. Price change: up 43 cents, or 16.3%, with a projected increase of 4.5% to 5.5% for 2011.
Savings tip: Make the most of a bargain 20-pound sack of spuds. Mashed, fried, baked or roasted, potatoes are filling and can stretch a meal budget. Store in a dark, cool place to keep fresh longer.
Comment: Really? Since the packaging and transport costs for 5-lb. and 20-lb. bags of potatoes are pretty similar, last time I checked you could save a whopping six cents a pound on the larger bag. But I guess that buck twenty really adds up when it’s smartly invested over the next 10 years in Kiplinger’s “Ten Sizzling Stocks That Will Rock Your Portfolio.”
But what’s really fascinating is how the Kiplinger’s people tackle the rising costs of meat. For instance:
Sirloin tip roast. Current average price: $4.48 per pound, up 52 cents or 13.1%. Projected increase of 7% to 8% for 2011.
Savings tip: Minimize your mealtime costs and make your cardiologist happy by going meatless twice a week. A family of four can save $624 annually.
Comment: Yes, and if you go milkless and OJ-less twice a week, you’ll save even more. Especially if you’re substituting those “really filling” potatoes instead.
Sliced deli ham. Current average price: $5.26 per pound. Price change: up 35 cents, or 7.1%, with a projected increase of 6.5% to 7.5% for 2011.
Savings tip: Ask your local butcher for the lunchmeat ends that may otherwise go to waste. They're cheaper than a pound of deli meat and just as tasty in your brown-bag lunch.
Comment: Question: Where do I get a local butcher, one who’s actually hand-carving deli meats and throwing away the “ends” that otherwise go to waste? That would be helpful information.
Ground chuck. Current average price: $3.29 per pound. Price change: up 19 cents or 6.1%. Projected increase of 7% to 8% for 2011.
Savings tip: Instead of buying ground beef, purchase a chuck roast on sale and grind it yourself. It’ll taste the same—or perhaps better, considering the money you’ll save—and allay your mystery-meat fears.
Comment: C’mon, people. “Mystery meat” comes on a cafeteria tray covered in gravy, not in a supermarket package of ground beef. But I will grant you this: Grinding your own hamburger will save you some money, as will churning your own butter and milling your own wheat. It’s one of “Twenty Trendy Tactics to Dish Out Less Dough at Dinnertime.”
And it works!
Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator