Even before I became Mr. Mom, I accepted the responsibility for grocery shopping in our household. It’s the one kind of shopping I almost enjoy. I see it as a contest between the store and me. I want the best quality food products for the least amount of money. I usually win.
During the past few years, and especially in recent months, it seems to me the price of food is going up faster than the price of most other things. However, this is hard for me to gauge because I don’t keep track of the price of most other things. I know for sure the price of food has seen a meteoric rise when compared to the interest rates my bank and credit union are paying on deposits. So I thought I’d do a little research.
In a previous life (1998-2012) I was editor of FloridAgriculture magazine, the official member publication of Florida Farm Bureau. For seven consecutive years (2002-2008) I conducted a supermarket survey and compared prices on 25 randomly chosen items in five different Florida supermarkets. These supermarkets were Publix, Winn-Dixie, Albertson’s, Food Lion and Walmart. The results from year to year were consistent. Walmart always had the cheapest prices; Albertson’s usually had the highest prices; and the other three stores traded places each year, usually because luck had them running sales on some of the surveyed items. The feature was popular with our readers and many of them complained when we stopped running the annual feature in 2009 – which is another quick story in itself.
The primary reason we put an end to the feature was because of the consistent results. I pretty much knew how the stores would finish before the surveys were conducted. But there was another, less legitimate reason.
One of our members, an otherwise nice fellow and capable dairy farmer, didn’t like the good publicity we were giving to Walmart because the big box store was a very tough negotiator when deciding what is was going to pay for dairy products. My guess is Walmart didn’t single out dairy but it is a very tough negotiator with every entity in buys from. This member complained to then Florida Farm Bureau President Carl B. Loop Jr. who very politely listened and then told him (I’m paraphrasing here) he liked the job his employees were doing and would leave the decision up to the staff producing the magazine. This happened during the last year or two of Loop’s presidency and serves as an excellent example of why I continue to have so much respect for this man.
A few years later the dairy farmer was serving on the board of directors under a new president and I decided to throw in the towel. There was a legitimate reason for ending the annual survey and I further looked at this as a battle not worth fighting in the larger scheme of things. But I’ve digressed.
In trying to decide whether food prices have risen faster than prices in general I decided to compare the results of the survey I conducted in 2003 with prices today. I picked Publix since it is where I do most of my shopping. And based on the results of this limited research, my suspicions have been confirmed.
For a baseline, I went to http://www.usinflationcalculator.com/ and discovered the cumulative rate of inflation between 2003 and 2013 was 26.9 percent. Then I went back to the July 2003 issue of FloridAgriculture and copied down the items and prices surveyed at Publix that year. I took the list with me when I went grocery shopping this past Saturday. The cumulative total for the 25 items in 2003 was $81. On Saturday these same items would have cost me $108.41, an increase of 33.8 percent. The food cost increase was about 7 percentage points higher than the cumulative rate of inflation.
Some increases were quite dramatic. Two pounds of ground beef would have cost you $3.98 in 2003. Ten years later the price more than doubled to $7.98. A dozen eggs went from $1.09 to $1.89. A pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream increased from $2.50 to $3.99 and an 8-pound bag of Purina One dog food rocketed from $9.99 up to $14.29. There was one bright spot on the price front with the cost of one surveyed item actually going down. In 2003 you would have paid $2.15 for a box of Hamburger Helper. On Saturday you could have gotten a box for $1.89 and Publix was running a BOGO sale to boot. Usually Publix has inflated prices on its BOGOs so this particular item didn’t fit the mold. But we’ll save that story for another day.
Here’s a list of the 25 items and the 10-year price comparisons (one disclaimer – the 2003 price for the Charmin tissue was modified because a four-pack was not available at Publix in 2013):
Year 2003 2013
2 pounds green peppers $3.38 $3.98
Head iceberg lettuce $1.29 $1.79
2 lb. Red delicious apples $2.98 $3.98
2 lb. Chicken breasts $4.98 $6.19
2 lb. Ground beef $3.98 $7.98
24. oz. Breakstone cottage cheese $2.39 $3.71
Gallon store brand milk $2.89 $3.79
3 containers Yoplait Yogurt $1.80 $2.25
1 lb. Kraft Deluxe American cheese $3.79 $5.99
1 dozen large eggs $1.09 $1.89
1 pint Ben and Jerry’s ice cream $2.50 $3.99
1 Lean Cuisine Frozen Dinner $2.79 $3.49
Gorton’s Crunchy Fish Fillets $3.39 $3.99
Freschetta Pepperoni Pizza $6.29 $6.69
1 box Hamburger Helper $2.15 $1.89
Splenda sweetener (100 packets) $3.49 $4.49
1 lb. Oscar Meyer bologna $1.67 $2.99
1 lb. Ballpark Franks $2.99 $3.00
6-pack double roll Charmin tissue $4.45 $4.99
Reynolds Wrap 75 sq. ft. $2.93 $3.99
Wisk liquid detergent $5.00 $6.49
Dial 3-pack bar soap $1.50 $2.19
Energizer 4-pack AA batteries $3.29 $4.39
Purina One dog food 8 lbs. $9.99 $14.29
Total $81.00 $108.41
Personally, I visit Walmart to buy selected items our family uses on a regular basis and where the price differential is substantial. One such item is a quart of half-and-half where the Walmart price is $1.94 and Publix charges about one dollar more. But don’t think all the prices at Walmart are lower. As the FloridAgriculture surveys consistently demonstrated, Walmart sneaks in higher prices on selected items and leaves it to the buyer to beware.
Also Publix still has a policy that gives you one item for free if it scans incorrectly or for more than the advertised or shelf price. Walmart will simply refund the difference after a lot of hoop jumping.
One final note: Food prices may be rising faster than other prices but the phenomenon in not making farmers rich. I’ll leave it to organizations such as Farm Bureau and others to ensure agriculture’s story continues to be told, thus enabling our nation’s farmers to continue supplying the rest of us with a healthy and abundant supply of food.