Sticker shock at the supermarket
U.S. families use ingenuity and belt-tightening to save on mounting grocery bills.
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Larger families may be feeling the pinch the most, says Maureen Doyle, executive director of Moms of Super Twins (MOST), an advocacy group in East Islip, N.Y. One family with triplets and both parents working lost their home to foreclosure and are now living in a national park in Georgia, she says.Skip to next paragraph
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"Milk, veggies, fruit, rice, all have gone through the roof," says Ms. Doyle. "No working mother should have to cook on Friday night, so we used to always order three pizzas for the household. That is out of our budget now."
"Families in crisis don't look toward tomorrow, they're just trying to get through today, and that's pretty much what I'm hearing," she adds.
One paradox is that poorer families in rural areas – who would seem most susceptible to higher gas prices – may in some cases feel the least pain in tight times.
"You'd be amazed how when you're so steeped in not having much already things haven't changed that much," says Delon Charley in Gee's Bend, Ala. "But everything is being affected to some extent. Instead of buying a big 10-pound block of ground beef, let's just go with five pounds and stretch the Hamburger Helper."
Globalization can complicate today's domestic supermarket situation. For example, booming overseas markets mean that US pork producers are seeing a windfall of exports – especially with a weak dollar – even as American consumers harumph at the meat counter.
Congress has boosted food subsidies to the poor from $140 million to $250 million as part of the 2008 farm bill. Those extra commodities soon will start hitting near-empty soup-kitchen cupboards.
But according to Ms. Nelson, the Atlanta shopping guru, a more immediate way most shoppers can save money is by being less wasteful. Depending on income class, American households throw away an average of 10 to 40 percent of the food they buy, according to a USDA study.
Are people changing their eating habits as a result? It's hard to know for sure, but there is anecdotal evidence.
"When you hit times of recession, people sometimes actually spend more money on food for home, including luxury food categories like ice cream," says Ron Wilcox, a business professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "What happens is people substitute a little treat at home for going out to a movie or dinner."
Some experts see at least a bit of an upside to today's grocery struggles.