Whoa whoa, groceries cost what?

I generally don’t worry about how much I spend on food, although it’s been an ongoing source of tension in my household because we’re supposed to be living within a budget. If you don’t have the money, you don’t buy it. Or maybe you charge it?

I generally don’t worry about how much I spend on food, although it’s been an ongoing source of tension in my household because we’re supposed to be living within a budget. How that’s supposed to work, I don’t really know, because it seems to me that things cost a particular price and so you pay it. If you don’t have the money, you don’t buy it. Or maybe you charge it. That last one, in particular, gets me into trouble, to be honest, and that’s about all I know about budgets.

However, I began to worry about the price of food after Christmas, since we inexplicably had very little cash lying around, and surprise! All the prices at the grocery store had made a big leap since before the holiday season had begun. Big enough for someone as arithmetically challenged as I am to notice.

Slate had an interesting article not too long ago detailing how gourmet-lovers were having to cut back on fancy cheese, imported fizzy lemonade, and other high-ticket items because of an across-the-board price increase, but I didn’t really think it applied to me. I have only two serious food indulgences: fancy olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar. I haven’t seen them go up yet, but I have seen milk and eggs go up. I’ve seen bread go up and I’ve seen beef go through the roof. I’m worried about basic ingredients getting pricier and pricier and never coming back down. Whole foods, my friends–that’s what you have to worry about.

We all know why this is happening (cost of fuel, corn to ethanol, global food crisis, sinking dollar) so I won’t bore you with that old news, and not everyone, as Michael Pollan recommends, can plant a garden (or even wants to). We’re supposed to get used to more expensive food, some say, because it’s been artificially inflated.

Around here, Ukrop’s is generally perceived to be expensive, Ellwood Thompson and Good Foods even more so, and Kroger is the more reasonable of grocery store choices. Not true, my friends, not true. Richmond Magazine did a really thorough job examining the grocery wars (username: may; password:ice), but I did my own, less scientific survey as well. I didn’t look at snack foods or prepared foods. I also tried to buy a lot of organics (I have children), so perhaps my comparison can be construed as elitist on those grounds alone. Frankly, pesticides and hormones freak me out, and Pollan has me convinced organic food contains higher amounts of nutrients.

I discovered that Ukrop’s was generally cheaper than Kroger when it came to organic milk and eggs, while meat was little more expensive, and produce at both was mostly the same. Ellwood Thompson’s was, in fact, more expensive overall, but when something is on sale there, it’s really on sale. Snap it up and buy a couple extra. Add in their bulk spices and tasty Shenandoah Valley Farms’ eggs (although they aren’t the cheapest, by far, and I think I’ve found another personal indulgence), and it’s a reason to make the trip once a week.

But am I really elitist when I buy organic? An unexpected side-effect of higher food prices is that the gap between conventionally produced food and organic is closing. In fact, milk is almost there. And if you shop at the multiplying farmer’s markets around town, you’ll find that conventional produce prices at the grocery store are more or less the same as the price of locally farm-grown organics, and sometimes even cheaper when a crop is particularly abundant.

Another bonus my little survey produced was an unexpected bolster to the buy-local argument. I didn’t include Wal-Mart in my survey because the money those stores make dramatically drains out of our area and pours into Arkansas instead, and I don’t like that. I’m not so thrilled with their labor practices either, and they haven’t done an awful lot to put pressure on China to change their labor and pollution-causing manufacturing practices. But we know all about that too, don’t we? And with gas prices as high as they are, I’m probably burning up my savings in my tank on the drive out there and back anyway. What I hadn’t thought of (and I can’t believe I was so dumb) was that Kroger isn’t local either.

Now that I more or less busted the myth of Kroger’s inexpensiveness (at least to me), I realized that while a particular product at Ukrop’s might be pricier, another less expensive product at the store would make up the difference. Plus, a good percentage of the money I pay for that product sticks around town instead of flying off to parts unknown. Ditto for Ellwood Thompson and Good Foods. Add in as many products as you can from the farmer’s market (and cut out the middle man), and you’ll find that you’re not only doing a reasonable job (or as reasonable as you can right now) managing higher food prices, but you’re also actually doing those nice things that you were meaning to do anyway, like reducing your carbon footprint, lowering your pesticide exposure, and helping your community.

It’s a nice formula: Buy local=spending less money+benefits to others. It’s not foolproof, but as a rough guide to living and eating well, it’s all you need to survive right now.

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