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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  1. Oh man, this speaks to me in my soul. How are the prices at the butchery? I always mean to go there but usually forget.

  2. I try to put aside the fact that Kroger isn’t local and that my Richmnod bucks are better spent elsewhere, however it’s like a dollar store in there sometimes and I forget that their produce is gross and often from out of the country.

    Also I’m not as excited as I thought I would be that Trader Joe’s is coming to Richmond. Mostly because since it involves a trip to Short Pump it might as well be in Northern Virginia, but also because it was just an exotic side trip and probably not the deal breaker I remember. TJ is the friend I really like but am glad lives out of town.

  3. I know this is weird, but since you mentioned it, I’ll tell you…. The veggies from the local organic gardeners (Victory Farms in my case) do have more nutrients — I’m convinced. I drained the broccolli I was cooking this week and cringed not because of the bright color of the green the water turned, but at the thought of it going down the drain instead of into my kids bodies. hmmm maybe I can sneak broccoli water into their next smoothy….or better yet, make them eat it raw!

  4. Justin on said:

    Kroger has much cheaper organic half-gallons of milk in paper cartons, so if you’re also avoiding putting your milk into plastic, it’s definitely the place to go for that. But I really do agree that you need to check into these things for yourself and not rely on reputation.

    Personally my first step for saving money is not going to chipotle every damned night.

  5. Scott Burger on said:
  6. Just as I’ve always suspected! We primarily do Ellwood’s, Ukrop’s, our Amy’s Garden CSA, and Farmer’s Markets. We do spend a lot on groceries (mostly organic and local), but since we avoid prepared foods and eat simple meals, it works out to just a tad more than my Food Lion shopping friends who eat processed foods.

  7. Ellwood’s is just sooo expensive. I do go to Ukrops but I can’t understand why their produce is so horrible. The next time I’m at the Farmer’s market, I need to remember to bring my grocery list.

  8. Just don’t ever buy anything packaged at Ellwood’s if you want to avoid sticker shock…

  9. @Susan – I find prices at Belmont are more expensive then anything at Ukrops or Fresh Market.

  10. Belmont is awesome but way out of my price range. The meat there is spectacular and the staff insanely knowledgeable.

    I wish I just didn’t have to drop a Grant every time I go in there.

  11. I wish I could make my own Diet Coke.

  12. Hey there is also a great Cambodian Grocery Store on Horsepen, which I am about to head to right now. I believe it is run by the same family that ran Heavens and Earth Cambodian restaurant. They are really great people, so stop by if you are in their area. There are also alot of great smaller asian markets in that area, with good prices (although I don’t always trust their produce). Also there is a really great Indian Gracer, Laxmi Palace on Old Parham, where you can actually get FRESH Jackfruit in the summer time. Decent prices, and also very great people.

  13. katie baron on said:

    I’ve been buying all of my herbs and more and more produce at Tan-A Market on Broad. I get the three-pack of spring rolls as a cheap ($2.50) lunch on every run. ALthough now that the Farmer’s Markets are in full swing, I’ll be taking advantage.

  14. I’m excited about Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s but not nearly as excited as I was before the price of gas became a real factor in my calculations. I’m not sure if those rumored prices will make up the difference (not that I know how to do that kind of calculation) in fuel costs from my house all the way out to frickin’ Short Pump.

    Belmont Butchery is crazy expensive and amazingly good. Sometimes their prices can be better than E-T’s (you have to check). My advice: eat less meat but eat a better quality.
    I still don’t know what “natural” means as far as meat is concerned (it worries me, actually) and I really try to buy organic BUT even then, you don’t know if the animals are humanely treated (and this really concerns me even more). You can only know if you get it from the farm and that’s always the more expensive way to go. But you’re helping pay someone’s mortgage instead for their Lexus/boat/vacation home, and that’s kind of worth it, isn’t it?

    Organic milk in cartons is the same at both Kroger and Ukrop’s ($3.49) but it’s on sale right now at E-T ($3.29)! Really, the sales are great at E-T.

    I think all the produce in this town is terrible except for the various farmer’s markets and the Carytown Ukrop’s. And as Katie mentioned, the herbs at Tan-A can’t be beat. The fish is good there too, although the Yellow Umbrella is the best in town.

    And Jonah, good luck with that broccoli water smoothie!

  15. Justin on said:

    FYI Brandon, organic milk in cartons has been on sale for $2.99 at Kroger for quite a while. I don’t know that I’ve ever paid $3.49 there.

  16. FYI everyone: all Kroger brand milk has no hormones. It says right on the label. I guess they could still be fed like chicken livers or something.

  17. nic on said:

    We always shop ukrops because it keeps the cash in richmond, sure we might be able to save a buck or two sometimes by chasing sales elsewhere, but my priorities dictate that supporting the local economy is more important than saving 50 cents on OJ.

  18. Pingback: MessyCuisine » Blog Archive » Grocery Wars

  19. Tanya on said:

    so, I’m a little late in noticing this. Go figure, since I’m usually at the shop. Honestly, I’m shocked that everyone thinks we are expensive. Since if you compare apples to apples we aren’t. Ukrop’s all natural pork chops at last look was 6.99/lb our everyday price is 3.99 and I can tell you about the farm too. At my last comparison, 75% of what we offer is the same price or less than the other guys, and much better quality! The major difference – how things are cut. If you ask us to cut a similiar sized steak or chop the prices would be comparable or less. But rarely do people ask us to cut ‘normal’ portion sizes! I recommend sharing steaks everyday. We will cut whatever you ask for – don’t go crazy. It’s okay. We don’t eat the huge steaks that we cut. Am I going to tell you no, if you order a huge steak. Probably not. Don’t be afraid, ask for something ‘proper’ we do cut those too! We do have some stuff that is expensive – but it’s also the best available. So, sometimes, it costs what it cost. I want to feed Richmond well – so, don’t be afraid to tell us what you want. We don’t have money to spare either!

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