May 29, 2011

Rising food prices hard to swallow

Shoppers, restaurateurs and pantries try to cope as the cost of food consumes more of their budgets.

By Beth Quimby
Staff Writer

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Caroline Loder, newly arrived from Germany and carrying daughter Savanah, 1, at the Bow Street Market in Freeport, says she is reeling from the cost of feeding her family of five an organic vegetarian diet. Her bill soared from $100 a week in Germany to $300 in Maine.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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After two years of the lowest food inflation rates since the 1960s, food prices are headed up again. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that nationally, overall food prices jumped 3.9 percent from April 2010 to last month.

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"They haven't gone up," said Smith.

Dan Beck, an owner of Moody's Diner in Waldoboro, said he raised menu prices, some by up to 5 percent, last summer but is afraid to do it again this year.

"Because if you don't have customers, you don't make anything," he said.

Instead, the staff is trying to operate more efficiently and cut down on waste.

"When the kitchen prep needs to make up mashed potatoes, it's now, 'Let's just make enough to get us through,' instead of over-anticipating," said Beck.

Mary Allen Lindemann, co-owner of Coffee By Design, a Portland specialty coffee producer, said she has been agonizing over the yet-to-be-determined price increases she will be instituting sometime next month.

Prices from coffee producers are at an all-time high, driven by factors such as rising demand, bad weather in high production countries like Colombia and the disappearance of specialty coffee farms.

Grocery stores say they have seen several shifts in consumer behavior due to rising prices.

Michael Norton, spokesman for Hannaford Supermarkets, said registered users on its website more than tripled to 57,300 in the last three months, as shoppers searched for online coupons and items on sale. The number of shoppers requesting weekly fliers by email has risen from 20,000 to just under 50,000 since January 2010.

Norton said despite the highest coffee prices in two decades, sales of premium coffee are up 6.8 percent, a sign that people are bypassing the coffee shop.

"People are buying with us and preparing at home," said Norton.

Good Shepherd Food-Bank in Portland, which distributes enough food for 25,000 meals a day, is feeling the pinch from all sides, said Rick Small, president and chief executive officer. He said the need is about double that number.

Small said the organization's rising fuel prices have driven up delivery costs to local food pantries and shelters, at the same time that food costs have taken off. Meanwhile, donations are about even with last year. The food bank, which buys about 30 percent of the food it distributes, has seen the cost of a case of tuna rise 25 percent, peanut butter 26 percent, whole kernel corn 33 percent, fruit cocktail 86 percent and beef patties 90 percent.

Good Shepherd is looking for new sources of cheap food. Last year, the agency started contracting with local farmers to avoid the transportation costs of food grown in other parts of the country. The farmers grew 355,000 pounds of fresh produce out of 12 million pounds of food distributed by the food bank last year. Small said the organization is now looking for ways to process the food in Maine rather than shipping it out of state for processing, then trucking it back.

Colgan, the USM economist, said the growing availability of local produce is a silver lining in the otherwise grim food-price picture.

"Farmers markets and local produce will probably become very competitive over the next three to five months," said Colgan.

He said most consumers have yet to go as far as they can to buy as cheaply as possible.

"Most people don't shop the cheapest every time or go after coupons," he said.

Caroline Loder of Brunswick, newly arrived from Germany, said she is reeling from the cost of feeding her family of five an organic vegetarian diet. She said in Germany she was spending $100 a week on food, but she is paying $300 a week in Maine.

She said now she is shopping much more carefully and buying only items her family will use up.

"I have a much worse feeling about tossing" out, Loder said.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:


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