Sunday, April 20, 2008

Escalating food prices pinch shoppers

Go to Original
By Will Hoover

Isle consumers feeling sting of rising fuel costs, alter grocery shopping

While shopping at Safeway in Kapolei last week, Jane Boyce of Barbers Point stood before a display of large cantaloupes and considered her options.

"It's 69 cents a pound," she finally said. "But when you weigh it, it's four or five pounds. You're talking $3 or $4 for one melon."

And that was the price for Safeway Club Card members. With the regular "nonmember" price at $1.99 per pound, a four-pound cantaloupe would cost $7.96.

Boyce chose to walk away from the cantaloupe display. Like others on O'ahu, she worries about escalating food prices that jumped 6.1 percent during the past year — the biggest increase in nearly two decades — and show no sign of leveling off.

Boyce has joined a growing legion of Island grocery shoppers who are beginning to alter their food-buying habits. They're scouting for sales, buying at whichever store has better prices, collecting coupons, purchasing less, serving smaller portions, and checking cash register receipts for errors.

Boyce said she selects items that stretch her meals further. She avoids spontaneous purchases, and tries to make every dollar count.

"The prices are affecting me a lot," said Boyce, 55, who lives on a fixed income. "Because my money isn't going as far when it comes to groceries. Sometimes Safeway has the best price. Sometimes I go to food banks. I used to buy name brands. Don't do that anymore."

Mostly, she frets about what's coming.

"It's a little frightening," she said. "Because we all have to eat. And if food prices go up, what am I going to do?"

Over at Sack 'N Save in Nanakuli, Kaulana Kaneakua was having similar anxieties. With 10 kids and four adults in his household, he, too, has felt the sting of rapidly rising grocery prices. Even with three working adults splitting the costs, he said, the family lives one day at a time, paycheck to paycheck.

When it comes to groceries, the family has adopted a regimen of belt-tightening tactics to keep costs down.

"We buy in bulk," said Kaneakua, who maintains two jobs. "We look for sales. We use everything we buy. The leftovers are breakfast and lunch for the next day."

They limit grocery shopping to twice a month. They avoid name brands. They look for in-store specials. So far they haven't put in a garden at home, said Kaneakua, but they haven't ruled out the option.

Experts aren't able to offer much solace to Island consumers feeling the food crunch.

"There's been a lot of attention on higher food prices," said Leroy Laney, a professor of economics and finance at Hawai'i Pacific University, and an economics adviser at First Hawaiian Bank.

"We've already got a pretty high inflation rate here because of shelter and energy costs. And higher food prices aren't going to make that overall rate of inflation any easier to live with."

The problem isn't difficult to comprehend. With 80 percent of everything consumed in Hawai'i imported via ship or airplane, Laney said, the costs of food are soaring in proportion to skyrocketing fuel prices. Shoppers can count on food prices to continue moving in lockstep with the gas pump.

That doesn't bode well for folks heading to the local marketplace, considering that the average price of unleaded regular gas on O'ahu has jumped by 63 cents a gallon in the past year — an increase of more than 20 percent.

Worse, Laney said he doesn't see a silver lining for Hawai'i.

"I don't know of anything you can do about it," he said. "We can't possibly come close to sustaining our consumption with locally grown food. If there were any obvious answer, we would have heard it already."

Laney isn't alone in that opinion.

"It doesn't look good, because everything is going up," said Richard Botti, president of the Hawaii Food Industry Association. "And then you add to that our bad economy, and what you've got is people who have to change what they're eating for dinner."

Wholesalers are caught in a squeeze between skyrocketing fuel costs and frenzied retailers, said Brian Christensen, president of C&S Wholesale Grocers, one of the largest wholesale food distributors in Hawai'i.

"Frankly, I don't see it getting any better soon," said Christensen, who has never seen the price of food spike as fast as it has in recent months. He's hearing from buyers who can't believe it either. They are upset and frustrated.

"I think they understand that it's all related to fuel. We haven't passed on all the increases, only because there is just so much. We're trying to be more efficient in order to overcome some of the increases. But you can only absorb so much."

Karolann Nera of Nanakuli shops for her husband and two daughters at Tamura Super Market in Wai'anae, a long-time family-owned operation with a reputation for some of the lowest grocery prices around.

Nera said even factoring in the time and extra gas it takes to drive 10 miles roundtrip between Nanakuli and Wai'anae, it's worth the effort.

"It's cheaper here," said Nera, as she began loading around $120 worth of groceries in the back of her pickup in the Tamura parking lot. The same items would have cost more than $200 in Kapolei or Honolulu, she said.

Nera said she comparison shops, looks for sale items and stays completely away from convenience stores, where prices are "just ridiculous."

Still, she's concerned about where food prices are headed.

So are George and Beatrice Piliwale of 'Aiea, although you wouldn't know it to listen to them.

"We don't buy in bulk," said George, 71, with a hearty laugh, after the couple had picked up bread and cold cuts for dinner sandwiches at Times Supermarket in Waimalu.

"We don't even have a refrigerator."

The Piliwales live in a 1990 tan and brown Dodge Ram custom van. The two, who are perpetually upbeat and appear to be in good health, live on a combined fixed income of $606 a month — an annual income of slightly more than $7,000.

Anything beyond that they donate to the church.

"I'm a homeless minister," explained George, who for more than a decade — every Saturday from 3:30 to 5 p.m. under a tent at Blaisdell Park — has tended the open-air flock of the Jesus Christ Gathering His People Ministry.

To cope, they buy generic brands and stick to the basics. They believe prices will be going higher and they are not looking forward to it. But they stick to a grocery strategy that hasn't failed them yet.

"Number one, it's attitude," said George. "I try to ignore the pain I'm suffering when I buy the groceries. Number two, we look around for the best deal."

That's pretty much the whole strategy. Keep on the sunny side, look for the lowest price, and trust in the Lord.

"We'll make out all right," he said with a chuckle. "We always do."

Import costs get passed on down line

Hawai'i shoppers aren't the only ones feeling the pinch of rapidly rising grocery prices. The unwelcome phenomenon is affecting virtually the entire Island food chain, top to bottom.

"Since December we've had a 12.7 percent increase in jet fuel and rate increases by the two shippers," said Brian Christensen, president of C&S Wholesale Grocers. "Everything's coming in on a ship, so it affects everything we do."

What costs wholesalers can't hold down, they pass along to retailers.

"They (retailers) need to be able to sell the product, and they can't just keep changing prices," Christensen said. "I'm sure restaurants are even in a tougher bind, because they have to print a new menu."

One such restaurant owner is Richard Chan, who operates the I Love Country Cafe and Chinatown Express locations.

"This is getting ridiculous," said Chan, who said he's had to stop serving some appetizers, such as buffalo chicken wings, because they cost too much to prepare. He has resigned himself to the fact that his menus will need to be rewritten.

"This is definitely worse than after 9/11," he said. "Because with Sept. 11 you could look for things to improve. But I look at commodity prices now and it doesn't seem like there's any relief in sight."

Chan said the price he pays for cooking oil has more than doubled in the past year, and the amount he pays for flour has nearly doubled in the past six months.

At the Hawaii Foodbank, Dick Grimm said his organization also is in a bind.

"In March of 2007 we could have bought a 25-pound bag of rice for $5.75. That comes to 23 cents a pound. The latest we bought was in September of 2007, and that was $7.20 for a 20-pound bag — and that's 36 cents a pound. So in six months you've got almost a 50 percent increase."

And the price of rice continues to skyrocket this year. Across the board, food is costing more and it will continue to do so, he said.

"My gut is telling me that we are in for some really tough times with food," Grimm said.

No comments: