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Consumers Dig Deeper To Buy Food Grocers Blame Higher Prices On Violent Storms, Drought

A nickel here, a dime there. Sometimes a whole dollar.

Americans are watching their food bills creep upward as storms and drought have cut into the nation’s food supply.

Savvy consumers will be able to hold down the damage by taking advantage of sales and specials on the very items that have been increasing in price. Moreover, supermarkets say the increases are being offset by falling prices on other products.

A spot check by The Associated Press in several big U.S. cities found prices inching upward between late June and early August on bread, pasta and meat. These increases come on top of a surge over the past year.

But the survey also found stores putting meat, cereal and bread products on sale, cutting their profits on those items in the expectation of making up the discounts from regular-priced food and household items.

The government and many economists are warning that food prices will continue to rise into next year. The failure of the winter wheat crop in parts of the Midwest is expected to push prices for bread and pasta higher, according to some estimates by as much as 8 percent.

So far prices for bread seem to be ticking up by small amounts. A loaf of Wonder bread that cost $1.59 in two Columbus, Ohio, stores in late June now goes for $1.65. In Shaw’s in Portland, Maine, bread was up 10 cents to $1.39.

One of the biggest increases on bread was found in a Dallas Tom Thumb store, where a loaf of Wonder rose 20 cents to $1.49.

“It seems like everything you buy is too high,” said Ann Thoren, shopping at Aldi Foods, a grocery store in Des Moines, Iowa.

Meat and poultry prices also showed signs of rising, although supermarkets are continually putting a variety of cuts on sale, as they traditionally do. In Kansas City, Mo., Marsh’s SunFresh store charged $1.99 a pound for Tyson split chicken breasts, up 20 cents from late June.

In some stores, meat prices fluctuated sharply. The A&P; in Wallington, N.J., charged $3 a pound for London broil, later raised the price to $3.99, then put the meat on sale at $1.99 for one week.

In Des Moines, shopper Wanda Cowling noted that meat prices are high. “I just switch to the cheaper cuts.”

In some stores, prices were stable. Prices on meat, bread and pasta at a Super Fresh store in suburban Philadelphia did not change from late June to early August.

For the time being, a shopper’s total food bill may not rise that much because prices of other products are coming down, said Paul Bernish, a spokesman for Kroger Co., one of the country’s biggest supermarket operators.

Bernish noted that coffee prices, which shot higher last year because Brazil’s crop was reduced by about half, have come back down. And prices for paper goods such as bathroom tissue have fallen in step with lower wholesale prices.

Mike Rourke, a spokesman for A&P;, said food prices are only modestly higher. “What does hold it tight is competitive activity” among rival food retailers, he said.

Cereal makers, as expected, don’t seem to be passing their higher costs on to shoppers despite the rising cost of wheat. In recent months, the big cereal makers - Kellogg’s, Post, General Mills and Quaker Oats - all announced they were cutting prices to try to increase their market share.

In a Honolulu Safeway store, the price of a 12-ounce box of Trix cereal fell nearly 6 percent, from $5.49 to $5.19 over the past six weeks. At an A&P; in Wallington, N.J., popular cereals like Post and Kellogg’s raisin bran were usually on sale - one week a box of Kellogg’s that usually cost $3.99 was a dollar cheaper, going for $2.99.

Consumers are coping with the increases by adjusting their shopping lists.

“I always look at the ads before I go to to the store. I find out what is on sale and tune my menu to what’s on sale. If chicken is on sale, I’ll cook chicken,” said Celeste Nip, a shopper in Honolulu.

Other shoppers are resigned.

“It seems like everything you buy is too high,” said Thoren, the Des Moines shopper. “I usually go ahead and buy it anyway. I just shop around when prices get higher.”

Still, there is one casualty from her list: bacon.

“Pork has gone sky high. I just quit buying it,” Thoren said.

Some shoppers are considering options besides traditional supermarkets in hopes of saving money.

At a SunFresh store in Kansas City, Elena Velasquez said she was looking into joining a wholesale club with her sister and sister-in-law “to see if we can buy enough stuff at once to save.”

And restaurants and fast-food chains, which have taken away business from supermarkets in recent years as consumers became more time-strapped, may benefit too.

“I eat out more. It’s cheaper,” said Jan Davis, in Plano, Texas.