Food prices spike

Ulster County’s year-end weekly market basket report has confirmed what most shoppers were feeling all year. The cost to feed a family of four increased dramatically this year, by some twelve percent since last December, more than triple the official rate of inflation.

According to the soon-to-be-abolished county consumer fraud bureau, it cost just under $215 a week in January for 41 items in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Moderate Cost Family Food Plan, a figure that increased to $234 in mid-December. It cost $208 a year ago, according to the consumer fraud bureau.

Patrick Long, the bureau’s official shopper, concedes, however, that his market basket, compiled from perusing product prices at Hannaford, Wal-Mart and Safeway supermarkets, is not necessarily typical. He only records prices.

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“We don’t use coupons, something smart shoppers usually take advantage of,” he said. In addition almost all the 41 purchases are of name brands. Cost-conscious consumers usually buy store brands or generic products. The county market-basket price might also be inflated by the fact that not everyone purchases five pounds of Gold Medal Flour or a 48-ounce battle of Wesson cooking oil or a 48-pack of Lipton Tea every week. The market survey is weighted to reflect occasional purchases.

By the same token, some household weekly shopping trips include non-edible staples like hand towels, soap, toilet tissue and cleaning products in their baskets that are not listed by the county.

A curiosity of the county USDA market basket is that it includes a twelve-pack of twelve-ounce Budweiser beer. In contrast, participants in the federal food-stamp program are not allowed to purchase alcoholic beverages with their allotment.

The county market basket was launched in the early 1980s, dropped for several years in the late 1990s, and was restored in 2008, Long said. Its future is uncertain as the consumer fraud bureau was eliminated in the 2012 county budget. Director Janet Caffo was transferred to an administrative position the Office for the Aging. Long will work out of the district attorney’s office as a consumer advocate.

Consumer fraud complaints will be directed to the state attorney general’s office in Poughkeepsie.

 

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