Food prices taking bigger bite of budgets

Gene Schaefer wheels recently purchased canned goods on Tuesday into the Woodstock Food Pantry in Woodstock.
Gene Schaefer wheels recently purchased canned goods on Tuesday into the Woodstock Food Pantry in Woodstock.

Using traditional food preservation methods was a way of life in Bobette Von Bergen’s household.

“My mother always froze and canned [produce], and I cook from scratch so I rarely bought anything,” she said. “It’s just so easy to do some of this if you’ve got freezer space and time. You could cut down on grocery bills.”

Von Bergen’s Country Market in Hebron, which sells in-season produce, serves as a resource on food preservation methods. In recent years, beginning around the time when the recession hit, Von Bergen noticed more customers showing interest in canning vegetables and salsas. Higher food prices that agricultural economists have forecast for 2013 may push more consumers to explore ideas to stretch their dollars.

After last summer’s drought, consumers can expect to pay 3 percent to 4 percent more for groceries this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has reported.

The drought generally drove up feed prices, which in turn raised milk, eggs, beef, poultry and pork prices. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, beef prices as a whole could see the biggest jump, from 4 percent to 5 percent.

Dairy product prices are forecast to climb 3.5 percent to 4.5 percent; poultry and egg prices are projected to rise 3 percent to 4 percent; and pork prices are expected to rise 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent in 2013, the agency said.

“In 2013, as a result of this drought, we are looking at above-normal food price inflation. ... Consumers are certainly going to feel it,” USDA economist Richard Volpe has said.

The nonprofit Northern Illinois Food Bank in Geneva works with food manufacturers and retailers to collect food and funds for more than 600 agencies and groups, including the Crystal Lake Food Pantry and the FISH Food Pantry in McHenry. The food bank’s discounted prices generally are flat year after year for local pantries.

“We’re able to buy 20 pounds of meat for $6.50 [from the food bank],” Crystal Lake Food Pantry board president Cate Williams said.

The pantry also relies on the public for donations. In 2012, the pantry served 29,000 people, up from 28,100 the previous year.

The rise of food costs could mean fewer donations as it affects donors, Williams said.

“If they set aside $10 for groceries and see that prices went up for their items, they may not be able to donate as many cake mixes or boxes of macaroni and cheese,” she said.

This comes at a time when pantries are increasingly depended on.

“Our numbers continue to grow,” said Andrea Franzen, president of the FISH Food Pantry.

Franzen also has noticed that the size of households has grown as the economy and rising costs of living affect living situations.

Currently, the McHenry pantry serves 675 families, between 2,200 to 2,500 people, a month.

In general, saving money on food simply takes planning.

“Just a little better planning,” Williams said. “It doesn’t have to be very detailed. If you make meatloaf Monday night, what’s left over could be meatloaf sandwich for lunch on Wednesday.”

At the Crystal Lake Food Pantry, canned chili is a popular and versatile food item for families.

“I can’t keep enough of those on the shelves,” Williams said. “From one can of chili you can serve up to six servings. And it’s healthy because it has fiber.

Adding ground beef, chopped onions and pasta extends the meal supply, she said.

FISH food pantry clients look to staples such as whole grain rice and beans, instead of meat, to make a variety of healthy meals that last for days, Franzen said.

• The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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