With the cost of food rising, consumers are cutting back, or doing without

Giannina Convertino, 57, is a bargain shopper these days, cutting coupons and looking for the best deals she can find. Convertino, who is studying to be a medical assistant, is on a tight budget and needs to watch where every dollar goes. “I try not to buy any food unless I have to.” Buy this photo

The way food prices are these days, Sheanna Caban and her family have had to adjust to a life of meatless Mondays and a whole lot of pasta on the dinner menu.

About the series

Everything costs more, but we're not making more money. The middle class is said to be suffering its worst decade in modern history. For the next two months, the presidential candidates will contend that they hold the middle class' best interests at heart. The Post and Courier is detailing the struggles many of us face, and offering you solutions for getting out of debt, paying the bills and putting food on the dinner table.

The 32-year-old mother of two and her husband work behind the scenes at local television stations. But even with two incomes, they struggle to keep pace with the ever-rising cost of living and raising a family.

Tips for savings at the store

Plan ahead. Look for fliers in newspapers, online or at the front of the store to see where the deals are. Scan coupons in the Sunday paper for potential savings on items you buy. And check your pantry before shopping to see what you already have to build on to create a meal.

Don't go in hungry. An empty stomach makes everything on the shelves look desirable, even if you don't need it.

Sign up for the card. Most chains have member or bonus cards that offer in-store savings on top of manufacturer coupons. Sure, it's a little creepy that the cards can be used to track buying habits, but the savings can be substantial.

Use e-coupons. Many stores offer those that can be loaded onto the card. The savings come off automatically.

Forget about brand loyalty. Store brands can be 25 percent or more cheaper than name brands.

Look for fuel perks. Several stores reward customers with savings on gas cards that can be applied at the pump, keeping a few more dollars in your wallet.

Buy in-season. Produce in-season is often priced to move and can cost a lot less than things like corn and tomatoes purchased in January.

Cut it up yourself. Pre-packaged items that are washed, sliced or chopped usually carry a higher price tag than their untouched counterparts on the shelf. Is it really that much harder to rinse and chop that head of lettuce yourself?

Let your eyes wander. Shelves often are stocked with pricier, premium items at eye-level. Check above and below for less-costly alternatives.

Stock up. Load up on frequently used items when they go on sale, look for bulk discounta on things like cases of wine, and always be on the lookout for buy-one-get-one-free deals. Beware of sales that offer two items for a reduced price. Often, you can get the same discount on one item without buying the second.

Beware end-of-aisle displays. Just because the item is prominently displayed in bulk at the end of an aisle doesn't mean it's on sale. Check the price.

Fresh or frozen? If the fresh stuff is too rich for your wallet, check out frozen alternatives. They are often just as healthy and nutritious, but at a lower price point.

With staples like milk going for $3.50 or more per gallon, just putting food on the table leaves a big dent in the budget of middle-class families like the Cabans.

“It's a big concern,” she said. “Our grocery bills are second on the list of expenses, right after rent.”

Things are expected to get even tighter in the coming months as fallout from the nation's worst drought since the 1950s drives food prices higher.

Extreme heat and an extended dry spell have put a big hurt on corn, soybean and grain harvests in several states. These shortfalls are expected to have ripple effects in global food markets, driving up prices for everything from beef and dairy to corn flour and cereal, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Underscoring those fears, the global food price index climbed 6 percent in June after three months of decline, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

“We are going to see higher food prices. There's no doubt about that,” said Frank Hefner, an economics professor at the College of Charleston. “I think it's pretty clear things are going to go up across the board.”

No one is anticipating a world food crisis, and opinions differ as to how bad things will get and when. But many experts expect consumers to feel a noticeable pinch at a time when many in the middle class are already feeling squeezed by soaring gas prices, stagnant wages and mounting debts.

A new study by the Pew Research Center dubbed the first decade of this century a “lost decade for the middle class.” Since 2000, the middle class has gotten smaller, lost ground in income and wealth, and shed some of its characteristic faith in the future.

And more than three years after the Great Recession officially ended, more than 60 percent of those surveyed said they are still cutting back on household spending because money remains tight, the study found.

These are people like Sharon Calvert, a 49-year-old cafeteria worker from Goose Creek, who has switched to off-brands and dumped staples like milk and bread from the shopping list when prices have climbed too high for her family.

Another mother, from Mount Pleasant, said she has cut back on buying new clothes, getting facials and enjoying other “adult treats” so her kids can eat quality food.

A lot of people have just learned to do without the things they like. Take Joann Yates of West Ashley, who had a hankering for crab meat the other day.

“It was $12 for an 8-ounce can,” she said, raising her eyebrows. “So you don't see that in my cart do you?”

Making it work

The struggle to get by has become almost second nature to many folks, breeding an almost stoic sense of acceptance in the face of a system that is largely out of their control.

They earn too much to qualify for assistance and too little to move beyond a state of just-getting-by. So they suck it up, put aside their sticker shock and move on.

Brenda Holseberg, a retired social services worker from Mount Pleasant, summed it up: “Prices go up, prices go down and the prices go back up again. It's kind of like the weather. But what are going to do? You still have to eat.”

Shoppers have any number of strategies for trying to gain an edge. They look for sales and buy in bulk, clip coupons, search out generic or store brands, sign up for supermarket discount cards, look for stores that offer fuel perks — anything to keep the bill down.

Heidi Dillon, a 32-year-old mother of two from Hanahan, does many of those things while following one hard and fast rule. “I budget and I set a limit on what I can spend per paycheck. And then I don't ever go over that,” said Dillon, a homemaker who is married to a truck terminal manager.

Sarah Wolf, a stay-at-home mom from Mount Pleasant, said she and her husband, a Web designer, try to budget as well, and limit shopping trips to once a week. They also try to make sure all the food they've bought gets used.

“We try to be creative,” Wolf said. “We eat from the pantry and pair a meat with whatever we might have in the house to create a meal.”

More pain ahead?

Even with such strategies, the challenge to make ends meet could get even harder.

Retail analyst Burt Flickinger III, managing director of Strategic Resources Group in New York, said high food prices could get worse if the drought continues into next year.

In the past people have switched from meats to peanut butter in tough times. But even the peanut crop has taken a beating recently, limiting options even further, he said.

A bright spot (of sorts) for carnivores is that beef and pork prices may drop in the short term as producers thin their herds and sell off stock in the face of higher feed costs. But analysts say those savings aren't expected to last long, and the prognosis for the coming year doesn't look good if you like to toss a steak on the grill.

If drought conditions continue and crops yields tank again in 2013, that could put the country “on the edge of the tremendous inflation we had between the late '70s and early '80s,” Flickinger said.

That — at a time when American student loan debt has topped $1 trillion, gas prices are inching toward $4 a gallon and salaries have stayed flat — would only contribute to what Flickinger has described as “a silent tsunami taking money away from the middle class.”

Giannina Convertino of West Ashley has felt the pull of that tide.

The 57-year-old, who holds a doctorate from Columbia University, left a 23-year career as a special-education teacher in 2009 to care for her dying mother. Unable to find work in her chosen field after her mother's death last year, she has gone back to school to start a new life as a medical assistant.

But that has left Convertino on an extremely tight, fixed income that often dictates her diet. She knows she is better off, health-wise, to shop the perimeter of the supermarket and avoid the processed foods that fill then center aisles, but the fact is, fresh vegetables and meats often cost a lot more than the frozen stuff in boxes.

“It really impacts what and how I eat,” she said. “I try not to buy any food unless I have to.”

Charleston residents Michael Ornelas and Hannah Hill can sympathize. Ornelas is in the Coast Guard and Hill works as a nanny. But, even if they pool resources with another roommate, they have to keep a close eye on what they buy, adjust their tastes to whatever is on sale and make their purchases last.

A package of ground beef, for instance, might get stretched over three meals, making an appearance in tacos, lasagna and a casserole.

“Even splitting the cost three ways, it's still pretty tight,” Ornelas, 20, said.

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.

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