Recession drives up grocery prices, food stamp applications

By Gus Bode

With two children in college and a 14-month-old son, one Carbondale mother said rising prices on supermarket shelves, especially for commodity, or name-brand, items concern her.

Natalia Kolmakova, 42, of Carbondale, said her husband teaches at SIUC and she teaches at John A. Logan, but she still monitors each penny she spends.

‘It’s just financially very unstable,’ Kolmakova said. ‘The clouds are gathering even more densely above our heads.’

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The U.S. Department of Labor reported U.S. food prices rose 0.1 percent in 2008, but went up by an average of 2.5 percent the 15 years before, leaving buyers concerned. In the last four months, the Jackson County Department of Human Services saw an increase in the number of food stamp applications they received, said Cindy Canning, office administrator for DHS.

‘Just trying to keep up with it concerns me,’ Canning said. ‘We have time limits that we have to meet as far as processing these applications.’

The impact of the 0.1 percent price increase in 2008 is compounded by a 4.1 percent increase in 2007.

On Jan. 29, BusinessWeek reported grocers are demanding action against manufacturers who refuse to adjust their prices, claiming commodity prices are still above historical averages. Companies such as Kellogg said higher prices do not cover the commodity and production costs, according to the article.

Francis Murphy, general manager at the Neighborhood Co-op Grocery, said these claims could be valid.

‘It’s true that there has been some misconstrued inflation that has been driven by commodity prices,’ Murphy said. ‘Their profit margins have been getting squeezed as commodity prices have been going up. We think commodity prices are going to go down some time in 2009, but we’re not sure the shelf prices are going to go down.’

Families that receive assistance through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) is based on a food amount instead of a dollar amount, so the price of food does not pose as much of a problem, said Karen Brown, family services manager.

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Murphy said the Co-op fights the increases, pressuring vendors to keep prices low.

Vendors, in turn, fight to get better prices from places that source their materials, he said.

A single person can receive a maximum of $176 a month in food stamps. The maximum for a family of four is $588.

Kolmakova said she made more money when she received unemployment than she does with the limited number of hours she is allowed to work at John A. Logan.

‘What I earn, working so hard being a teacher with a baby, it’s less than unemployment benefits if you spread it over the year,’ she said. ‘It’s just the price for being active.’

Kolmakova said she shopped at ALDI when her family lived in Germany and she was happy to find the store in southern Illinois. She said she buys some products from larger stores, but prefers ALDI because she believes more of her money goes toward keeping prices low.

‘You are not spending your money for wooden floors and for a lot of stuff and for some fancy decorations,’ she said. ‘You’re spending your money for stuff that you can eat and it’s good quality. There is a lot of European stuff that I am used to.’

While she is able to scrimp and buy generic brands for some products, she said she does not trust generic baby products, such as lotions and baby formula, for her infant son, Dimi.

Murphy said food is not the place to scrimp.

‘ ‘It’s funny that Americans always think about food as a place to economize because we pay a much lower percentage of our income for food than any other developed nation in the world,’ Murphy said. ‘Food is just not a place where you necessarily want to compromise quality because, you know, you are what you eat.’

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