Coping with Rising Gas, Food Prices

Many people have been watching the rise of fuel prices with dread. Now they're worrying about increasing costs of food staples, like bread, eggs and milk. People in one Illinois city are trying to adjust.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It has come to this: Some Americans are having to decide between putting gas in the car or food on the table - that, of course, in response to $4-a-gallon gas and rising grocery prices. NPR's Cheryl Corley traveled to one college town to talk to people about their coping strategies.

CHERYL CORLEY: Carbondale is a small city in Southern Illinois, home to about 25,000 people. The population doubles when Southern Illinois University is in session. Candace Bell(ph), a graduate student from Chicago, says with today's food and gas prices, she's being very careful.

Ms. CANDACE BELL (Graduate Student, Carbondale, Illinois): I walk to work every other day. And food, I just try and shop at the more convenient stores, where the food isn't so much.

Unidentified Woman: (unintelligible) if you're trying to use your credit card.

CORLEY: About a half block away, at a crowded corner gas station, David Graham says his limit now is $25 in the tank, and he's taking other steps to save money.

Mr. DAVID GRAHAM: Trying not to drive as much, probably trying to plan a vacation a little closer to home. Me and my wife trying to ride together to work as much as possible. So we're doing everything like that. I've got to watch this (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORLEY: We're going now into the Good Samaritan House, a social-service agency which serves meals to those in need several times a day.

Ms. SUSAN METCALF (Executive Director, Good Samaritan House): These folks are helping tonight, serving the meals.

CORLEY: That's executive director Susan Metcalf, who says lots of working people come here at the end of each month. Corey Bryant(ph), a truck driver from Naples, Florida, says he and his wife Cynthia ended up here after his father died unexpectedly and their car broke down. He says they're cutting back on everything now.

Mr. COREY BRYANT: We can't afford to go to a restaurant. No way. If it wasn't for my gas allowances at work, as far as my car, it sits, because I don't have the money to get around.

Mrs. CYNTHIA BRYANT (Naples, Florida): And I'm an interior designer, so, obviously, my business has suffered. Homes are not selling.

Mr. BRYANT: We can't afford to do anything now.

CORLEY: It's not as dire for some, but at Mary Lou's Grill, right off Main Street, Cathy Mays(ph) says she's keeping very close tabs on what she spends.

Ms. CATHY MAYS: I buy gas when I have to. I just buy like $10 at a time because, like, I used to not let my tank go down below half a tank, and now it's usually on empty. And then I'll put $10 in, and then hopefully that'll get me through a couple days.

CORLEY: Restaurant owner Marilyn Martin(ph) says she's paying double for some ingredients now.

Ms. MARILYN MARTIN (Restaurant Owner): Our flour's increased, our milk, our eggs - which are our main items, you know. It's really affected us.

CORLEY: So Martin may have no choice but to add to the inflationary cycle and boost her prices.

Ms. MARTIN: I could see it coming, if we have to, you know, either that or the small mom-and-pop places aren't going to be here.

CORLEY: So now I'm outside a Carbondale grocery store, where I get to ask this question: Which is worse, gas prices or grocery prices?

Ms. THERESA WALLS (Instructor, Southern Illinois University): Wow. I think they're running neck and neck right now.

CORLEY: So, Theresa Walls, an instructor at the university, says her family is cutting back.

Ms. WALLS: We do eat leftovers a lot more now than we used to, and I'll real cognizant of what I buy. I mean, it's harder now, (unintelligible). If you want to go anywhere, most people are driving, so they have to use the car.

CORLEY: But not everyone seems to think so. Oiling his bicycle chain outside of a bike shop, grad student Jason Frash(ph) says he now offers to pay people for gas if he's in their car.

Mr. JASON FRASH (Graduate Student, Carbondale, Illinois): But instead of that, I figure if I have a bike to ride, I won't have to worry about others giving me a ride to work. I can just bike in, and it's good exercise, too. So the gas prices are going up, but the bike definitely helps.

CORLEY: And away he goes, worried a lot less about the ever-increasing cost of gasoline than the motorist he's pedaling by. Cheryl Corley, NPR News.

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