ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
Rising food prices have sparked street protests in parts of the developing world. And in the U.S. prices are also rising, about five percent over last year. For many Americans that means a different approach to grocery shopping.
NPR's Alix Spiegel went shopping with three women to find out what's changed.
ALIX SPIEGEL: Anita Rhodes(ph) is a high school dropout who had a baby on her hip before her 20th birthday. But she is also a hard worker, someone clever with limited finances. And so until four months ago, she had never been inside her local Mennonite grocery. On the way to another store in her hometown of Oakland, Maryland, a rural community on the West Virginia border, Rhodes explains that Mennonites sell damaged goods at basement prices.
Ms. ANITA RHODES: The things there are way, way past their due date but I tried it, yes I did.
SPIEGEL: Her first time out, Rhodes carried home a couple boxes of cereal she knew her kids would like. But it didn't work out well.
Ms. RHODES: And opened one box and it had bugs in it. I mean, I took the box of cereal back and the lady that runs the store is very nice, she gave me my money back.
SPIEGEL: The box of cereal had cost around $1. Now, some people might not have bothered to retrieve a sum so small. But the math of Anita Rhodes' life doesn't permit that kind of luxury. Rhodes, who works as a mental health aide, is a single mom with three kids who makes $374 every two weeks. And so the recent spike in food prices has made what is normally a hard situation even more difficult.
Ms. RHODES: I don't even look at roasts right now, just because it's so expensive. I looked at a chuck roast and it was $15.
SPIEGEL: But high food prices mean more than forgoing chuck roast. Rhodes goes down the list - no paper towels, no bottled water, no chips, no cookies, no candy, no toiletries of any kind; her teenagers use toothpaste on their pimples. Wherever there is room to cut, Rhodes says, she cuts.
Ms. RHODES: We used to eat 12-grain bread. (Laughs) We're back to white.
SPIEGEL: Still there is a drawer of unpaid bills. And every visit to the store brings fresh reason for anxiety. Walking through her regular supermarket, Rhodes notes the almost weekly rise in the price of milk.
Ms. RHODES: Two weeks ago, it was $3.39 a gallon. And then I think it was more Monday.
SPIEGEL: Today is Friday and the price is 3.49; it's gone up again. Rhodes does not have a plan for what she will do if prices continue to rise, which stresses her out. Fortunately, her kids have been very understanding about the recent lifestyle cutbacks.
Ms. RHODES: They try to make me feel good, like everything's okay, but I was a kid once and I know there's things they want.
SPIEGEL: Still, Rhodes has no doubt that no matter how high food prices get, she will be able to provide for her family. She points out that she was raised in rural Maryland. She is, she says, a country girl.
Ms. RHODES: I can shoot a deer, you know, I can do that. I can shoot a turkey. So I will feed my kids, one way or the other.
Ms. AMANDA RUDD: What kind of cheese you have today?
SPIEGEL: Three hours away, in Northern Virginia, Amanda Rudd stands in front of a refrigerated cheese bin at Costco. Rudd is a retired library administrator with small round diamonds in her ears. She says she started to become aware of the prices around February, after sitting down and looking over a pile of store receipts.
Ms. RUDD: I just said to myself, one day at home by myself, I really going to have to watch what I buy. And so I've - I think about what I buy, what I have at home, and what I can do because my retirement hasn't changed at all.
SPIEGEL: Because she's middle-class, Rudd's cutbacks are not as dramatic as Rhodes'. But she says every time she opens the refrigerator, she thinks about her finances.
Ms. RUDD: I used to kind of toss food without - but now, I don't want to toss anything. And some things I just virtually don't buy.
SPIEGEL: Rudd no longer carries home blueberries or strawberries. She's careful about the meat she buys. But perhaps one of the biggest changes in her life since February is the way she actually gets to the stores where she buys her food.
Ms. RUDD: I don't get in the car and go as I used to, you know, just drive to one of them.
SPIEGEL: Instead, every Sunday, Rudd gets down with a stack of local papers and clips coupons from different stores, something she hasn't done since her early married life. Then, with the precision of a space shuttle engineering crew, she will plot out how best to organize her shopping. Today, she is at Costco because she must go to an appointment down the road. She will buy bananas and that is all. Then she will make another stop at a Giant grocer several blocks away.
Ms. RUDD: I'm gonna stop there for one item that they have that I want. I'm gonna stop there on my way up to the program today.
SPIEGEL: These are the changes Rudd what is made so far, but she worries that if prices continue to rise, she might have to go back to work. And in some small ways, the cost of food has even touched some higher-income people.
Ms. DIANE KRAUSE: Let's see we have our spicy fried chicken, breaded wings, breaded chicken, breaded potatoes, breaded anything you can think of.
SPIEGEL: Diane Krause is giving a tour of the prepared food section of the Shopper's Food Warehouse in her Virginia neighborhood. The selection of foods under the hot lamps is very different from the prepared foods offered at her old grocery store. You see, until January, Krause was an organics devotee who shopped at Whole Foods. Then she had what she refers to as her Whole Foods moment.
Ms. KRAUSE: I went to Whole Foods because I needed a cake and groceries. And it was my daughter's 23rd birthday, so I wanted to get a luxurious cake - and I love Whole Foods for that.
SPIEGEL: Besides the cake, Krause filled her cart with the usual items, the colorful fruit, fresh greens and picture-perfect meats that she'd been taking home without thinking since the Whole Foods market opened in her community several years ago. Then she got to the checkout and did something that she hadn't done for a while.
Ms. KRAUSE: And I started looking at the prices and what I was buying, and I realized I had $140 worth of food in the cart and I didn't have three meals. And I realized that I could not afford to shop there.
SPIEGEL: Now, no one was more shocked by this realization than Krause herself. She didn't consider herself the kind of person who had to watch prices.
Ms. KRAUSE: We have lived in an affluent neighborhood for the last 20 years. We have another house that we bought for cash on the Shenandoah River, and we own a building in Chantilly which we also bought for cash. So I guess we're upper middle class?
SPIEGEL: Still, when Krause got home, she started doing some math and discovered that she spent more than $300 a week feeding her family and that it was starting to stretch their budget. And so she decided to make some sacrifices, starting with one of the things she loved most.
Ms. KRAUSE: Organic food, I won't buy it right now. It's just too expensive.
SPIEGEL: That's how Krause ended up at the Shoppers. And Krause says that she isn't the only person she knows who feels this way. She recalls a conversation that she had the previous weekend when she and a girlfriend were getting ready for a small vacation.
Ms. KRAUSE: We were packing out to go away for the weekend, and my one friend had her Whole Foods bags full of clothes. And I said, it's good to know you get another use out of the bags or whatever. And she said yeah, this is the last set. She said we won't be buying these bags anymore. And I said, what do you mean? And she said, can't shop there anymore.
SPIEGEL: Krause says she didn't push further. She knew exactly what her friend meant.
Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.