Laura Klein winces when asked what her monthly budget for groceries is, admitting she doesn’t really have one. Though she tries, life has a way of making that difficult for her and her husband, Tom, who both work full-time. Raising two teenagers, with their son Jeffrey playing on two travel hockey teams and a travel baseball squad, means much of their life is spent on the go, making sensible food shopping and consumption a challenge.
“Especially with the travel sports, we do eat out a little bit more than I would like us to,” Klein says. “So, each week it is a balancing act of figuring out how many meals am I going to be able to make at home and how many will we eat out.”
With her daughter Katie working part-time at a local grocery store, Klein says she does all of her shopping there, citing the convenience of getting her shopping done while taking her daughter to or from work.
“I just make my list and go, and if I’m paying a little extra, it’s worth it for the time I’m saving,” she says of her one-store shopping approach.
Additionally, Tom travels for his job and eats lunch on the road every day. Factor in the cost of specialty foods to accommodate Klein’s gluten-free diet, and shopping within a budget can be near impossible.
“One thing I have done is eliminate stopping [for coffee],” she says. “I’ve perfected my own coffee at home, which helps.”
One thing is for sure: Klein says she has noticed a steady uptick in her food bill each week. She isn’t alone. According to the Consumer Price Index, food prices increased more than 31 percent over the ten-year period from 2005-2015 and those trends show no sign of slowing down.
According to a 2017 study by the USDA, the average couple spends about $625 per month on groceries. That doesn’t count money spent eating out, which averages about 4.5 percent of the monthly income.
When looking at the number for families with children, the USDA calculates families spend, on average, 10 percent of their take-home income on food. Those we spoke to agree those numbers sound about right for Western New York.
Megan Comerford is a wife and mom to four young children who says the rising cost of groceries has led her to make adjustments in both how and where she shops for food.
Comerford says her frugality when grocery shopping dates back to her decision to stay home with her youngest children.
“When I was at home, I felt like I had to make up for the fact that I wasn’t working,” she says. “So, I shopped at three different grocery stores, only bought what was on sale, and used coupons.”
Though she is back working full-time as a teacher, Comerford says those spending habits remain, even when it comes to eating out. Like many Western New Yorkers, she says with four kids going in different directions, dinnertime can be hectic and cooking a full meal isn’t always a viable option.
“We definitely take advantage of the ease and affordability of pizza nights in Buffalo,” she says. “I can pick up a pizza for 11 bucks, make a quick salad, and dinner is done, so that is our go-to option.”
As a growing number of Western New Yorkers know, eating out — or shopping for groceries at all — becomes significantly more challenging when dealing with a child who has a food allergy.
Andrea Vogel’s middle child, Hailey, is dairy, nut and gluten-free, and more than price or convenience, it’s the allergies that drive her shopping habits and decisions.
“Before she was born, we shopped completely differently,” Vogel says. “After, we had to overhaul everything and rethink how we shopped for groceries.”
Vogel says bargain shopping for these specialty foods can be difficult.
“It is extremely expensive because she is so limited with what she can eat,” she says. “The products she can eat are typically at least double the cost of the regular food.”
It’s a reality that has led Vogel, a stay-at-home-mom, to get creative.
“If I can make it, I make it because it is just so much less expensive,” she says. “Then, the things I buy are really just the necessities.”
With both the cost of groceries and the limitations in restaurants, Vogel says eating out is largely off the table for her family as well.
“We totally had to adjust our spending once we were dealing with the allergies, and that includes not eating out,” she says.
In the end, three things are clear: the price of food continues to rise; the demands on families continue to drive the trend of eating out; and it is the savvy consumer, willing to go the extra mile to compare, clip coupons and be flexible, that will keep feeding their family more affordably.
School lunch: pack versus purchase
Moms we spoke to were mixed about purchasing breakfast and/or lunch at school, but none cited cost as a factor in their decisions. For most, it was a matter of having more control over what their children eat.
With a daughter dealing with severe food allergies, Andrea Vogel says neither of her school-age children buy food at school.
“They eat breakfast at home, and we pack their lunches,” Vogel says. “I just worry too much and panic at the thought of them getting their food at school.”
Ann Marie Ralph is the Food Service Director for the West Seneca Central School District. She says the district served about 3,000 lunches each day, at its peak, a number that she says, “has dropped a bit” in recent years. She attributes the decrease, in part, to the increase in food allergies that have led more parents like the Vogels to pack lunches to protect their children.
“I also think it could have to do with the guidelines we have to follow now and pushing vegetables on the kids, it is a different type of menu,” she says.
It’s the reason Megan Comerford says her children bring their lunch every day.
When they buy at school, she says, “They will eat the dessert and the bad parts first, and leave the fruits and vegetables. At least if we pack their lunch, we know what they are getting.”
Ralph says where the district has seen an increase is in their breakfast service.
“That number has grown steadily every year, and we serve around 700 breakfasts every day,” she says. With students soaking in extra sleep and parents rushing them out the door, she says it adds up to a busier morning in the school cafeteria.