Chowing down not getting cheaper

Juneau's grocery prices about 9 percent higher than Anchorage's

Posted: Monday, June 18, 2001

To understand why lemons cost more in Juneau than Anchorage but less than in Bethel, look at the usual suspects, beginning with transporation.

According to the Cooperative Extension Service of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the cost of food for a week in March in Juneau was $110.71 for a family of four, including two children 6 to 11 years old.

The same food would cost $84.93 in Portland, Ore.; $102.25 in Anchorage; $173.73 in Bethel; $131.75 in Craig and Klawock; $183.71 in Dillingham; and $98.52 in Fairbanks.

The cost of food for a family of two adults age 20-50 is $65.41 a week in Juneau and $60.41 in Anchorage - about 9 percent more here.

The big difference between Portland and other towns listed is that, in the absence of roads, the other places must barge or fly all food to their stores.

"The usual things apply: Supply, demand, competition and the cost of freight" to make the cost of food in Juneau greater than that in Anchorage, said Bret Luick, foods and nutrition specialist with the Cooperative Extension Service.

"Stores in Anchorage compete against one another. I am sure that the greater competition in Anchorage keeps prices down there," he added.

The March food prices represent a 3 percent increase from March 2000 for Anchorage, and a 6 percent increase for Juneau. Meanwhile, prices in Nome rose 59 percent, and in Bethel 63 percent.

The UAF study prices 104 food items from the federal Department of Agriculture's Low-cost Food Plan, which is based on a nationwide survey of eating habits in 1977-78.

One of the wholesalers indirectly furnishing food to local residents is Juneau Wholesale, which delivers fresh dairy products, fruit, produce, frozen foods (including ice cream), milk, cheese, eggs, bacon, sausage, French fries and seafood.

Rod Darnell bought the business last September from Douglas Trucking. His main customers are larger restaurants such as the Fiddlehead and the Baranof.

Juneau Wholesale's customers include general stores in villages such as Tenakee, Pelican, Elfin Cove and Gustavus. Groceries and dry goods arrive by state ferries or airplanes, Darnell said.

In addition to the bill for refrigerated containers from Seattle and the big-walk-in coolers he has to maintain here, Darnell pins the greater cost of Juneau's food on gasoline.

"Fuel costs 30 cents more a gallon here than in Anchorage. So it costs me a lot more to deliver my produce," he said.

Brian Jenson, general manager for Sysco Food Service Southeast Alaska, has a different take: "Freight cost has not gone up as much as I thought it would with the cost of fuel."

Sysco wholesales food to grocery stores from Dutch Harbor to Prince of Wales Island, and does deli business with Super Bear market and Carrs. Jenson sees the cost of groceries "steadily rising," and links at least two items - chicken and butter - to specific causes.

"The cost of chicken has really gone up since the big beef (foot and mouth) scare in Europe raised the demand for poultry. I think it's scaring a lot of people in the U.S., which it didn't need to," he said.

"The butter market has been going crazy, perhaps because it's commodity driven. I think Wall Street has a lot to do with the cost of beef and dairy products because they're commodities," Jenson said.

"We are going to be paying for the European beef problem for a couple of years," said Ben Williams, manager of Alaska and Proud market. "Summertime, everybody wants barbecue, wants steak, but we're paying a lot more for these products."

Although fresh beef, poultry and pork are up, that's a national problem, not a Juneau problem, Williams said.

"Percentage-wise, we haven't changed any percentages (of markup) in several years at this market. In fact, we have taken decreases in diapers, baby food, laundry soap and paper products," he said.

"Fresh produce like strawberries did not get as cheap as it normally gets this time of year; that's a wholesale situation," Williams said.

Fred Meyer, Alaskan & Proud market and Super Bear market buy directly from dairies and other manufacturers just as Juneau Wholesale does.

"Ninety percent of what we do is refrigerated goods, from pineapples to ice cream and lettuce," Darnell the wholesaler said. "That's where some of the cost comes in, because you pay a lot more for refrigerated containers coming up here than you do for dry goods."

Additional competition in the form of an expanded grocery section in Big Kmart may have some effect on Juneau's food prices. Kmart plans to expand its limited selection of food to include 40,000 items and a deli and sushi section by mid-October.

With the Kmart expansion, Juneau will have six major grocery retailers plus Costco, a wholesale store.

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire.

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