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USC students learn the value of comparison shopping


Melissa Lawson walks the aisles of Ralph's Fresh Fare on Hope Street, tossing a yellow onion and two carrots into a plastic bag before moving along. A USC senior, she has been on her own in the world of food provisions for three years, but none have been as hard as this one.

"I grew up in a household that really cared about food, so having my own house now means that I get to cook most nights, which I love," Lawson says while pausing in front of the cheese display. "But groceries have just become exorbitantly expensive this year and it's really beginning to take a toll."

Lawson is not alone on this. At a school like USC that only guarantees campus housing and meal plans for freshman, the majority of students move off campus and are on their own for three solid years. Those that once thought cooking for themselves would be more cost effective than eating out can think again: The USDA reported that the cost of food across the board has risen 6.3 percent between October 2007 and October 2008, and has continued to increase since then. Beef is up 7.9 percent since last October, cheese climbed 8.4 percent, apples rose an astonishing 20.1 percent and potatoes jumped 31.1 percent. What this translates to in dollar signs is the single highest price increase of food in 18 years.

Lawson is like many students who have taken advantage of the newly constructed Ralph's Fresh Fare, a more upscale, health-conscious version of the prototypical Ralph's targeted toward SC students on Vermont and Adams boulevards. An avid fan of cooking, Lawson says the produce at Fresh Fare is noticeably better than the regular Ralph's, though with the rise in prices she's been seeking out other sources.

"When I have the time, I'll drive all the way to Culver City just for the Trader Joe's because their breads and cereals are so much cheaper. But then again, when gas was really high I found myself doing that a lot less. It's a no-win some days," she says.

On a Saturday in November, Lawson and her roommate, Charlotte Florance, ventured downtown to the farmer's market to see what they could find.

"The produce is great quality, and because it's not as trendy as the Santa Monica market, the prices aren't too bad either," Florance says after purchasing a bag of green onions and fresh portobello mushrooms for a combined cost of four dollars.

"This will make a few good omelets," she says, holding up her finds and smiling.

But the trend of farmer's markets has its downsides. While in Europe, local produce is starkly cheaper across the board than anything you'll find in a grocery store, the recent American obsession with organic and free-range food has often made the fresh markets a luxury more than a convenience.

"I can't afford to be paying this much for cheese, just because it's local," Lawson says, pointing to a sign for goat cheese at nine dollars a pop from a local farmer. "But then again, a block of cheddar even in Trader Joe's is, like, eight bucks right now."

Though not in dire straits, Florance is still feeling the hit. Like many SC students, her parents agreed to pay her way through school, and that includes food.

"I'm certainly lucky to be in a position where this isn't a life or death situation, but I still come back from Ralph's with a week's worth of food for one person, and it can easily be 70 or 80 bucks," she says. "I can't even fathom how families of five are managing."

The USDA attributes the surge in prices to several factors. A rise in global demand for food combined with the weak American dollar has resulted in an increase in agricultural exports. In layman's terms: if we're exporting everything, what's left in the US is going to be costly. Additionally, there has been a trickle-down effect across the globe due to a rise in grain prices. Not only does that make bread and cereal products higher, it makes it more costly to maintain the livestock that produce milk, eggs, and cheese, as well as the meat for chicken, pork, and beef.

In addition, the use of corn for biofuels has created a shortage, highly problematic for both the farmers that use it as feedstock and also for entire demographics of the population that rely heavily on corn products, like tortillas, for their diet. More than anything, costs of food are dependent on oil prices, which directly affects production and transportation costs. Though costs have fallen as the end of the year nears, analysts predict them to skyrocket again in the beginning of 2009, which means for people like Lawson, there is no end in sight.

"My mom has been telling me tips here and there that she remembers from the recession in the seventies," she says as she unpacks her bags from the farmer's market. "Make food that will last a while as leftovers, avoid canned goods because they cost more to produce, buy chicken in bulk. But in this economy—with gas this high, with employment this low, and to be graduating in six months—to be worried how I'm going to afford food in my budget is just.... terrifying."