View from Out West: Shopping sticker shock

By Clark Fair, for the Redoubt Reporter

Big prices loom large in small towns

Like most people, I have done my share of complaining about high prices. In Fred Meyer and Safeway — when I was living on the Kenai Peninsula — I have gasped at the cost of a single avocado, a pound of Honeycrisp apples or a small tub of feta. I’ve shaken my head in dismay after glimpsing the price tag on a T-bone or a bag of shrimp. And at the gas pumps, I have shuddered as the per-gallon cost of unleaded fuel bumped back and forth across the four-dollar barrier.

Then in September I moved off the road system to join Yvonne in Dillingham — to Bristol Bay where nearly everything (including gasoline and heating fuel) arrives by barge or cargo plane, a place where the expense involved in such transportation of goods is directly reflected in most of the prices.

Before I arrived, Yvonne urged me to gird myself for a case of sticker shock, and I thought I had prepared myself for some disparities in the cost of living. But no amount of mental fortification could have equipped me for some of the dollars of which I was about to be divested.

Just having our belongings (including one small automobile) barged here cost more than $4,000.

Still, I felt my jaw drop when I first entered a local grocery. I had seen a half-gallon of Fred Meyer orange juice selling for $3.39 in Soldotna, but a half-gallon of Minute Maid orange juice at the N&N Grocery in Dillingham was marked at $10.98. Two quarts of All-Natural Simply Cranberry Juice Cocktail was selling here for $12.89, and a gallon of whole milk regularly cost $10.98.

At Walmart in Kenai, I once bought a dozen eggs for $1.88. At N&N, the price was $3.89 if the eggs were fresh — or $1.99 past their sell-by date. (Waiting for items to reach their expiration date here is almost a ritual for those of us with some shopping presence of mind — and the good timing to snap up those items right after the reduced-cost stickers are applied.) One quart of fresh, plain yogurt sold for $4.59. A cup of Chobani Greek yogurt, which I used to purchase regularly at Fred Meyer and Safeway for about $1.59, was selling at N&N and A.C. stores for as much as $2.49.

In the produce section, I found bananas for $2.49 per pound, Red Delicious apples for $2.99 per pound, medium-size avocados for $1.99 apiece, zucchini for $3.49 per pound, lettuce for $3.49 per head, kiwis for $1.19 apiece, and prewashed salad blends for about $6 a bag.

Other shocks were in store for me in the baking aisle. When I was in Fred Meyer on the peninsula in December, I saw two 5-pound bags of store-brand white flour on sale for a total of $4. In Dillingham, we can barely do one day’s baking for $4. A 5-pound bag of Gold Medal flour costs $10.45, and we receive little discount by buying a larger amount because a 10-pound bag sells for $20.69.

A 5-pound bag of C&H cane sugar here costs $10.45, while, inexplicably, a 10-pound bag costs $23.69. At Walmart in Kenai, I saw a 5-pound bag of sugar selling for $3.18.

I thought at first that perhaps weight was the key factor in the largest price differentials, but some other comparisons demonstrated the fallacy in such thinking: At Walmart in Kenai, I saw two 14-tablet boxes of Prilosec OTC priced at $21.48. At N&N this month, the same number of tablets costs $44.59. A box of Emergen-C vitamin packs cost me $9.89 at Fred Meyer in Soldotna and $21.25 at N&N.

Outside of the grocery store, the disparities continue.

For instance, even folks who like “cheap” domestic beer would be shocked to buy it here. At the Carrs/Safeway liquor store in Soldotna, I saw a $20.99 Safeway card price on a 24-pack of Budweiser. On Halloween, the Dillingham Liquor Store ran a special on Bud, offering an $18 sale price on a 12-pack of the same suds.

The price of unleaded fuel here is pushing $7 a gallon.

On my first night in town, Yvonne took me out to eat at a restaurant — something we rarely do anymore — and feasted on a “The Works” family-size pizza (about $45). We didn’t order a pitcher of beer to go with the pizza, but the price tag on that item was about $26.

And don’t even get me started on the cost of housing, haircuts or hardware.

We did perk up when we learned of a farmer’s market operating downtown every Saturday morning, especially since a large local producer named Warehouse Mountain Farms was said to offer quite a variety of good-quality foods grown in its large greenhouses and in its fields carved out of the tundra. The quality and the quantity at the market were as good as advertised, but the costs were still steep —$5 a head for lettuce, $6 for a 1-pound bag of snap peas and $10 for a quart of fresh raspberries.

Seeing such prices, one might reasonably wonder how it remains possible to feed oneself here without going broke.

One of the answers involves taking advantage of what this place provides naturally. Another answer concerns improvisation.

Subsistence fishing is allowed here for everyone, and before I arrived Yvonne took advantage of the opportunity. In August, she and some co-workers set a net in the Wood River, and soon thereafter they had subjected about a dozen silver salmon to the prick of a fillet knife and submersion in some sturdy freezer bags. Next summer, we’ll try to net some more, plus some sockeyes and maybe a king or two.

Also, the smelt (hooligan) run here frequently, even during the winter when some locals fish for them through the ice.

Additionally, there are subsistence hunts for moose and caribou, but we lack the transportation and the land-access permissions to partake in these at this time.

Yvonne and I have also been fortunate to have considerate, generous folks around us. One woman who left on an extended vacation near summer’s end gave us permission to gather and consume many of the veggies still growing in her high-tunnel greenhouse. One family nearby loaded us up with almost half a garbage bag of frozen salmon fillets, and my brother in Big Lake alleviated his freezer-crowding problem by shipping us 30 pounds of moose and deer meat via air cargo.

We also picked blueberries out on the tundra and highbush cranberries in the woods along one of the back roads. Next summer, we’ll return for those fruits, plus local salmonberries and lowbush cranberries. We’ll also try to harvest nettles and other local plants. And we’re hoping for some more generous greenhouse space.

With the costs so high — despite whatever higher wages might be available to workers in remote locations like this — we plan to be as frugal as possible.

Returning to the peninsula for the Christmas holidays, we felt all our earlier complaints about prices melting away. In fact, we thought the prices there seemed unexpectedly reasonable.

Clark Fair, a resident of the Kenai Peninsula for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan now living in Dillingham.

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