Easter is a good time to get a feel for the real cost of food. Like other holidays, it's associated with a feast whose main components change slowly and include items you seldom see other times of the year -- notably confections made in the shape of cute animals.
Take Peeps. During the "season," which technically started Saturday night, Peep-eaters will buy between 700,000 and one billion of the marshmallow chicks. Most will be eaten before you recycle this newspaper, but die-hard fans will stock up because they can be hard to find after a week or so.
But the price of those multi-colored delicacies (yellow remains the most popular) this year may make you choke. A review of advertised prices in 2012 and in-store prices this week showed a Peep inflation rate of between 133 and 600 percent, depending on where you shop.
Sweets led the way in the hop in Easter prices, followed by meat.
We used ads from 2012 because microfilm of newspapers from last Easter (March 31) is not yet available. In 2012, Easter fell on April 8, so we looked at print ads for the week starting April 1 of that year. This is not highly scientific; retailers tend to give large play to steeply discounted items, sales come and go, and sometimes the store buyers get a smokin' deal that they pass on to the customers. But we tried to compare 2012 apples ($1.79 a pound) with 2014 apples ($1.99 a pound) at outlets whose prices were advertised two years ago.
It should also be noted that the current prices were largely advertised as good through April 19; see today's ads for this week's prices, which may be up for Easter-associated foods. However, in the next few days, you should be able to stockpile seasonal candy at steeply discounted prices.
Here's the tale of the cash register tape.
Ham -- not rabbit -- seems to be the most popular staple at Easter feeds. It leads the grocery ads year after year. The news is that pork prices are rising steeply, but for the moment ham seems stable. In 2012, the least expensive whole bone-in ham at Safeway was priced at $1.29 a pound. A week before Good Friday, the same basic ham at the same store went for $1.49 a pound. That's an increase of 7 percent per year, a rise reflected in higher-priced hams and spiral cuts.
But if you don't go for ham, you may need to adjust your portions. The pound of beef rib-eye roast that cost $6.49 two years ago is now going for $9.99. Lean ground beef was $2.98 a pound and is now $4.99, which may be a bigger issue on Memorial Day than at Easter.
Turkey isn't generally discounted at Easter. In fact, I couldn't even find whole turkey advertised during the Easter lead-up in 2012. If you wanted to go with bone-in turkey breast, you would have paid $2.49 a pound at Safeway. This year I only found that specific product at Wal-Mart, but what a drop: $1.78 a pound.
Likewise, Alaska cod filets, previously frozen, were regularly $5.99 a pound in the 2012 ads but could be had last week for $5 a pound at Safeway. Those who have faithfully observed meatless Fridays for the past six weeks may object, but cod is a forgiving fish and if frozen and treated properly will keep well until you've grown sick of ham bone soup and egg-salad sandwiches.
Yams went for $1.49 in 2012 and were $1.79 last week. I found "sweet potatoes" for $1.29 a pound, for those who don't mind the name change and whatever biological difference it implies. If you prefer baked potatoes, russet single spuds that were 69 cents a pound two years ago are now 99 cents.
We mentioned apples above, but the price of oranges has also gone up from $1.49 a pound to $1.99.
The good news is that some staples stayed stable or even went down. A 12-ounce pack of Starbucks coffee was advertised at $8.99 in 2012 and is a dollar less now. Walgreens advertised two 12-packs of Coke for $8 last year and three 12-packs for $11 last week. Betty Crocker cake mix is still two for $3. A live lily in a 6-inch pot is still $9.99.
Asparagus cost $3.99 a pound in 2012 but had dropped to $2.28 a pound at Fred Meyer last week. Previously frozen cod (why not?) is a dollar cheaper. For those who do their own baking, four pounds of sugar, which cost $3.49 in 2012, is now on special for $2.49 at several outlets.
And those all-important eggs, which are often discounted for Easter egg coloring, remained $2 a dozen. The popular Paas egg-dyeing kits are about the same price they were -- I found a good one at Safeway for $1.29, 20 cents less than in 2012. But the cost of Easter grass for the basket is way up. In 2012, 1.5 ounce ran 49 cents. Two ounces this year are priced at $1.99.
Sadly for your wallet, but probably good for your dental hygiene, is what's happening with those holiday sweets. A bag of M&M Bunny Mix has gone up a dollar; two for $8 seems to be the asking price for a lot of name-brand candies, up from $2.88 each for the same-sized bag in 2012.
Chocolate rabbits in the 3 oz. size from Russell Stover were two for $5 in 2012 and two for $7 now. In 2012, four of the big filled Cadbury chocolate eggs cost $1.50. This year I've seen them priced at $3.50, nearly a buck an egg. But you can really save at some stores by buying a dozen for $3.99 -- and who doesn't want to eat a dozen Cadbury eggs?
Then there are those Peeps. We're looking at the classic yellow birds, still the best-selling item in the company line. The most widely advertised price in 2012 was $1.50 for the 4.5-ounce box containing five birdies, but savvy shoppers might have filled their baskets at Walgreens, where the five-packs were advertised at three for $1, not quite 7 cents per Peep.
In Anchorage stores checked last week, the universal price was $2 for the five pack, 40 cents per Peep. Walgreens, again, had the lowest price, three five-packs for $2, double the tab of 2012.
Pass the cod and asparagus, please.
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM