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It's Back to Basics as Grocery Lists Shorten

Feb. 18, 2009 (McClatchy-Tribune Regional News delivered by Newstex) -- John and Heidi Stroh have stopped buying fish.

Sally and Shawn Spring are cooking big meals and freezing the leftovers.

And Charlie Peterson and her husband Jim are clipping coupons and choosing a no-name brand of potato chips.

The three couples from the Capital Region are not alone: Americans are responding to the economic downturn by curbing what they spend on food and alcohol.

In fact, the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis says spending on food dropped an inflation and seasonally adjusted 3.7 percent during the fourth quarter of 2008, when compared to the prior quarter.

That's the sharpest quarterly decline since the government started keeping records 62 years ago, bureau spokesman Ralph Stewart said.

Spending on fish and seafood fell 3.5 percent.

Beef and veal spending dropped 3.4 percent.

Sugar and other sweets experienced a 5.1 percent fall.

And sales of beer and ale sank by 15.8 percent.

"People are saying, 'What can I afford?,' instead of 'What do I want?,'" said Neil Golub, president and chief executive of Rotterdam-based Price Chopper supermarkets.

"People who don't clip coupons are clipping coupons," Golub said. "The rituals are changing."

It isn't necessarily that people are buying less food, although that is the case for some. Many are simply buying food that's less expensive, or looking for sales.

"We were the kind of people who purchased a lot of packaged stuff," said Sally Spring, a 60-year-old from Castleton. "We don't do that anymore."

Spring and her husband used to eat out two or three times a week. Now, they stay home to cook huge casseroles that can feed them for several meals.

"Even if we just save $200 a month, it's nothing to sneeze at," Sally Spring said.

Golub, at Price Chopper, said it seems as though many people are cooking more at home. Craig Allen, owner of All-Star Wine and Spirits in Latham, said he's noticed the same trend.

Sales of pre-made drink packets are way up, he said. And some of All-Star's customers tell Allen they're buying wine to drink at the dinner table, rather than buying the beverage at restaurants.

"The wine's the same, except you have to open it yourself," said Allen, who also owns the Vin Santo Tapas and Wine Bar, a restaurant.

Some food categories seem to be growing more popular. Spending on fresh vegetables, for example, was up 2.2 percent in the fourth quarter, while spending on fresh fruit rose by 2.6 percent.

Eggs were up, too, by three percent. And spending on fresh milk and cream climbed one percent.

"It's going back to basics," said John Stroh, 45, a Westerlo resident who said he and his wife are buying more staples, like spaghetti and chicken, and fewer expensive items.

"We've cut out a lot of things," he said.

Some shoppers interviewed by the Times Union said they weren't being forced to cut spending. They hadn't lost a job, or seen their pay cut. They were saving money because they're nervous about the economy, or because it seems as though they should.

"We're all getting tired of the waste," said Richard Fairchild, a 54-year-old from Castleton who said he's shopping more at discount food stores like Aldi.

But some said circumstance has forced them to cut food spending.

Charlie Peterson, for example, said revenue at the small fabric store she owns has fallen sharply. So the Troy resident is clipping coupons and looking for other ways she and her husband can save money.

"One of the things we do now is generics," she said. "I don't pay $3 for a bag of potato chips."

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