Thursday was Milton Frazier's day to do the shopping and cooking for the other firemen at Engine Company 14. He was shopping at the Saftway at 12th and Quincy Streets NE, just as he has been doing for years - going over the groceries as carefully as any housewife on a budget.
The firemen pay for their meals out of their own pockets, and Frazier did not need to read the papers that morning to know the latest word on food prices from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"We definitely have to chip in more for the same meal than six months ago," he said. Wholesale prices for beef alone have jumped more than 25 percent since January, according to a Safeway spokesman.
The firemen like roast beef, Frazier said, "but we can't afford it. After you get all the trimmings, it cost $3.50 to $4 a man. It just gets too rich." Frazier - at $4.01 for 2 1/2 pounds - along with mashed potatoes, gravy, frozen mixed vegetables, a salad and strawberry shortcake with cream topping.
Even for that meal - "nothing fancy," according to Frazier - he figured the cost would be $2.50 to $2.75 per man for himself and the three others he would be cooking for.
On the average lately, Frazier said, it was costing $3 a man per night - about $10 a week for the three nights he ate at the firehouse instead of at home with his wife and three children. Six months ago, Frazier said, "We'd have one hell of a meal for $2.25 - and that's with dessert."
The problem confronting Frazier was being faced by people all over the area. And some of the solutions he was attempting were typical of what others were trying in an effort to cut down the cost, but not necessarily the quantity, of the food they were buying.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last week that food prices in the Washington area had shot up 2.3 per cent in April, accelerating an increase that had seen prices rise by about 6 per cent since January.
Like people all over, Frazier was trying to find ways to cope - buying hamburger at $1.59 a pound rather than roast beef at $2.49 - and trying other time-honored methods as well. "You slice it thinner," he said, explaining one way he tried to stretch food, "but after dinner there's none left and you're paying top price for it."
Frazier was at the checkout counter now, unloading the few items for a dinner he figured would cost, "max," maybe $2.50. The numbers started flashing up on the cash register and when they were all done the grand total came to $12.97 - $3.25 a man.
Mary E. Davis was pushing a shopping cart and tugging her 4-year-old granddaughter, Janine, through the same Safeway, not at all happy with the little blue numbers stamped on the items she was picking up.
"Roasts are so high. My land! She dropped the package back into the meat compartment. Her solution was not all that complicated - "trying to buy the cheapest you can get - hamburger, chicken." Mrs. Davis, a retired cook who worked at Doctors Hospital, knows something about food and how to stretch things out, but there are limits.
"I buy bacon once a month," she said. "We used to eat bacon every day, but we have to cut down." Her only income, she said, was from a Social Security payment - no pension.
"I eat as much," she said, "But I just changed my diet. More vegetables, string beans, applesauce - stuff like that."
And a 39-cent bag of lollipops for her granddaughter.
Across town, at the Giant at Wisconsin and Western avenues, NW, the meat counter looked as lonely as a bar at a temperance convention. Customers came by, poking at the meat, digging as though they were looking for buried treasure.
Not everyone had changed buying habits because of higher prices. "This is the inevitable," said Jean Tolbert, whose husband works as an economist as the World Bank. She seemed resigned to higher prices. "One does what one has to do. It just takes a bigger bite out of the budget."
At the fish counter, the scene was something like a carnival as customers crowded around, knocking their carts into one another. In their midst, smiling benignly, stood Barbara Spector, buying croacker $.59 a pound) and scallops ($3.49 a pound). Fish, she pointed out, is not necessarily cheaper than beef.
She spends time shopping, looking at prices. That morning she had been at a Safeway near her house."It was 89 cents for turkey," she said, hefting an almost 12-pound bird. "Here it's 69 cents." She decided at first lot to buy a turkey, then charged her mind. "I save almost 20 cents on the pound. She dropped the turkey into her cart.
Mrs. Spector, who lives in Chevy Chase with her husband and four children, has other ways of saving.
Mrs. Spector said she shops two or three times a week and spends a total of about $100 for groceries. "Don't forget, I have a large family."
She almost never buys beef. Here children "just won't eat beef. I don't know why . . . at first, I resented it, but now it's fine. It's healthier and definitely better for the budget. We eat a lot of vegetables and fresh fruit." She also never buys "junk food."
Besides buying the turkey, Mrs. Spector bought six lemons, some spinach, a small cottage cheese, parsley flakes, a small bottle of olive oil, three grapefruit, some fresh dill, a few zucchini, a bunch of carrots, three cucumbers, one iceberg lettuce, the scallops, and the croaker.
She already had been shopping earlier at Safeway and spent $30. Now she was gingerly holding a $20 bill while the checkout clerk ran up the total. Spector reached into her purse and pulled out another $5. She handed both bills over to the clerk, and received 92 cents in change.
Barbara Taylor stood leaning over the meat counter at the Safeqay at 301 Rhode Island Avenue NW, peering at the chuck roast selling for $1.29 a pound as though it were a case full of pearl necklaces. Finally, she took a deep breath and pushed herself away. "Too much for meat," she said, moving over to the chicken display where she had a choice of whole chickens, chickens cut up. Chicken breast, thighs, backs, legs, drumsticks, gizzards and hearts. She pulled on some wings and thighs.
As far as meat is concerned, she said. "I buy about half as much as three months ago. It's so high," a widow, Taylor said she lives on a pension at 48 Seaton Pl. NW. "I don't buy too much meat," she said.
About 6 p.m. or so, the other firemen start drifting in to the pine-panelled room next to where the fire trucks are parked. Firefighter Frazier and Lt. Richard Mangum have spread clean bedsheets over the two tables where they eat dinner, in front of the color television they keep on during the meal.
The other firemen had plenty to say about the cost of meals, reaching back into memory about the good old days when breakfast cost 35 cents and dinner was a dollar. That was 1968. Now, breakfast runs $1.25 or $1.50 and dinner is double that.
"I'll tell you, my wife goes to the store and spends $50 for groceries and has to go back four days later," Firefighter Martin Folstein said. Folstein has two children, ages 2 1/2 and 5. "I don't know how guys with big families are getting by, I really don't. It's not that we can't afford it. My wife says she can't see throwing the money away. I'm definitely eating less well than I used to eat."
There is the predictable good-natured bantering back and forth among the men who are joined by two ambulance drivers, reducing the cost of the meal to $2.16 a piece. But when dinner's over, no food is left.