A food editors' supermarket price survey done yearly for 20 years gives D.C. its dubious award again: the highest food prices on the U.S. mainland. Consider ourselves lucky -- last year our food prices were even higher than prices in Honolulu and Anchorage, where transportation costs are huge.
Imagine this sad state of affairs for 20 years and no relief in sight. This problem of high food prices was present when I started out as a youngish radical consumer advocate with two little kids. I'm now a (youngish) grandmother and much more Establishment, but D.C. residents still bear the burden of killer food prices.
Here's what I wrote in a letter published by The Post in November 1973:
"Perhaps I can enlighten the unsuspecting folks at the two most powerful supermarket chains in this area, although the answer is really quite self-evident. Despite an inundation of newspaper ads which give an appearance of competition (the cost of which ads are passed on to the consumer), District of Columbia citizens do not profit from price competition among supermarkets. The reason that they do not profit is that there is no real price competition. Giant and Safeway, with over 60 percent of the market, effectively control the market against lower prices and promote high entry barriers for lower price chains."
The only difference is that today the two chains control over 77 percent of the market.
This idea of economic concentration may sound like some abstruse theory. But it's not. What high concentration means is lack of competition; what lack of competition means is high food prices; and what high food prices means is money out of our pockets.
In June 1976, I wrote another letter that said in part: "Pity the poor Washingtonians. They pay more for food than those people in any area of the United States save Hawaii."
In September 1979 I wrote to Mayor Barry: "There is a problem in Washington, D.C., which has reached such acute and tragic proportions that it demands the immediate attention of you and your staff. The citizens of the District are suffering -- suffering from the burden of being unable to purchase food for their families."
The lame excuses given by supermarket management for this intolerable situation are the same every year. One is especially insulting -- we charge what the market will bear.
Even New York City, that bastion of expensive living, has lower food prices than little ol' D.C.
Want to have a diet breakfast of Special K? That box of cereal will cost you $2.55 in Washington as compared with $2.19 in New York.
Want to fix your kids a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch? That jar of peanut butter will cost you about $2.75 in D.C. as compared with $2.19 in New York.
How about a BLT? That bacon is 90 cents per pound more in D.C.
Or a hot dog? A pound of the same hot dogs costs $1.19 in New York and $2.49 in D.C. More than a buck difference.
Or you can eat a banana in the Big Apple for 29 cents per pound or pay 49 cents per pound for bananas in Washington. And the D.C. price is a sale price. Some bargain.
D.C. residents are alternately resigned and furious over food prices here. A friend told me the other day: "My husband and I drive to Annapolis to Shoppers Food Warehouse at least once a month for major shopping. We find Giant's prices and lack of variety arrogant and unacceptable. Annapolis is an excellent example of what happens when you have sufficient competition. You should see the difference in Giant's prices there. Shoppers Food markets are much different. Those stores are clean, have excellent variety and are very competitive. You got me on my soapbox!"
How long will District shoppers take this situation without complaint? They must prod their city council members, mayor and anyone else who will listen to reverse this intolerable situation.
-- Ann Brown is chairman of the consumer affairs committee of Americans for Democratic Action of Greater Washington.