From ice cream to orange juice, chicken to potatoes, shoppers in Washington, D.C., pay more for food than any of America's major cities except Honolulu, which imports most foods by plane or boat.
According to the 19th annual survey of food prices conducted by newspaper food editors, this year's results are the first time that prices in the District have been higher than in Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska, where significant freight costs boost food prices.
The cost of the food basket of standard weekly purchases in Washington was $56.90 -- nearly $10 more than the national average of $46.97.
The Washington prices were surpassed only by Honolulu, whose market basket cost $57.35.
Compared with Washington, the cost of the food basket was $1.08 cheaper in New York, $6.82 cheaper in Dallas, $12.03 cheaper in Philadelphia and $13.64 cheaper in Boston. The poll reflected prices only in the cities and not in the surrounding metropolitan areas.
"Supermarkets hate this survey because sometimes their reputation of being low-priced is challenged," said Ann McDuffie, food editor of the Tampa Tribune, who has organized the study for the last two decades. "This study merely reflects what people actually pay."
Although local supermarket executives blamed the District's food prices on high labor and real estate costs, economists pointed to the city's affluence. "We do have a high-income market here," said Harry Harp, an economist with the Department of Agriculture's food market analysis section, who noted that people with more money spend more on food.
Retailers, however, say their prices are based on costs and not on what the market will bear.
The annual survey involved food editors and writers in 21 cities pricing the same 35 items at three full-service chain grocery stores. Comparisons among cities were made by taking the lowest price for each item in each city, McDuffie said.
All pricing was done across the country on June 19. The items included standard weekly purchases, such as milk, eggs, margarine, chicken, cereal and ice cream. McDuffie said the drought conditions that now are affecting produce prices did not affect the three produce items priced in June.
In Washington, the items were priced at a Giant, a Safeway and an A&P store in the Northwest section.
McGuffie said that the District consistently ranks among the five most expensive cities for groceries, although its place has fluctuated. "D.C. only had two supermarket chains for a long time," she said. "When a third one came in, prices really dropped. Now they've shot up again."
According to a recent survey in Food World, a grocery trade journal, Giant and Safeway control the metropolitan food market with 42 percent and 32 percent of the market, respectively.
Sue Challis, a spokeswoman for Giant Food, blamed labor, utility and land costs for the District's high prices. "In this area, the cost of doing business would cut into our margin of profit," she said. She noted, however, that Giant's profit margin in fiscal 1986 was 2.5 percent per dollar earned, which exceeded the 1 percent national average for food stores. "It's our management and progressive attitudes," Challis said of the more favorable profits. "It's not because we're charging more."
Safeway spokesman Ernie Moore also fingered labor and freight costs as the reasons Washingtonians pay more for food. "We must bring fruits and vegetables in, and our freight costs are almost as high as some products," he said.
Labor costs at the firm's Washington division are 16 percent higher than at the firm's other 15 divisions, Moore added. "You combine those factors and that's why our prices are higher."
The smaller size of urban stores also is a factor, according to Michael Rourke, a vice president at A&P's headquarters in Montvale, N.J. "You end up with much less square footage," he said of city stores. "One of the efficiencies in the food business is high sales volume and you can't produce that with fewer items." He also blamed thefts in urban stores.
But McDuffie said that other cities, such as Chicago and Boston, also have unionized labor, smaller stores and freight costs, but have lower prices. "We've never been able to get good answers on why food prices vary so greatly across the country, but we do notice that competition brings them down," she said.
The recent addition of lower-priced warehouse-style grocery stores in Fairbanks, she said, appears to be the reason that city had lower food prices this year.
Neither of the federal agencies that track food prices -- the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the USDA -- collect prices on a city-by-city basis. "We're really only interested in the national averages in making up the consumer price index," said Robert Ternes, a BLS economist. "We don't get enough quotes per city to do an accurate analysis."
But earlier federal surveys show that high food prices have been a longstanding staple of District life. A BLS study of individual commodity prices in 1978 found the District had the highest prices in the country for hamburger and exceeded the national average for chicken, meats, butter, lettuce, cola and coffee.