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Buying Shore food no picnic this year

Stocking up requires more shelling out.

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, N.J. - This is where it all begins, at the Shore, in the aisles of the Sam's Club outside Atlantic City, with your cart filled with buns, meat, beer, salsa, charcoal and mayo.

In bulk.

But this year, you probably don't need reminding, in addition to pain at the pump there's some wincing at the checkout line, with that traditional Memorial Day barbecue taking a bigger bite than in years past.

In some national surveys, hot-dog prices are up 7 percent (a package of eight can run $4.69) and buns up 17 percent (hitting $1.49 for eight).

(Though it should be noted a PricePlus card at the Somers Point ShopRite would get you the dogs for $1.49, the buns for 99 cents, and a seedless watermelon for $3.99, not to mention the all-important half-gallon bottle of Heinz ketchup for $2.49. That's right: The watermelon or a gallon of gas - your call.)

In any case, far be it for Shore hosts like Diane and Dennis Hofmann of Egg Harbor Township to complain. They're expecting two dozen relatives from North Jersey for the weekend and barbecue(s).

"We have people coming who will be complaining about the cost of gas prices," Diane said. "They'll have to fill up twice coming and going."

"Everything's going up," added Dennis, a retired police officer. "Find me something that's not going up."

Eggs, said cashier Eleanor Brown as she rang up the $78.01 bill on the Hofmanns' second trip to Sam's Club. An earlier shop for the meat ran the couple a couple hundred dollars.

Eggs are going down.

"Nobody eats eggs!" said Diane.

At least not on the barbie.

Back in the condiments aisles, Bill and Juanita Levant of Avalon and Florida (they arrived from Florida at 3:30 that morning) were stocking up for the weekend - and the entire summer.

This year, the 54-mile round trip to Sam's, a ritual for them and so many others to start the Shore season, complicated the economics a bit.

(And if you ended up springing for a gas grill, that could set you back anywhere between $438 and $997 at Sam's. Charcoal was running $13.54 for two bags.)

Bill said he hadn't yet figured out if the high gas prices would neutralize the savings at Sam's. Having just driven a thousand miles from Florida, he was after the bulk items, with a season of houseguests ahead and an empty freezer.

"We'll start stocking up for summer," he said. "Steaks, veal, lamb chops."

Careful shoppers seemed to be all over the ShopRite in Somers Point, with some carts heaped with the deals found in the advertising flyer.

Economists blame the rising food prices on record prices for oil and gas and mounting global demand for staples such as wheat and corn. The consumer price index for food rose 4 percent last year, compared with an annual average of 2.5 percent in the last 15 years.

A study by the Food Marketing Institute found that about a third more shoppers this year were sticking with frozen or boxed foods instead of fresh, while nearly half said they were buying less.

But that's not so easy if, like Betty Woodall, 70, of Somers Point, you have five kids, 14 grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren, and a house not too far from the beach with a busy weekend of feeding guests ahead.

"It's up. It's definitely up," she said of her food costs as she loaded into her Suburban her second cart of groceries, including, most aggravating, a $3 package of celery hearts.

"I just paid $3 for a small thing of celery. I never paid that. Plates, they're up, but they're on sale for $1.29. Last year, I paid 99 cents for a 50-pack.

"What are you going to do?" she said. "They got us."

She did get five Pepsi 12-packs for $10 (must buy five), down from their usual price-of-corn-syrup-bloated tag of $3.99 each.

Larry Ballard, 54, of Egg Harbor Township, left the Corvette (12 miles per gallon) in the garage and drove the Dodge Charger (28 to 30 m.p.g.) to the Somers Point ShopRite with a 25-item list from his wife of every deal in the store. This woman must go on The Price Is Right. He spent $88.59 and got food for 30 people, including 10 cans of tuna for $10 and Claussen pickles (sandwich type) at two jars for $5. He got a 3-pound box of frozen burgers for $4.99 a pound and 10 ears of white corn at 19 cents an ear. He saved $11.26 on his order.

"Really, I thought it was reasonable," said Ballard, an electrician, whose wife usually does the shopping. (Pre-Memorial Day does seem to bring out the men.) "I just get the ShopRite brand. I go by the unit price."

Trash bags, by the way, were going for $2.39 for 20 tall kitchens. Save $2.40.