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Bluegrass shoppers clip, save on staples

Tough times can make people do the darnedest things — like talking about underwear in a business meeting.

"My name is Amie Morgan and I'm addicted to coupons," said the Lexington woman during a recent training session where she was asked to reveal a secret about herself. "I bought nine pairs of Hanes underwear, two bags of Brach's Christmas Nougat Candy and a tube of toothpaste for 63 cents."

Up until six months ago, Morgan was a casual couponer. Oh, she might clip here and there, but it was not a big commitment. But now, with Kentucky grocery prices rising at an unprecedented rate, she started shopping for food savings. She soon found herself idling by the CVS checkout line at 11:59 p.m. on Saturday so she can be the first to get the bargains when the clock strikes 12.

Now she has all her hundreds of coupons organized in a binder. And, she said, "I see more and more people" cruising grocery aisles with the binders out.

Coupon clipping, shopping for store brands, cooking more at home — these are all ways Kentucky shoppers are combatting a steep jump in grocery prices over the last year.

In the nearly three decades that Gary Huddles ton has been watching Kentucky grocery prices, he's never seen anything like the spike since last year.

Grocery prices have jumped some 15 percent, said Huddleston, director of communications for the Kentucky Farm Bureau. "It is by far the highest one-year jump in food prices that I've ever seen."

The Farm Bureau figures are based on quarterly "market basket" surveys where shoppers price a list of staples, such as butter, eggs and bacon.

Because grocers operate on a thin profit margin and are in a competitive field, they tend to do whatever they can to keep prices stable, he said. But rising fuel costs, which affected everything from the farmer's budget for fertilizer to the diesel it takes to get goods to a store, have pushed prices up.

Even though oil prices are dropping, don't expect food prices to follow any time soon.

"My assumption is going to be that you might not see very much movement, but that it might come down just a shade," he said.

That's in part because farmers are still facing market pressures. For example, phosphate, which is used in fertilizer, sold three years ago for about $300 a ton. Now, he said, it goes for about $1,000.

The price pressures have led consumers to adjust their buying habits, said Brad New some, president of Slone's Signature Markets, which is based in Lexington.

Shoppers are making fewer trips and having slightly bigger orders. They are also not buying as many snacks, such as chips, and they are giving up some comfort foods, like ice cream. Beer sales, however, are up.

"Usually when times are tough," he said, "we see beer sales go up."

Not only are people buying different things, they are buying different brands, said Ted Mason, executive director of the Kentucky Grocers Association.

Private label, or store brand, foods are showing huge gains, he said.

That is part of a national trend. According to the Private Label Manufacturers Association, a national trade organization, such sales have gone up 10 percent in supermarkets and 13 percent in drugstores in the last year.

Another money-saving effort that has become more popular: coupon clipping.

Just a few years ago, there was talk that in the age of the automated discount cards, coupon clipping was a thing of the past, Mason said.

But in the last year, he said, coupon usage has tripled.

Lexington's Melissa Jarus, 30, is a dedicated deal-buster and uses a lot of online sites to help find the best buys.

Her friends, who used to mock her money-saving ways, have started to come around. When she is shopping, now "a lot of my friends want to look at my list," she said.

The single woman has even bought a deep freezer to store food she buys in bulk.

Natalie Stack, a Lexington mom, has also adopted some new tricks to make her food dollars stretch.

Although the 25-year-old works full-time, she finds herself making more time to cook for her young son Daniel and her husband, Jeff.

She buys whole chickens and saves the leftovers for sandwiches. She looks at store brands. Instead of buying frozen biscuits, she gets flour and butter and makes them the old fashioned way.

"It's kind of like an experiment," said Stack, who has found that the more she cooks, the easier it gets.

Planning to cook is key, said Connie Minch, Scott County extension agent for family and consumer services. Cook ahead on the weekend for the week and freeze small meals for use later on.

Cooking can be intimidating to rookies, she said. But people should start with simple recipes and build confidence.

Morgan, a 33-year-old mother of one, said she really enjoys her newfound love of bargain hunting but sees you can get too much stuff, even if it is free.

She recently used mesh dish scrubbers as favors at her 2-year-old birthday party. She also gave her father a collection of stuff from her bargain bin.

That would be 10 things of shaving cream, 12 packs of razors, seven bottles of Nivea body wash, 19 sticks of men's deodorant ... all for $3.50.

Now, she said, "I'm really working on my grocery list."