For Leadville local and dad Ian Critz, high food prices in Leadville mean his family’s grocery budget is over by at least 40 percent.
“It’s been nuts,” said Critz, adding that the inflation kind of just creeps up, especially out here in the mountains. “You can’t get out of here for less than 50 bucks. Even for just one meal.”
Concerns about high food prices in Lake County, food insecurity and a lack of competition to the one grocery store in town — none of which are new — have amped up since the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing inflation, and has prompted more discussions among local nonprofits and government officials. But the issue remains largely unsolved on the ground.
William Byrne, another Leadville local of 57 years, said he shops pretty much daily at Safeway to grab a few items despite noticing inflated costs, besides the occasional trip down to the Buena Vista City Market. “I have no choice,” said Byrne. “They’re isn’t anything else here.”
Although he’s seen prices increase at Safeway “big time” over the past few years, Byrne said it’s an issue everywhere.
“It would still be nice to have more options like a Walmart or King Soopers,” said Byrne, who’s seen different grocery stores such as a Food Town come and go over the decades, creating more variety and competition.
Becky Carey, another local customer, said the high cost of living in general along with inflated food prices are enough for her to relocate altogether.
“It’s outrageous,” said Carey of the Safeway prices. Instead of paying high prices in Leadville, Carey said she finds it worth while to travel out of town for groceries, specifically to the Walmart in Avon.
“The prices are cheaper up there and it’s worth the drive for a lot of items,” said Carey. “I can get double the trash bags at Walmart for what I’m paying here. But gas is a toss up sometimes.”
In Lake County Build a Generation’s (LCBAG) Food Access Community Connector Resource Report from 2020, residents similarly indicated they were willing to drive over high mountain passes and in poor weather conditions at least 30 minutes each way to purchase groceries.
“High prices and lack of consistently available and good quality fresh food at the local Safeway was often indicated as the primary reason that people chose to shop in other communities,” the report found.
When asked about data showing how prices have changed in Leadville over the years, Kris Staaf, Safeway regional director of public affairs and government relations, said the company cannot discuss specifics on pricing strategies for competitive reasons.
“We are very mindful of the impact inflation has on our customers (fuel, energy, interest rates, etc.,) and we work hard to ensure our customers can continue to put their trust in our pricing,” said Staaf, adding that Safeway is always working to keep pricing of family staple items such as milk, butter, bananas and ground beef low and that they are seeking to keep prices competitive about the state.
The Herald surveyed costs of food items between Leadville’s store and Safeways in Salida, Frisco and Denver and found prices were very similar, if not the same.
A carton of 12 Lucerne Grade AA eggs for instance is $4.29 at all regional Safeway stores.
But Walmart costs are almost always cheaper compared to Safeway, as noted by customers. A pound of bananas in Salida and Leadville were 65 cents compared to 58 cents at Salida’s Walmart, for instance.
At all regional Safeway stores, customers can purchase an 18 oz. box of corn flakes for $6.49 compared to $4.98 at Walmart.
According to data from the 2014 Livewell Leadville Community Food Access Assessment’s “Thrifty Food Plan” which compared food costs for staple items and produce between stores Lake, Summit, Eagle counties and nationally, Walmart costs were typically cheaper back then as well.
The USDA updated the plan in 2021, said Mara Gwin, food access facilitator with Lake County Build a Generation, but the new plan isn’t as clear cut and specific as it was before.
Gwin is working on seeking expert help to revamp an updated Thrifty Food Plan with specific costs of specific items to compare them across counties, hoping to have those numbers in the next 3-6 months.
“How much more we pay for groceries in Lake County is huge for understanding what a living wage is here and validating our community’s experience shopping at Safeway when the total comes up,” said Gwin, adding that this data is also useful during the grant application process at LCBAG, St. George and Cloud City Conservation Center, among others.
The Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) expressed similar concerns over reduced food access in Lake County during a regular meeting on March 7 when Safeway received an updated liquor license to sell wine.
In response to questions about the wine display, which is just the back end of one of the aisles, Safeway staff clarified that the new wine display did not take away from any already existing products, but that they were just moved around.
“Expanding the beer and liquor license doesn’t have good optics when we have so much food insecurity in our community,” said County Commissioner Kayla Marcella. “That’s not to say local management isn’t doing a good job. We just wish that corporate had a little larger stake in the game with serving this community.”
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