Measuring Food Costs in Morris County

Morris County Cost of Living Series

Let’s take a closer look at the data used to compare Morristown’s basic costs to (say) costs in Newark, Manhattan, San Diego and elsewhere.  The Council for Community and Economic Research has participants track the price 66 items.  We will be submitting data for Morristown the first, second and third quarters of each year.

Some of the items we needed to price seem quirky.  A professional in the top income quintile is buying Alberto VO5 shampoo?  Ditto canned peaches and peas?  The ribeye steak makes more sense, even if it isn’t a particularly popular cut in this area these days.  And women’s Docker’s khaki’s – even environmental engineers don’t wear those anymore.

At risk of coming off like as elitist, it seems odd to price both extra virgin olive oil and margarine (a cheap brand that’s hard to find in Morristown).  However, in the FAQs we are told that each item priced is a surrogate for an entire category of consumer expenditures.  The weights assigned to each item come from the Consumer Expenditures Survey conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

So what food purchases are we tracking?  Data is gathered from 10 supermarkets for 26 items.  Specifically:  ribeye steak, ground beef, Jimmy Dean pork sausage, a frying chicken, a can of chunk tuna (Starkist or Chicken-of-the-Sea).  Then whole milk, eggs, margarine (Parkay or Blue Bonnet), grated Kraft parmesan cheese. Potatoes, bananas, iceberg lettuce.  Whole wheat bread (Arnold), fresh orange juice, can of coffee, sugar, corn flakes.  Then the canned peas (Dole), canned peaches (Dole) and extra virgin olive oil.  In the back of the store: Lean Cuisine, frozen corn, potato chips, Coke, Kleenex and Cascade dishwashing power.

As an aside – New Jersey does not tax food.  Most states don’t, yet Virginia, Illinois and many southern states do impose a tax on grocery items.

Supermarkets Surveyed

The study requires purchase of the same brand of food wherever possible.  That rules out buying groceries at Aldi, Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s.  In our case, it also eliminates Kan Man, the Asian market in East Hanover.  Walmart was included even though it doesn’t carry produce.

In Morristown, there are Hispanic supermarkets – both LC and Morristown Latino.  They were checked; nice places.  They had most but not all the brands required.  In the end they weren’t used since they are not where most mid-management workers shop.

Even eliminating those stores, to qualify, a city should have 10 supermarkets (not bodegas) from which to purchase the food list.  See Figure.

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C2ER’s Cost of Living Index measures regional differences in the cost of consumer goods and services, excluding taxes and non-consumer expenditures, for professional and managerial households in the top income quintile nationally.