Budgeting money for groceries to feed Gina Headrick's family of four is like trying to hit a fast-moving target.
"Every time I go to the grocery store, the prices go up," Headrick, 26, said as she browned ground beef for sloppy joes in her West Chattanooga apartment kitchen. "I find ways to buy groceries with the money I have one month and, by the next month, it isn't enough."
In January, chicken legs cost $1.26 a pound; in February they were 30 cents more. A pound of iceberg lettuce increased from $1.02 to $1.13. Last February, the same lettuce cost 89 cents.
A pound of bacon was $3.40 last February, and last month it was $4.27, according to information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for the Southern Region.
February had the largest monthly increase in average food costs in 21/2 years, with costs rising for most major groups including meat, dairy products, eggs, fruits and vegetables, according to the Consumer Price Index released in March. The average price of all food went up 0.6 percent, and the price of foods consumed at home rose 0.8 percent.
However, the price of some items, such as tomatoes, lettuce and some meats, increased more than 10 percent. Over the last year, food prices in all six grocery groups increased nearly 3 percent, a continuation of gradual price increases in the last decade.
Wholesale food prices had an even more dramatic increase of 3.9 percent in February over January, the highest monthly gain in 37 years.
And experts say there is no relief in sight - the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts food prices will increase 3 to 4 percent this year, and economists predict a rise in inflation. And while moderation is expected soon on the prices of fruits and vegetables, meat prices and average grocery prices are likely to continue climbing, experts said.
With gas prices rising more than 40 cents a gallon this year, local residents say the double whammy has left them struggling to feed their families on wages that have risen only marginally.
Local nonprofit agencies have seen increases in the number of people asking for help, while grocery store owners see more people clipping coupons and buying only sale items to try to stretch their dollars as far as possible.
Headrick - who is feeding her husband and two daughters, ages 2 and 5, doesn't pay attention to the specific percentage increases, but with every trip to the grocery store she feels the added pain.
"It's hard when you don't have enough food," she said. "If I only have a few pieces of bread, the girls get it first. I'll do without to make sure they have enough to eat."
Several factors are contributing to food prices, including higher grain prices, oil prices and global demand for food, according to Ricky Volpe, an economist with the USDA Economic Research Service.
"It means the economy is turning around, but it is a complicated equation. There are going to be winners and losers," Volpe said.
Commodities such as corn, wheat and soybeans have increased in price recently, Volpe said, leading not only to higher prices for cereals and grains, but higher prices for meat and dairy items.
Fuel prices also play a large role in food prices, with additional operating and shipping costs every step of the way from the farm to the grocery store.
Lastly, global demand for U.S.-produced food has increased because of a rise in median income in developing countries such as China and a weaker value of the dollar compared with other world currencies, Volpe said.
Wholesale prices for food - the prices grocery stores pay - increased significantly more than retail prices. Gary Steinberg, spokesman for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, said the bureau does not track why some indexes increase or decrease more than others.
Bi-Lo spokeswoman Amanda Lenar declined to answer questions about how rising wholesale food prices have affected the South Carolina-based grocery chain, which has stores in Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.
Walmart officials did not respond to a request for an interview.
Volpe said the drastic increase in prices for fruits and vegetables - 6.7 percent in the last month for vegetables - likely is only temporary. Cold weather across the nation and in Mexico, droughts in California and floods in Iowa all have led to a temporary increase, he said.
Food crops in Australia, Russia and South America also have been damaged by weather in the last year, but with warm weather on the way those prices will drop, Volpe predicted.
Meat prices likely will continue to increase because of grain prices and increased demand, Volpe said.
An uptick in food prices is one sign of a rebounding economy, he said, and there may be long-term benefits for employees. If producers, manufacturers and grocery stores increase their profits, that could create additional jobs.
"I know it's hard to paint a picture that American consumers are benefiting from higher prices," Volpe said. "But what everyone needs to keep in mind is that, in the grand scheme of things, food prices and inflation are nowhere near the increases we saw in the '70s and '80s."
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, food prices rose nearly 10 percent annually for several years, with an 11 percent increase in 1979, according to the Consumer Price Index.
Bruce Hutchinson, an economics professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said economists are not surprised to see inflation in food prices, as well as other goods, after central banks in much of the world significantly increased money supplies in the last few years to combat the recession.
"You have more dollars for fewer goods and services," Hutchinson said. "Some parts of the economy are impacted more quickly than others, but we will likely see an impact across the board."
Lower-income families are hit the hardest by food price increases, Hutchinson said.
"Food will typically account for a much higher percentage of a lower-income family's income," he said. "We all have to eat, and the basic nutritional requirements are the same regardless if your income is high or low."
The Chattanooga Area Food Bank, which serves 11 counties in Tennessee and nine in Georgia, has had more hungry people coming through its doors in the last few months, according to Gary Paul, the bank's development director.
The bank supplies needy families with a 55-pound box of staple goods every 30 days. In January and February, the agency gave out 2,784 boxes, about 150 more than it distributed during that same time period last year.
"Most people pay their rent, utilities and medical bills and buy food with the money that is left," Paul said. "That money is not going as far anymore."
With most of their donations coming from corporate food producers, Paul said there has been less food available recently. The agency also is faced with paying for higher shipping costs, since it pays trucking lines to deliver the food to its Chattanooga warehouse.
On Wednesday, people waited in line at the food bank for their green pushcart filled with food, and workers hurried to keep up with the requests.
Tron Coots, 33, and his fiancee, Amy Walker, picked out vegetables and loaves of bread to add to their box.
Coots, who works at Hardee's, said it was his first visit to the food bank. The only food in their house was a half a loaf of bread and three bottles of ginger ale, he said.
"We ain't got nothing to eat," he said. "We usually just try to struggle through it, but we couldn't make it this month. I never thought it would come to this."
Coots gets paid every two weeks and, after paying rent, utilities and gas to go to work, he usually has about $40 to $50 left for two weeks of food. Walker, 29, is unemployed.
They eat a lot of ramen noodles, he said.
"I don't know what is going to happen [if food prices keep going up]," Coots said. "Everybody is just trying to make it day by day."
Customers have changed their buying habits, said Larry Green, whose family has owned the Green Spot grocery store in Dalton, Ga., for more than 50 years.
"They are more selective in what they buy," Green said. "If you have a sale, they will come in and buy just those items."
Shoppers from Dalton to North Chattanooga - who hefted plastic bags of groceries into their cars and helped preschoolers into minivans - talked of looking for sales and clipping coupons.
Arora Acosta, who shopped at Kroger in Dalton on Tuesday with her three children, said she never used to clip coupons or spend time looking for sales. Now she can hardly wait to pick up her newspaper every Sunday to check ads and find coupons, she said.
A single mother, Acosta has two sons, ages 12 and 10, and a 21/2 -year-old daughter. The growing boys require a lot of food, she said, and recently it has been difficult to have enough money after she is paid $1,600 a month as a receptionist at State Farm Insurance.
"Even gas to come to the store is so high - you hope you don't forget anything," she said. "We just buy the necessities."
Acosta said she has switched to buying almost all store-brand items. Every week she looks for Kroger's "10 items for $10" sale.
"I talk to other women, too," she said. "We tell each other who has the best deals."
Gina Headrick, the stay-at-home Chattanooga mother, said she tries to buy meat in bulk and freeze it in 1-pound packages. That way she knows she will have something to cook, even if she doesn't have milk and eggs.
She buys powdered milk to use in cooking, saving the regular milk to give to her daughters, Kiera and Catherine.
On Thursday, Headrick cooked sloppy joes using sauce and buns from the box she had gotten from the food bank the day before.
"Pick a vegetable," she told Catherine, as she chose from tins of green beans and corn in the cabinet.
The two girls played in the sparsely furnished apartment, with Kiera occasionally hiding behind her mom's blue jeans as she cooked.
Gina Hedrick's husband, Sam, works at the apartment complex where they live and makes the minimum wage. She used to pick up federal WIC program vouchers for the girls, but doesn't have a car to use anymore, she said.
The hardest part, Acosta and Headrick agreed, is not being able to buy treats for their children.
"They don't understand why they can't have fruit snacks," Headrick said. "It's hard telling them no; it's hard to say maybe we can get that next time."