Fool’s Gold

Gold River, CA (MPG)  |  By David Dickstein, Gold River resident
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What caught my eye was a large red, yellow and white sign that read, “WE ACCEPT EBT.”

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Buying Ben & Jerry’s on Food Stamps

Driving home from a long, hard day at work, and thankful that I got one as opposed to the skilled people hating every moment being unemployed, I took notice of a large banner above Coloma Food & Liquor. You know the place – the mini-mart next to Wienerschnitzel across Sunrise. What caught my eye was a large red, yellow and white sign that read, “WE ACCEPT EBT.”

Wrongly or rightly, my first thought was that liquor stores shouldn’t be part of the Electronic Benefit Transfer Project due to the inflated prices inherent to such businesses. That’s just the nature of liquor stores, mini-marts, convenience stores – whatever you want to call them. They charge significantly higher prices than conventional groceries or supermarkets because smaller retailers order lower quantities of inventory at higher per-unit prices from wholesalers. Anyone who has stepped foot in one or looks up Wikipedia knows that.

My beef when I saw the outdoor banner wasn’t just with Coloma Food & Liquor, but EBT recipients who shop there. Trust me, my heart and taxes warmly go out to those on welfare who try to get off it. But if I were in need of financial aid, I wouldn’t be buying groceries at a liquor store. I’d try to put more food on the table by stretching my dollars at, say, the warehouse-style Smart & Final just around the corner. And if that wasn’t convenient, then a supermarket or drugstore with serious buying power, like our Bel Air and Rite-Aid that also accept EBT. These big retailers would never be undersold on essentials by a high-priced mini-mart, right?

In order to stand on my soapbox with confidence, I visited all four of those stores on a recent Saturday to price-check a half-dozen like grocery items. Besides such staples as milk, bread and boxed cereal, I went with a carton of Coke because “junk foods” is routinely the second-most popular category for EBT households after meat, poultry and seafood. Sadly, according to a November 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 20 cents of every EBT dollar are spent on sweetened beverages, desserts, salty snacks and candy. Because “frozen prepared foods” comes in at No. 4 (vegetables are third, yippee), I also tossed a frozen pizza in the shopping cart.

Now for dessert. Super premium ice cream was my pick because a year ago I seethed over a mom on welfare splurging on Ben & Jerry’s. OK, calm down all you bleeding-heart snackers. I’m not saying that EBT cardholders shouldn’t enjoy the finer things of life. But even my wife and I feel guilty buying luxury brands for non-essentials, and we’re double-income empty nesters living in Gold River! (Knock on wood.)

So, let’s get to the research. Below are the lowest non-member everyday prices I found on like products at Coloma Food & Liquor (“Coloma”) and our local Bel Air, Rite-Aid and Smart & Final (“S&F”):

  • 12-can carton of regular Coke: $4.99 (Coloma), $6.99 (Bel Air), $5.99 (S&F), $6.29 (Rite-Aid).
  • Two 1-gallon jugs of whole or 2% reduced fat milk: $6.99 (Coloma), $5.98 (Bel Air), $4.80 (S&F), $7.98 (Rite-Aid).
  • Loaf of white bread: $1.99 (Coloma), $1.28 (Bel Air), $1.59 (S&F), $2.99 (Rite-Aid).
  • 12-ounce box of Kellogg’s Rice Krispies: $3.99 (Coloma), $2.99 (Bel Air), $3.29 (S&F), $5.29 (Rite-Aid).
  • DiGiorno frozen pizza: $6.99 (Coloma), $6.99 (Bel Air), $5.89 (S&F), $7.99 (Rite-Aid).
  • Pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream: $5.49 (Coloma), $4.99 (Bel Air), $3.89 (S&F), $5.99 (Rite-Aid).

Clearly, my knee-jerk was unfair to Coloma Food & Liquor. For a mini-mart, those items are reasonably priced. We can also conclude, based on this very small sample, that EBT funds stretch furthest at Smart & Final or Bel Air, depending on the item. As for the nation’s third-largest drugstore chain, Rite-Aid should be ashamed of itself. I get it – it’s not a grocery. But charging nearly double for the same box of cereal found at another store mere steps away? Not OK, and the Rainbo Bread guy who was stocking Bel Air’s shelves when I was doing my thing agreed.

“Yeah,” he said, pointing in the direction of Rite-Aid, “you don’t want to spend your EBT over there.”

So, color me enlightened. I started out my story thinking a close-by Rancho Cordova liquor store would be the villain and it winds up being the place in Gold River that fills my prescriptions. Or at least it did.

And, again, my apologies to Coloma Food & Liquor for assuming the worst. “It’s a common misconception,” I was told by store employee Shan that morning. He also said that for the sake of accuracy I should expand my grocery list.

“These cheap things,” he said, pointing to the package of six high-fat Hostess powdered mini donuts. “That’s a meal for many of our EBT customers.”

Sigh.

David Dickstein can be reached at daviddickstein1@gmail.com.