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College Student Price Index

By Batya Fellman

How often do we open up our fridges, check our cabinets, or search through our freezers, only to realize that our habit of putting off grocery shopping for another week has left the kitchen completely devoid of anything remotely passable as food? The debate then becomes “can I put off my lab for a couple hours while I run out to the store, or should I head to LaVerde’s and buy more cereal and milk? Is that lab really worth the extra few dollars I would spend at LaVerde’s, or do I really have to run to Star?”

With so many grocery stores within a short distance of campus, sometimes it can be overwhelming to decide where to go to buy that next loaf of bread. Do we want the convenience of LaVerde’s, the all-purpose Star, the wholesomeness of Whole Foods, or that weird store that all the Californians talk about but you have never really been to — Trader Joe’s?

Ideally, we would like to base our decision on relative store prices rather than a spur of the moment decision. Inspired by the economics-friendly Consumer Price Index (CPI), the UA Dining Committee collected prices of a selected basket of goods from all four stores creating the CSPI (Cheap Student Price Index). It is the intent of this survey to answer the question every college student asks him or herself: where do I get the cheapest food?

Ranging from ground beef to flour to macaroni and cheese, a selection of twenty goods was chosen and prices of the items were collected. If a comparable good was not available at any one of the four locations, it was removed from the set of twenty items. All the prices were then normalized to the appropriate unit (gallons for items like milk, and pounds for items like apples) and a comparison was drawn amongst the overall price level as well as the various sets of items.

Regarding the overall price levels, LaVerde’s, as many students might suspect, had the highest CSPI with an index of 4.43. It was followed by Whole Foods at 4.17, and Star at 3.72. Trader Joe’s proved to be the cheapest at 3.44. Even more interesting were the comparisons among specific items. Although LaVerde’s had the highest CSPI, Whole Foods was consistently the most expensive for produce and meat items, while LaVerde’s, Trader Joe’s, and Star were more comparably priced. However, when it came to crucial college staples, LaVerde’s charged 27 percent more than the average of the other three stores for orange juice and an enormous 69 percent more for the boxed macaroni and cheese.

The CSPI serves as a good basis for the general price levels at each of these stores. Even with this data, the average college student may disregard the incredibly high prices at times for the convenient location of LaVerde’s, pay a premium to get higher quality meat and produce at Whole Foods, or maybe realize you have to go to Star because you cannot find Twinkies at Trader Joe’s. There are always exceptions to the rule, but this weekend, I will be happily shopping at Trader Joe’s because they have the lowest CSPI.

Fellman is the chair of the UA Dining Committee. C. Carter Jernigan ’07, Ruth Miller ’07, and Ying Yang ’10 also contributed research for this piece.