U.S. food shoppers hit the highway to save a buck

SANTA CLARITA, California (Reuters) - Kathy Bloss and her two elderly neighbors should be enjoying a quiet retirement, but instead they are commuting -- not to a job, but to a Wal-Mart in search of cheap food.

With prices on basic foodstuffs escalating, they regularly drive the 70 miles roundtrip to shop at a Wal-Mart Supercenter north of Los Angeles, carpooling to save gas.

Rising costs for milk, meat and eggs have prompted some U.S. shoppers to travel further out of their way for deals. But with gas prices also climbing, some of those same people are starting to wonder if it is worth the effort.

“Everything’s going up, especially gas prices,” Wanda Fonseca told Reuters Television in an interview at a Wal-Mart in Secaucus, New Jersey.

The mother of two said she has traded down by shifting her shopping visits from Target to Wal-Mart.

“I’d rather come here, spend less money than go to Target,” said Fonseca, whose Hoboken home is a five-minute drive from Target and a 20-to-25-minute drive from Wal-Mart.

U.S. gas prices are up more than 20 percent from a year ago to an average of $3.30 per gallon, according to AAA’s Daily Fuel Gauge Report.

In California, gas prices are even more painful, at $3.65 for a gallon of regular, because the state uses a cleaner-burning formula only available from certain refiners.

That extra cost weighs heavily on Bloss, 67, and her shopping companions, Mary and William Brydson.

The trio live in Frazier Park, a small community about 35 miles from the Wal-Mart in the fast-growing L.A. suburb of Santa Clarita. They say they’re saving money by going the extra mile to food shop at the discounting giant, but they question whether gas prices are canceling out the benefit.

“We’re trying to (save money) but we’re still spending a lot,” said Mary Brydson, 82.

Until a Wal-Mart opens closer to home, the retirees are making sure that each of their journeys are packed full with doctor visits, shopping and errands.

“We try to consolidate,” said William Brydson, 80.

Ralph and Mary Emerson drive 40 miles each time they make a trip from their home in Van Nuys to the Santa Clarita Wal-Mart, where they’ve bumped into shoppers who have made longer journeys from Pasadena and Simi Valley.

“More and more you have to plan your trips,” said Ralph Emerson.

Reporting by Lisa Baertlein; Additional reporting by Fred Katayama and Nicole Maestri in Secaucus and Brad Dorfman in Romeoville, Illinois; Editing by Mary Milliken and Eddie Evans