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Figures released yesterday show food made up more than half the cost-of-living increase in the year to March, despite food accounting for only about 17% of household spending.
Food cost 8.8% more in the three months to March than it did in the same three months last year, Statistics New Zealand figures show.
At the same time, the overall cost of living rose 3%.
ASB economist Nick Tuffley offered some comfort to shoppers, saying food price jumps should ease in the coming months.
Prices for vegetables, which spiked after a spate of bad weather last year, were already easing in "fits and starts", he said.
Beef and dairy products should also rise less, thanks to easing international prices and a slight rebound in the New Zealand dollar.
Any relief is likely to be welcome to grocery buyers.
Raewyn Fox of the Federation of Family Budgeting Services, whose agency has seen more families in the $60,000 to $80,000 earning bracket this year, said the continual price rises were squeezing working families, many of who had had overtime cut or pay rises deferred.
Food was often families' second-biggest cost after accommodation, and the first to be cut when money was tight, she said.
Ms Fox said people tended to save money by buying the same quantity of food for their families, but with less fresh fruit and vegetables and poorer-quality meat.
"You look at how to fill the family up for the cheapest possible price, and go to some of the more starchy foods that tend to fill you up," she said.
"[It] is not necessarily a healthy thing to be doing, but it's better than the kids going hungry."
Consumer New Zealand finance writer Susan Guthrie said prices for bread, cereals and pastry were "rocket-ing along" more quickly than other foods.
She expres-sed concern that there were only two major bread bakers in New Zealand, which she said lessened competition.
She said another concern was the price of Government-controlled services - post, electricity and hospital costs - which were rising at about 6% or 7% each year.
Latest consumer price index (CPI) figures showed electricity prices rose 7.5% in the year to the end of March, while local body rates rose 5.7%, almost twice the rate of inflation.
There was some good news elsewhere in the figures, however.
The food price index showed monthly food price rises had slowed from 10.3% in November to 8.6% last month.
Petrol fell in price by 9.3% in the year to March.
But all five major food groups measured by Statistics New Zealand went up in price.
The biggest contribution to the food component of the CPI was from the grocery group (which includes bread and dairy products), which rose 8.9% over the year.
Fruit and vegetables fell 0.4% in the March quarter but rose 12.2% over the year.
Statistics New Zealand said the CPI would have increased by 3.4% overall in the year to March if fuel had stayed the same price.
• Varied diet
Fruit 25.2 %, pork 19 %, yoghurt 16.1%, beef 15.1%, coffee, tea, hot drinks 15%, bread 13.4%
Cheese 6.1 %Price changes from March 2008 to March 2009
Source: Statistics NZ food price index
Food 8.8 %, electricity 7.5%, rates 5.7%, alcohol and tobacco 3.4%, rent 2.1%, new housing purchases 2.2%
Petrol 9.3 %, used cars 4.5%
Price changes from March 2009 quarter compared with corresponding quarter last year
Source: Statistics NZ consumers price index