In recent months, the Salt Lake Valley has benefited from holiday sales on popular grocery items, keeping prices relatively stable. This month, the cost of the Deseret News' fantasy shopping spree dipped again, this time by 3 percent.

But food prices are not reliably going down. The Deseret News' "shopping cart" includes 10 gallons of gasoline, which cost 10 percent less this month than it did in early December. The cart's total, then, declined in large part because of cheaper gas.

The average cost of a loaf of bread and a bag of Oreo cookies also fell this month. Diapers, takeout pizza and a trip to the movies were marginally less expensive. Meanwhile corn, eggs, orange juice and ice cream all cost more on average on January 5 than they had on December 2.

And overall, 2011 saw food prices steadily and incorrigibly increase. The total cost of the fantasy shopping cart has risen by more than 8 percent since its first excursion in September 2009. And despite this month's dip, a tank of gasoline is also 8 percent more expensive today than 14 months ago.

Heather Bodine, shopping in Sandy with her two children, has noticed the trend in grocery costs. Prices, she said, "are definitely going up." She said she's been aware of it for several months.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) projected that the cost of "food-at-home" (groceries) for 2011 would rise 4.25 to 4.75 percent. "Although food price inflation was relatively weak for most of 2009 and 2010," explained the USDA briefing room, "cost pressures on wholesale and retail food prices due to higher good commodity and energy prices, along with strengthening global food demand, have pushed inflation projections upward for 2011."

What prices should shoppers look for in 2012? The USDA is predicting another overall increase in the Consumer Price Index this year, although the rate of inflation should lessen slightly. Food-at-home specifically is forecast to increase by 3 to 4 percent.

But food prices for the new year are not easy to predict, and may be swayed one way or another by a number of factors, according to the USDA. The biggest determinants will be fuel prices, weather conditions and the value of the American dollar in the global market.

The Deseret News' shopping spree visits five major grocery stores in the Salt Lake Valley, comparing prices of the same twelve popular items. The cart also includes gasoline, a trip to the movies with concessions, and a takeout pizza.

Consumers can measure their store or theater of choice against average prices across the Wasatch Front. Each item in the cart ranges in price, no particular supermarket has a monopoly on the best or worst prices in the Valley.

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