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For the first time since October, the average cost of a trip to the grocery store in the Salt Lake Valley inched higher this month. According to the Deseret News' fantasy shopping spree, the total price of a cart of popular items, along with a tank of gas and a weekend outing, was more than the total for the same things on January 5.

The rise, however, was minor: the cart's total increase amounted to less than one percentage point. And in fact, many popular items — including bread, orange juice and diapers — were actually cheaper on average than last month. Thanks to some hefty sales, the cost of lean ground beef fell more than 16 percent.

Price dips on these and other staples helped to balance out the necessities that were more expensive this month, like bananas, laundry detergent, and Oreos. The whole cart only cost one dollar and 24 cents more Wednesday than it did in early January.

Kristin Bolton, shopping in Sandy with her toddler son, said grocery prices overall had looked relatively steady in recent weeks. "But I haven't hit the milk section yet," she added.

Luckily for Bolton and other shoppers, the cost of milk and other dairy products is actually expected to decrease in 2012. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, even though there looks to be a smaller "herd size" this year, each cow is expected to produce more milk, which will drive down prices. Thanks, cows.

However the general cost of "food at home" (or groceries) is expected to rise 3 to 4 percent this year, according to the USDA's projected Consumer Price Index for 2012.

At the same time, the cost of gasoline is also escalating. The price of a gallon jumped almost six percent from last month, breaking three dollars. The AAA Fuel Gauge Report attributed the increase to the expected shutdown of oil refineries. Due to declining demand, refiners are cutting production both domestically and in Europe — moving gas prices higher.

Just one gallon of gasoline is fifteen percent more expensive this month than on the Deseret News' first shopping trip in September 2009. The cart overall costs nearly ten percent more than it did nearly two and a half years ago.

And while the trend is concerning, Utah shoppers have more on their minds than prices alone. According to a recent survey conducted by the Utah Department of Agriculture, the most important factor, for 95 percent of Wasatch Front grocery shoppers, is the freshness of food. Food price is the second most important factor.

The Deseret News' monthly shopping spree finds the average prices of 12 popular items at 5 supermarkets across the Salt Lake Valley. And because grocery shopping does not paint the whole picture, the cost of a takeout pizza and a trip to the movies (with concessions included) is added to the mix. Shoppers can compare the prices at their own favorite stores against the Valley-wide average.

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