The Price of Food in NYC: A Comparison of Supermarkets

by Alexina Cather, MPH

By the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center Staff

Can a half gallon of milk cost $1.59 in one neighborhood and $4.84 in another that’s only a few miles away? Between February and April of 2017, under the direction of the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center, 30 undergraduate Hunter College Nutrition students visited 41 supermarkets and farmers’ markets in their neighborhoods to answer that question.

Our nutrition students hit the pavement and traveled from Elmhurst, Queens, to Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, and from Staten Island to the Upper East Side of Manhattan to collect data on the cost of 15 specific, preselected food items (e.g. eggs, bread, milk) in all of the five major food groups.

The data collected was impactful and will hopefully lead to more formal research into food pricing in New York City and beyond.

As we know, there is no silver bullet for creating access to healthy food. Numerous factors, including convenience, affordability, transportation, previous shopping experiences, and even the weather can impact a person’s ability and/or desire to purchase fresh, nutritious food (see here, here and here).

The data from this survey shines light on the wide variation in the cost of specific healthy food items and demonstrates that shopping for healthy foods on a budget isn’t easy. Shoppers have to be savvy, mindful, aware, and often willing to travel some distance to find healthy foods at the best price in New York City.

Why is this type of research so important? More than 1.3 million New York City residents, 16 percent of the city’s population, are food insecure and 1.7 million receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamp) benefits. At the same time, diet-related diseases are epidemic: more than half of adult New Yorkers are overweight (33 percent) or obese (24 percent), more than one in ten are living with diabetes, and more than one in three have cardiovascular disease.

Looking at NYC Supermarket Food Prices — Our Approach

We surveyed thirty-five (35) supermarkets, 6 farmers’ markets, and 2 online markets (Amazon and FreshDirect). Markets were picked by students (with some direction from the Center) based on a variety of factors (see Table 7 for the list of supermarkets). Of the 41 supermarkets and farmers’ markets, 19 were located in non-poverty neighborhoods and 22 in poverty neighborhoods (based on New York City’s Poverty Tool).

The foods we chose to look at were from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s list of Foods Typically Purchased by SNAP Households, however, several substitutions were made to include foods we believed to be healthier than those on the original list. (See Table 1).

For example, sliced white bread, a top-seller according to the USDA report, was changed to 100 percent whole wheat/whole grain bread, and oranges were selected instead of 100 percent orange juice.

It is clear that many factors impact the price of food, including whether it is store brand or name brand, the time of year, if it is local and/or organic, as well as the weather, environment, and the economy overall. We accounted for some of these factors, but focused primarily on the absolute lowest and highest priced items.

Because organic items are almost always more expensive than non-organic, it was noted when an item was organic. This survey did not, however, indicate whether an item was on sale, or the cost of other organic items available.

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Table 1

Market Basket of Foods Surveyed 

Fresh Vegetables:
1 pound of russet potatoes
1 head of green lettuce (not iceberg)
1 pound of green beans
1 pound of yellow onions
1 pound of whole, fresh tomatoes (not cherry, plum or grape)

Fresh Fruit:
1 pound of bananas
1 pound of oranges
1 pound of apples
Grains:
1 (16-ounce) loaf of 100 percent whole grain bread
1 (12- to 14-ounce) box of 100 percent whole grain cereal

Dairy:
½ gallon of 1 percent fat non-flavored milk
32 ounces of unsweetened, plain yogurt
Meat/eggs:
1 pound of 90 percent lean ground beef
1 dozen large eggs
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts

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What We Found

The price of food varies widely across the city. The table below shows the wide variation in prices for select food items at brick and mortar supermarkets.

For example, a half-gallon of 1 percent plain milk can range from $1.39 (365 Everyday Value, non-organic) at Whole Foods in Gowanus, Brooklyn, to $7.99 at Gristedes (Stonyfield Organic) on the Upper East Side.

Similarly, the price of a dozen large eggs can be as inexpensive as $1.00 (Jack’s Egg Farm, non-organic) at Shop Fair in Jamaica, Queens, and as expensive as $8.99 (Vital Farms, organic) at Whole Foods in Union Square. (See Table 2) 

Table 2

Food Item

Least Expensive Food Item Found in  NYC Test SupermarketsMost Expensive Food Item Found in NYC Test Supermarkets
Half gallon of 1 percent milkPrice: $1.39

Type: Non-organic

Store: Whole Foods

Location: Gowanus

Borough: Brooklyn

Area Economics: Non-poverty
Price: $7.99

Type: Organic

Store: Gristedes

Location: Upper East Side

Borough: Manhattan

Area Economics: Non-poverty
Dozen large eggsPrice: $1.00

Type: Non-organic

Store: Shop Fair

Location: Jamaica

Borough: Queens

Area Economics: Poverty
Price: $8.99

Type: Organic

Store: Whole Foods

Location: Union Square

Borough: Manhattan

Area Economics: Non-poverty
12-14 ounce box of 100 percent whole grain cerealPrice: $1.88

Type: Non-organic

Store: Trader Joe’s

Location: Cobble Hill

Borough: Brooklyn

Area Economics: Non-poverty
Price: $7.49

Type: Organic

Store: ShopRite of Ave I

Location: Borough Park

Borough: Brooklyn

Area Economics: Poverty
1 pound of bananasPrice: $0.19

Type: Non-organic

Store: Trader Joe’s

Location: Cobble Hill

Borough: Brooklyn

Area Economics: Non-poverty
Price: $2.49

Type: Non-organic

Store: US Supermarket

Location: Elmhurst

Borough: Queens

Area Economics: Poverty
1 pound of fresh green beansPrice: $0.79

Type: Non-organic

Store: Jmart

Location: Flushing

Borough: Queens

Area Economics: Poverty
Price: $7.98

Type: Non-organic

Store: Stop & Shop

Location: New Dorp

Borough: Staten Island

Area Economics: Non-poverty

To look at the cost of milk another way, we took the lowest- and highest-priced milk at each supermarket and calculated the average price. The average cost of a half-gallon of 1 percent milk across all 43 markets ranged from $1.59 to $5.34, with an overall average of $4.05.

And while we may have thought that milk should be cheaper, or more expensive, in lower- or higher-income neighborhoods, we did not find such a pattern. In fact, the cost of milk varied widely across neighborhoods, boroughs, and socioeconomic populations.

Looking at Food Prices Across All NYC Boroughs

What follows is a chart of the average cost of food items from the 35 supermarkets we surveyed (not including farmers’ markets because food is typically more expensive there). (See Table 3).

Table 3

 Manhattan
Brooklyn
Bronx
Queens
Staten Island
Bread (16 oz, 100 percent whole grain)$3.44

(n=3)
$3.73

(n=10)
$2.92

(n=4)
$3.92

(n=6)
$2.99

(n=1)
Milk (½ gallon, 1 percent)$4.36

(n=7)
$3.81

(n=15)
$4.19

(n=4)
$3.94

(n=8)
$3.79

(n=1)
Apples (1lb)$2.84

(n=7)
$2.39

(n=15)
$1.62

(n=4)
$1.63

(n=8)
$2.74

(n=1)
Green beans (1lb)$2.64

(n=7)
$3.32

(n=15)
$2.25

(n=4)
$2.16

(n=8)
$5.66

(n=1)

Here are a few notes on the above chart–almost all of the food items on our list were available at the selected supermarkets, however, 100 percent whole grain bread (where the first ingredient is a whole grain, not whole wheat) was unavailable at 30 percent of the supermarkets. Of those, more than half (62 percent) were in poverty neighborhoods.

Organic vs. Non-organic?

What determines if a food is considered organic? Only food producers who comply with federal rules governing the term organic can call their food “certified organic.”

The USDA requires that certified organic crops “be produced without pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, bioengineering or ionizing radiation.” Farmers must use organic seeds and may not apply “prohibited substances” (i.e., pesticides, synthetic fertilizers) to the land for at least three years before harvest.

Additionally, organically raised animals must be given organic feed only, kept free of growth hormones and antibiotics and have access to the outdoors. You can view all the organic standards here.

It is not surprising that more of the highest-price items, as opposed to the lowest-price, were organic.

However, it is interesting to note that for some items (i.e., bread, cereal, eggs, yogurt, lettuce, and green beans) between 7 percent and 44 percent of the lowest-price items were actually organic. (See Table 4). Therefore, it is possible to find affordable organic food and produce.

Table 4

Food Item
% Organic
(among lowest-price)
% Organic
(among highest-price)
Bread15% (6/40)22% (8/37)
Cereal11% (4/38)29% (11/38)
Eggs7% (3/42)84% (36/43)
Yogurt13% (5/40)56% (22/39)
Lettuce42% (15/36)11% (4/38)
Green beans44% (15/34)3% (1/39)

Brooklyn Close Up

We more closely examined the data gathered in Brooklyn, where we were able to survey more supermarkets than in the other boroughs, as most students lived or worked in Brooklyn.

Below is a list of the Brooklyn supermarkets the students visited. (See Table 5). They are divided into “poverty” and “non-poverty” neighborhoods based on New York City’s Poverty Tool.

This tool differs from the official federal poverty guidelines by adjusting for the high cost of housing in New York City, expanding the scope of the data used in its designations to include, for example, the impact of income and payroll taxes, the value of programs intended to alleviate poverty (like SNAP), and housing subsidies.

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Table 5

Brooklyn Supermarket Locations Surveyed

Non-Poverty Neighborhoods:  

  • Stop & Shop: 1710 Ave Y (11235, Sheepshead Bay)
  • Key Food: 935 E 107th St (11236, East New York)
  • Foodtown: 159 N 3rd St (11211, Williamsburg)
  • Trader Joe’s: 130 Court St (11201, Cobble Hill)
  • Whole Foods: 214 3rd St (11215, Gowanus)
  • Food Universe: 2424 Flatbush Ave (11234, Marine Park)
  • Gristedes: 101 Clark St (11201, Brooklyn Heights)
  • NYC Fresh Market: 150 Myrtle Ave (11201, Fort Greene)

Poverty Neighborhoods: 

  • Foodtown of Bay Ridge: 9105-27 3rd Ave (11209, Bay Ridge)
  • Key Food: 1610 Cortelyou Rd (11226, Flatbush/Ditmas Park)
  • Stop & Shop: 1009 Flatbush Ave (11226, Prospect/Lefferts Gardens)
  • Food Bazaar: 1102 Myrtle Ave (11206, Bedford Stuyvesant)
  • Stop & Shop: 2965 Cropsey Ave (11214, Gravesend)
  • ShopRite of Ave I: 1080 McDonald Ave (11230, Borough Park)
  • Pioneer Supermarkets: 381 Mother Gaston Blvd (11212, Brownsville)

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What we found was that, on average, meat and eggs were more expensive at supermarkets in the non-poverty neighborhoods, while dairy, fruit, and vegetables were marginally more expensive in poverty neighborhoods.

The following is the average cost of food items by Brooklyn neighborhood. (see Table 6).

Table 6

Food ItemFOOD COST
(Non-Poverty Neighborhood )
FOOD COST
(Poverty Neighborhood)
Vegetables
Potatoes (1lb)$1.63$1.81
Lettuce (1 head)$2.25$2.73
Green beans (1 lb)$3.30$3.35
Onions (1 lb)$1.56$1.28
Tomatoes (1 lb)$2.81$2.44
Fruit
Bananas (1 lb)$0.76$0.81
Oranges (1 lb)$2.09$1.55
Apples (1 lb)$2.26$2.55
Grains
Whole grain bread (16 oz loaf)$3.92$3.44
Cereal (12-14 oz box)$4.08$4.68
Dairy
1% milk (½ gallon)$3.49$4.18
Plain yogurt (32 ounces)$4.87$4.88
Meat/Eggs
Beef (1 lb)$7.79$6.47
Chicken (1 lb)$6.14$5.60
Eggs (1 dozen)$4.10$3.80

Discussion

The Center was interested in understanding how food prices vary across NYC, and whether there are differences from one borough to another, or between poverty and non-poverty neighborhoods.

While this was a very preliminary investigation of a convenient sample of supermarkets, we hope it sheds light on the wide variation in pricing of various foods across the city, and draws attention to the need to continue examining such price differentials.

Future studies should look more specifically at organic vs non-organic, local vs not, on sale vs not, as well as discuss how prices compare to the national/regional average.

Tips on Smarter Food Shopping 

Build a Healthy Diet with Smart Shopping

EWG’s 2017 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce

Good and Cheap by Leann Brown

Learn How to Buy Quality Vegetables

NYC Shop Healthy

USDA Food and Nutrition

USDA Healthy Eating on a Budget

USDA Meal Planning, Shopping, and Budgeting

What NYC Is Doing To Help 

In the past decade, New York City has increased efforts to address these inequities, and much of that work has focused on improving and expanding supermarket access for underserved residents to increase availability of fresh, healthy, and affordable foods.

These efforts include implementing initiatives, allocating funding, introducing legislation and producing policy reports. For example:

  • Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) program provides financial incentives to grocery store operators and developers to expand or improve existing stores or develop new ones in FRESH-eligible areas.
  • Shop Healthy NYC! works with retailers to increase their stock and promotion of nutritious products.
  • Recent legislation (Int. No. 1472-2017) – a local law introduced by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, seeks to amend the administrative code of the city of New York by exempting certain “affordable” grocery stores from the commercial rent tax while requiring that a minimum of 500 square feet of floor space be devoted exclusively to the sale of fresh produce.
  • Manhattan Supermarkets: How to Keep Them Alive, a report issued by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s office in June 2017, discusses how supermarket closures resulting from increasing rents, gentrification, retailer bankruptcies and new development have impacted the borough.
  • In addition to municipal action, there are numerous community-led initiatives that seek to improve food environments throughout New York City.

Limitations of This Survey

Students were given specific instructions for collecting data and it is important to note the following limitations:

  1. We cannot conclude whether there were other organic brands available that were less expensive than other non-organic brands. Future research will want to note the prices and availability of all organic and non-organic items to accurately assess price differentials.
  2. Because we asked students to visit supermarkets convenient to their commute, there was an unequal distribution across boroughs and poverty versus non-poverty areas
  3. It is important to note that farmers’ markets, which focus on local/seasonal produce, may not have many of the food items surveyed; also, often the cost is higher at markets
  4. Due to errors in data collection, it is unclear if missing variables are attributable to data entry issues, or to the fact that the food item was not available.
  5. We did not note whether the items were on sale, but studies may want to account for seasonal or store sales.

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Table 7

List of Supermarkets Surveyed

Supermarket
Address
Borough
Income Level
Stop & Shop1710 Ave Y, Brooklyn, NY 11235BrooklynNon-poverty
Key Food935 E 107th St, Brooklyn, NY 11236BrooklynNon-poverty
Food Town159 N 3rd, Brooklyn, NY 11211BrooklynNon-poverty
Trader Joe's130 Court St, Brooklyn, NY 11201BrooklynNon-poverty
Whole Foods Market214 3rd St, Brooklyn, NY 11215BrooklynNon-poverty
Food Universe2424 Flatbush Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11234 BrooklynNon-poverty
Gristedes Food101 Clark St, Brooklyn, NY 11201BrooklynNon-poverty
NYC Fresh Market150 Myrtle Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11201BrooklynNon-poverty
Foodtown of Bay Ridge9105-27 3rd Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11209BrooklynPoverty
Key Food1610 Cortelyou Rd, Brooklyn, NY 11226BrooklynPoverty
Cortelyou Greenmarket  Cortelyou Rd & Argyle Rd, Brooklyn, NY 11226BrooklynPoverty
Stop & Shop1009 Flatbush Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11226BrooklynPoverty
Myrtle Avenue Food Bazaar Supermarket1102 Myrtle Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11206BrooklynPoverty
Stop & Shop2965 Cropsey Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11214BrooklynPoverty
ShopRite of Ave I1080 Macdonald Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11230BrooklynPoverty
Pioneer Supermarket381 Mother Gaston Blvd, Brooklyn, NY 11212BrooklynPoverty
Key Food3151 Westchester Ave, Bronx, NY 10461BronxNon-poverty
Fine Fair Supermarket59 E 167th St, Bronx, NY 10452BronxPoverty
Pioneer Supermarket2044 Boston Rd, Bronx, NY 10460BronxPoverty
Foodtown4332 White Plains Rd, Bronx, NY 10466BronxPoverty
Gristedes Supermarket - CLOSED202 East 96th St, New York, NY 10128ManhattanNon-poverty
Columbia GreenmarketBroadway, New York, NY 10025ManhattanNon-poverty
Union Square GreenmarketE 17th St & Union Square W, New York, NY 10003ManhattanNon-poverty
Whole Foods Market4 Union Square E, New York, NY 10003ManhattanNon-poverty
Pioneer Supermarket289 Columbus Ave, New York, NY 10023ManhattanNon-poverty
Trader Joe's142 E 14th St, New York, NY 10003ManhattanNon-poverty
Tucker Square Greenmarket  Columbus Ave & W 66th St, New York, NY 10023ManhattanNon-poverty
City Fresh Market2212 3rd Ave, New York, NY 10035ManhattanPoverty
Key Food of Food Universe160 E 110th St, New York, NY 10029ManhattanPoverty
Pioneer Supermarket380 Lenox Ave, New York, NY 10027ManhattanPoverty
Fresh DirectOnlineOnlineOnline
AmazonOnlineOnlineOnline
Key Food213-22 Jamaica Ave, Queens Village, NY 11428QueensNon-poverty
Forest Hills GreenmarketQueens Blvd & 70th Ave, Queens, NY 11375QueensNon-poverty
Stop & Shop213-15 26th Ave, Bayside, NY 11360QueensPoverty
Shop Fair Supermarket153-30 89th Ave, Jamaica, NY 11432QueensPoverty
US Supermarket82-66 Broadway, Queens, NY 11373QueensPoverty
Jmart136-20 Roosevelt Ave, Flushing, NY 11354QueensPoverty
Stop & Shop156-01 Cross Bay Blvd, Howard Beach, NY 11414QueensPoverty
Best Market Astoria19-30 37th St, Astoria, NY 11105QueensPoverty
Stop & Shop34-51 48th St, Long Island City, NY 11104QueensPoverty
Super Stop & Shop2754 Hylan Blvd, Staten Island, NY 10306Staten IslandNon-poverty
St. George GreenmarketSt Marks Pl & Hyatt St, Staten Island, NY 10301Staten IslandPoverty

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Thank you

We would like to thank the wonderful Hunter College Nutrition Students who made this study possible.

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References

Feeding America. Map the Meal Gap. Food Insecurity, 2014. http://map.feedingamerica.org/county/2014/overall/new-york/organization/city-harvest. Accessed August 1, 2017.

Temporary and Disability Assistance Statistics – March 2017. New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance; 2017. https://otda.ny.gov/resources/caseload/2017/2017-03-stats.pdf. Accessed August 1, 2017.

New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Epiquery: NYC Interactive Health Data System – Community Health Survey 2015. http://nyc.gov/health/epiquery. Accessed August 1, 2017.

Gupta L, Olson C. Diabetes in New York City. New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene: Epi Data Brief 25; April 2013.

New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Epiquery: NYC Interactive Health Data System – Community Health Survey 2015. http://nyc.gov/health/epiquery. Accessed August 1, 2017.

New York City Council. A Local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to the commercial rent tax. http://legistar.council.nyc.gov/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=2950119&GUID=94E311D0-3A50-4FAC-AA04-84EF986FEB01. Accessed August 1, 2017.

Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer. Manhattan Supermarkets: How to Keep Them Alive. http://manhattanbp.nyc.gov/downloads/pdf/2017-6-13-Supermarket%20Report%20and%20Age%20Friendly%20Combined.pdf. Accessed August 1, 2017.

The Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity. Poverty Tool. http://www1.nyc.gov/site/opportunity/poverty-in-nyc/data-tool.page. Accessed March 2017.

U.S. Department of Agriculture. Foods Typically Purchased by Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Households. November 18, 2016. https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/foods-typically-purchased-supplemental-nutrition-assistance-program-snap-households. Accessed March 2017.

U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Average Retail Food and Energy Prices, U.S. City Average and Northeast Region. June 2017. https://www.bls.gov/regions/mid-atlantic/data/averageretailfoodandenergyprices_usandnortheast_table.htm. Accessed August 1, 2017.

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