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Brigitt Rees was exhausted as she loaded groceries into her car.

But it wasn't the weight of the canned goods that had her down.

Instead, it was the $218 total on a Walmart bill making her sigh and shake her head.

"Everything is getting so expensive," said Rees, a 27-year-old York City mother of two.

Her shopping list included food, diapers and toothpaste, and came with a higher price tag than she was expecting.

"I'm buying the cheapest stuff I can, all the generics, and I still can't get under $200," Rees said.

Most troubling to the young, single mom is not knowing if her recent purchases will last until her next paycheck.

"I'm getting by now, but for how long?" she said.

Rees paid nearly $5 for a gallon of skim milk, and that's a staple she buys a few times a week.

A pound of ground beef cost about the same.

"Forget steaks," she said.

The $11.98-per-pound sticker on New York strip steaks is too much for her budget, Rees said.

"With everything going up, steak just isn't on my list now," she said.

On the rise: Food prices are going up across the country and are expected to increase throughout the rest of the year, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Labor Statistics.

The bureau said food prices rose 0.4 percent from January to February — the largest month-to-month gain since September 2011.

Largely contributing to the increases are higher prices on eggs, meat and dairy, according to the statistics.

In the Northeast, food prices have increased 1 percent in the last year, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts costs will increase 2.5 to 3.5 percent during the next eight months.

Local trends show bigger gains.

A cost comparison of 17 items at four local grocery stores shows the average grocery bill has increased about 5 percent, or $3.35, from $71.66 in October to $75.01 on April 4.

It's the biggest six-month increase since fall 2011, when grocery prices increased nearly 6 percent.

The products: A price comparison at Giant, Shurfine, Walmart and Weis clearly shows increases in ground beef, steak, eggs, butter and milk.

For example, the cost of a pound of New York strip steaks increased $4.51 at Walmart, $2.50 at Giant, $1.50 at Shurfine and 50 cents at Weis.

The price of a gallon of Rutter's vitamin D milk increased 56 cents at Walmart, 42 cents at Giant and 41 cents at Shurfine and Weis.

"It really hurts with the milk because it's one of those things you buy all the time," said Dana Martell, a 42-year-old Dover resident and Giant shopper.

Following a pricing change by the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board, the minimum retail price of milk increased 15 cents a gallon on March 1.

The change was driven by decreased supply and increased demand worldwide, according to the board.

A drought in California — the nation's largest dairy producer — is not helping.

Though York County receives most of its dairy from local sources, lower milk production in California puts a strain on the entire industry. There's less supply to meet demand, which drives higher costs.

California farmers have thinned their herds, producing less milk and beef. Farmers in other parts of the country have also thinned their herds because the high cost of feed makes it harder to turn a profit, according to industry reports.

Ways to save: Those factors have slowly caused retail prices to climb, grocery store executives said.

"We've passed on some of the cost increase to customers, but we've absorbed even more to maintain acceptable retail prices," said Weis spokesman Dennis Curtain.

Beef sales have "held up pretty well" given the price increase, but customers are starting to buy more poultry and pork, he said.

Customers are encouraged to use store perks to save on grocery bills.

"We recognize that family budgets are tight, and we will keep negotiating strong, promotional bonus buys with our vendors on behalf of our customers," said Giant spokesman Chris Brand.

To save money, Giant recommends customers use coupons, buy the store-brand version of products, maximize savings with gas rewards and shop the circular, which features items with the best discounts.

Kathleen Wyar uses coupons, but the 61-year-old Shiloh resident and Weis shopper swears they're not making a difference.

"My grocery bill is still high. I'm paying about $20 more a week than I was a year ago," she said.

Dallastown resident Maggie Schulz said she bases much of her grocery list on the Shurfine circular.

"I save money by buying the sales of the week," the 43-year-old shopper said.

The forecast: How long prices will remain high is unclear. Analysts said the continuing California drought could drive up costs, but food prices aren't decided by one geographic region. Sometimes the price increases take a while to make it through the supply chain, said Erin Lash, senior equity analyst for Morningstar, a research and analysis firm in Chicago.

"Even when companies look to raise prices, they don't float through right away. It might take three to 24 months," depending on the item, she said.

Or prices may increase on some items and decrease on others, said David J. Livingston, supermarket analyst and consultant with DJL Research in Wisconsin.

"There might be a drought in some areas and overproduction in other areas. It's pretty much a wash," he said. "In the long run, everything smooths out."

—Candy Woodall can be reached at cwoodall@yorkdispatch.com.