SEE ALSO: Average cost of grocery staples slides, but price hikes are on the way

Plastic bags carrying $5.16 worth of groceries crinkle in the basket of Virginia Holler's walker on wheels.

She's just returned from a quick shopping trip to buy bread and eggs when she invites visitors into her fourth-floor apartment at the York Towne House.

"Ain't the best," she says, opening the door to reveal walls lined with faded family portraits. "It's a place to call home."

Holler, like so many senior citizens, survives on the income of a monthly Social Security check. With that money, she must pay for rent, medication, utilities, food and anything else she might need.

Connell Ellis, 58, pauses outside Rivas Deli Grocery after making a purchase recently. Ellis, one of the stores frequent customers, lives around the
Connell Ellis, 58, pauses outside Rivas Deli Grocery after making a purchase recently. Ellis, one of the stores frequent customers, lives around the corner. (Bill Kalina photo)

So, she's become a savvy shopper. Thanks to public transportation and a helpful daughter, Holler spreads her food purchases among farmers' markets, chain grocery stores and C-Town Supermarket -- the grocery store closest to her York City apartment. There, she appreciates the 99-cent bags of potato chips.

Holler said she and her neighbors "don't spend a whole lot for eats."

"We don't have the money," she said.

Rising food prices are a burden for everyone.

But what if you're someone like 81-year-old Virginia Holler, who doesn't drive and can't carry more than what will fit in the basket of her walker?

What if you don't own a car and can't travel more than a few blocks to re-stock your supply of toilet paper or laundry detergent? What if you don't have a helpful neighbor or relative to drive you to Walmart or Shurfine?

What if you live in York City?

During the week of Oct. 8-12, The York Dispatch

visited 12 small grocers and corner stores in York City to check the prices of flour, eggs, sugar, milk, laundry detergent, coffee, bread and toilet paper.

An analysis showed that a five-pound bag of flour, for example, costs an average of $3.67 at city corner stores -- compared to $2.80 at the large suburban chain stores.

A dozen large eggs cost an average of $2.12 in the city, compared to $1.86 in the suburbs. The average price of a four-pound bag of sugar in the city was $4.35. At the big chain stores, the same amount of sugar cost just over $3.

In every category, the average cost of grocery items in the city was significantly higher than at the area's suburban chain stores.

That's hardly surprising, but consider that the highest concentration of York County residents who live in poverty live in York City. About a third of city residents live in poverty, according to a recent report by the Healthy York County Coalition.

Corner stores and limited-supply grocers abound in the city. As the name suggests, there is a store on many city corners.

Paying for conve nience: They cater to people like Connell Ellis, a 58-year-old York City resident who said he drives to Walmart about twice a month to do the bulk of his grocery shopping.

The rest of the time, Ellis said, he doesn't mind paying the higher prices at his neighborhood store on the corner of South Pine and East Princess streets. He knows he's paying for convenience.

Corner stores are "community" stores, Ellis said. The owners have to meet customer needs to stay afloat, he said.

"If I need sugar, I go in there and buy sugar," he said. "If I run short, this is my spot."

Convenience is also the draw for customers who, like Holler, shop a few times a week at C-Town, the city's only large grocery store.

Holler said she finds the prices at C-Town, on North Duke Street, to be generally higher than at the larger grocery stores. But she also was relieved when the store moved into the neighborhood, just a short walk from her apartment.

More expensive: Customers certainly can find deals at C-Town. But a comparison of items sold at C-Town and larger chain stores reveals that, on average, prices are higher at the so-called discount grocer.

Earlier this week, C-Town was selling a half gallon of Breyer's ice cream, for example, for $7.99. The price for the same item averaged just $4.69 at nearby Walmart, Giant, Weis and Shurfine stores on the same day. For 50 fluid ounces of Tide laundry detergent, C-Town was charging $10.69, compared to an average of $8.09 at the four other stores.

City corner stores and small grocers carry a little bit of everything, offering discounted cigarettes or bottles of soda to pull customers through the door. But they also carry fresh milk, eggs and bread, suggesting that someone is grocery shopping there.

Teddy Bhaura, who owns American Food Mart on East Philadelphia Street, said he sells those types of items most rapidly at the beginning of each month -- matching up to the time customers on food stamps have money loaded onto their accounts.

The same thing happens at Pak's Market. In fact, owner Benny Wang estimated as many as a quarter of his customers use food stamps to buy groceries at the 750 E. Princess St. store.

Apples to oranges: Occasionally, a customer will complain about the prices at Pak's Market. Wang said he explains that it is impossible for a small store to compete with large companies, which can buy goods at a discounted bulk rate.

"You cannot compare my store to a Walmart," he said.

Jon Johnson, 37, said he's fortunate enough to have a car, which he drives to Sam's Club once or twice a month. But many of his neighbors rely on American Food Mart for all of their food, he said.

"I see them come here multiple times a day," Johnson said.

Bhaura said his customers are neighborhood residents, most of whom walk to the 451 E. Philadelphia St. store.

"We try our best to provide everything for them," Bhaura said. "They depend on the store."

And that includes keeping the store open almost every hour of almost every day.

"We never close -- never ever ever," Bhaura said.

-- Erin James may also be reached at ejame s@yorkdispatch.com.