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At Colonel Kirk's Grocery Auction, Bargain Hunters Score Deals And Snub Sell-By Dates (PHOTOS)

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GROCERY AUCTION
Cynthia Bennett displays a pack of frozen chicken filets for bidders at Col. Kirk's grocery auction in Millville, Penn. | Alice Hines

MILLVILLE, Penn. -- On a recent Friday in March in this hilly Pennsylvania town, a crowd of 80 locals gathered at Colonel Kirk's Auction Gallery. Farmers, factory workers, retirees, restaurateurs and the odd hoarder filtered in for the seven-hour-long show. Like any auction house, Kirk's aims to please, with boisterous auctioneers and blowout deals.

But at this auction, the items for sale were more Costco than Christie's.

At Colonel Kirk's, a pack of eight pork chops sold for $6 and a gallon of dill pickle chips, for $2. Three frozen Red Baron pizzas went for $10; a single one can retail for $6.49. A bundle of 10 Slim Jims sold for $3 at the auction. At gas stations, a single Slim Jim can cost as much as $2.65, a price that Sarah Palin recently lamented. Several bidders landed big bags of 36 frozen breaded chicken patties, surplus from one of America's largest fast-food chains, for $12.50.

As is the case at many auctions, some of the items could be called antiques, of sorts. Much of Colonel Kirk's food is approaching or even past its "use by" or "sell by" date: A frozen portobello mushroom pork sirloin ($6), for example, carried a stamp of Feb. 26, which was about a month before the auction.

Sarah Palin is not the only one complaining about the exorbitant prices of Slim Jims. With food prices climbing upward -- the cost of groceries rose 4.8 percent last year -- Americans are cutting back and bypassing traditional supermarkets in favor of Walmart and dollar stores.

Only a handful of people have discovered auctions, however, where the resourceful and brave-stomached can score brand-name snacks cheaper than anywhere else but the dumpster.

Though the food at Colonel Kirk's is considered "secondary market" -- and is turned away by regular grocery stores -- no one has ever gotten sick in the auction's four-year existence, claimed its owner, Kirk Williams, 53, the self-proclaimed inventor of the grocery auction. "Just because an item has a date on it doesn't mean it's bad the next day," Williams said. Frozen and packaged food is typically good for about a year after its date, he asserted. "Nothing I sell here I wouldn't feed to my own family."

For many in Millville (population 948), what's sold at Colonel Kirk's is the only type of food their families eat. Darlene Beck, 53, and Joyce Kittle, 60, hardly shop anywhere else. On Friday, the two old friends chatted and hiked their hands in the air as auctioneer Roger Naugle, 37, hollered out ever-lower prices. Colonel Kirk's sells multiples of every item, dropping prices until there's a bid.

"Sometimes you spend more than you wanted," said Kittle, eyeing a huge hunk of plastic-wrapped ham. "With it not being expensive, you don't mind giving it a try," Beck added.

The auction not only offers a chance to socialize; shopping there has become a necessity for many people trying to make it through a curdled economic recovery. Beck and Kittle first became regulars at Colonel Kirk's in 2009, when Decorator Industries, the textile factory where they both worked as seamstresses, closed. "We started coming in the afternoons because we had free time," Beck said.

Three years later and still unemployed, Beck depends on the savings she can find at Colonel Kirk's. "If we didn't shop here, we might just have to do without," especially when it comes to high-priced items like beef and pork, she said.

The retail value of fresh beef rose 10.4 percent in 2011, according to the Department of Agriculture. Jack Morrissey, a 63-year-old retired horse farmer, was thinking about the skyrocketing prices while bidding on beef jerky at Colonel Kirk's. "I'm worried about hyperinflation," he said grimly. "I'm worried about total financial meltdown."

Morrissey, whose political views lie to the "far left," he said, recently invested $21,000 in silver coins in preparation for a currency collapse. "I'm considering stocking up on food, too," he said. "With this crazy government, you never know what will happen."

While most Americans have not gone so far as to stockpile coins and jerky, rising meat prices and a lucrative black market have tempted some into crime. Last year, authorities noticed a surge in cattle rustling, whereby thieves slaughter cows and make off with the valuable meat. In Austin, Texas, police busted a shoplifting ring that resold stolen meat to local restaurants.

For auctioneers, food inflation also brings new business opportunities. Since 2009, when Williams's auction first made national news through an Associated Press story, hundreds of others have adopted the business model. "When we hit national news, within a matter of three months, it went from being just us to two, then four, then 13 states," Williams said. About 200 grocery auctions now exist nationwide, he estimated.

Lately, Williams has been receiving calls from customers from as far away as Syracuse and Rochester, N.Y., who want to attend his auctions. "We keep making them bigger and bigger. More people come and get more merchandise," he said. Williams hopes the concept will soon reap even more national recognition through a reality TV show. Earlier this year, a film crew visited Millville to shoot a pilot episode.

On that recent Friday in March, Colonel Kirk's was TV ready: Auctioneer Roger Naugle, Williams' partner, pumped up the crowd with stories about weight loss through using Crystal Light, gave out free samples of Tantalizers Baja-lime flavored onion rings -- and even called this visiting reporter onstage to "guest auction" packs of Oscar Mayer sandwich meat, a stunt that drew big laughs when she flubbed the prices.

Williams obtains the food through refrigerated warehouses, which stock outdated and surplus merchandise. When a small factory produces more than it can supply to grocers and restaurants, it sells off its excess products to these specialty warehouses at a discount. Williams orders what he wants from warehouses' websites and has the food delivered in refrigerated trucks. Most items hit the auction block before their dates pass, Williams said.

Though grocery stores avoid doing so, selling food past a stamped date is perfectly legal. "Sell by" and "best if used by" dates refer to quality and freshness, not safety, according to the Department of Agriculture's food dating fact sheet. With the exception of medicine and baby formula, the dates printed on packages are company recommendations about when something will taste best, not legal mandates.

"If a product is handled properly and stored at a safe temperature, the product should still be safe, though not at its best quality, after the date passes," said Cathy Cochran, public affairs specialist at the Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, in a statement.

And for most of the food sold at Colonel Kirk's, the taste doesn't drastically change once a date passes, its loyal shoppers say. Almost all of Williams' meat is frozen, while the dry goods are packaged for maximum shelf life. There are a few exceptions: Williams occasionally sells fresh food from local farms, such as a "top-shelf" ham, one of most popular items at $28 a piece recently.

Still, the abundance of processed and frozen fare raises another question about grocery auctions: Are the types of food sold healthy? Sixty percent of residents in Columbia County, which surrounds Millville, are overweight or obese. And at that Friday's auction, many items, such as a T.G.I. Friday's Steak Fajita dinner (sold for $5), weren't exactly slimming.

Elaine Howard, 46, a fit and trim mom, said it's all in how you prepare the food. On that March Friday, Howard scored an unmarked bag of 36 frozen chicken patties, which Naugle announced came from one of the largest U.S. fast food chains. She planned to prepare them as chicken Parmesan or with an Alfredo sauce. "You don't have to make them like they do at the restaurant," she said.

Howard gets enough food at Colonel Kirk's each month to boycott chain stores altogether. For the former factory seamstress, shopping at the auction is as much as about ethics as it is about price. "In 1987, I made $150 a day at a sewing factory," she said. "Now, everything's made outside the United States and I make minimum wage cleaning rooms at a hotel."

For the fresh items she can't find at Colonel Kirk's, Howard hits flea markets and nearby farms. She cans peaches and apples in season and buys a half a cow once a year to freeze and eat cut by cut.

Despite the popularity of auctions with maverick shoppers like Howard, they still carry some stigma. Companies worry about tainting their brands on the secondary market, said Williams, who asked that the name of the fast food chain providing the chicken patties not be named. "I'd be worried we'd lose a supplier," he said.

Still, on that March Friday none of Colonel Kirk's customers seemed to mind that grocery auctions take place largely off the grid. On the contrary, they are happy to be in on the secret.

"A lot of people don't know how this works; it's foreign to them," said Regina Dzoch, 35. "We have friends like that. They're also are the ones that are in debt with credit cards. That's how it works.''

Check out more pictures of The Huffington Post's trip to Colonel Kirk's:

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