Why are food prices going up while paychecks aren't? And what can you do about it?
In April I attended the annual Food News Seminar in Charleston, S.C., sponsored by the National Chicken Council. One of the speakers was Purdue University agriculture economics professor Chris Hurt, who listed some of the factors in rising food prices: the U.S. government's subsidy of corn-based ethanol, rising oil prices, bad weather, the rising international demand for American food products and the dropping value of the dollar.
The USDA estimates global food prices rose 25 percent last year and set a record in February. Hurt said U.S. prices for pork are up 6 percent to 7 percent, and estimated it will go to 9 percent this year. Beef, veal and seafood prices are up 4.5 percent to 5.5 percent; poultry has risen 2.5 percent to 3.4 percent; and fruits and vegetables are up 3 percent to 4 percent.Hurt painted a bleak picture for global food supply, saying, "I am just praying we get good weather in the U.S. and Asia this year."
Unfortunately, since Hurt's speech in April, there have been more devastating floods and tornadoes in some of America's farmlands, while there are droughts in other regions.
The United States plays a huge role in the food supply. "We are the biggest country feeding the rest of the world," Hurt said. "Corn is our largest crop, soybeans the second, wheat third. We are the largest supplier of cotton and rice. It's dramatic the production base we have built up to sustain the rest of the world."
Besides the 21.2 million acres of U.S. corn that now are used for ethanol production, 20 million acres of U.S. soybeans are going to China, and Russia's wheat production is declining.
"There's no surplus or inventory of these commodities in the world anymore," Hurt said. "That's a big part of our food system."
For many years the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) has urged its members to build up an individual supply of non-perishable food. The wisdom of this advice is evident now with prices going up.
Unfortunately, fresh fruits and veggies are something you can't buy ahead and store for a year or two in the basement. Also, produce is the food category most likely to get tossed, because people buy it and don't get around to using it. So there' a potential to waste a lot of money.
But fruits and veggies are so good for us health-wise that we should all be eating more, not less. Although overall prices have gone up, they’re still a nutritional bargain when compared to the price per pound of meat, cheese, chocolate, etc. Here are some money-saving ideas when you buy them:
1. Buy certain fruits and veggies when they're in season. They're cheaper and fresher-tasting. Some veggies stay pretty consistent in the supermarket, such as carrots or bananas. But asparagus, berries and citrus are some that can vary with the season.
2. Ready-prepped veggies usually cost more. But they may be worth it it helps you to actually use those peeled carrots or sliced mushrooms. After all, the most expensive food is the stuff you leave in the fridge and never eat.
3. A pound bag of chopped iceberg lettuce salad usually costs more than a head of lettuce that you clean and chop yourself. And it doesn’t keep as long. But if bagged salad greens keep you from buying restaurant salads, there's still a savings.
4. If lettuce prices are up, vary your veggies. Consider cabbage, spinach, carrot, bean or broccoli salads.
5. Grow your favorite herbs year-round in your kitchen window. I like being able to snip off a few sprigs of basil or rosemary when I need it, and those little packets of fresh herbs can cost $2 or more.
6. If you're not up for planting a full-size garden, add a few strawberry or tomato plants to your flower beds. You have to weed and water them your flower beds anyway. Or add a fruit tree to your back yard.
7. Yellow onions are often 40-50 cents less per pound than red (purple) onions.
8. When your favorite fresh vegetables or fruits are off-season, look for canned and frozen versions. Do the math and figure out which offers the best price per serving.
9. Beans are an inexpensive protein. Add them to tacos, casseroles, salads, etc., so you can use less meat.
10. Dried beans, per cooked serving, are often less than half the price of canned beans. But they take a lot of time to cook. Soak a batch overnight in your slow cooker on low heat, then portion and freeze for later use.
11. Vegetables frozen in butter or cheese sauce usually cost more than plain frozen vegetables, and they have more fat and calories.
12. Price fruits with an eye on the cost-per-edible serving. If you are buying by the pound, you are also paying for any inedible seeds and rinds. For instance, smaller apples and melons may cost more per pound because there's a higher proportion of core or rind.
13. Serve a vegetable "medley" when you have small leftover amounts of several different vegetables. Mix together and microwave, and top with a little cheese or a sprinkle of nuts.
14. If you shop at local farmers markets in the summer, you will get local-grown produce, which is usually fresher and better-tasting. Locally grown corn and tomatoes are my favorites to buy; they taste so much better than the supermarket stuff that has been shipped for hundreds of miles. You are helping your local farmers stay in business as well.
What are some of your favorite money-stretching tips? Please share!