Friday, July 29, 2011

Minimize your Food Price Rollercoaster

I am finding it very difficult to believe the published numbers for the rise in US food prices which are stated as much less than the rest of the world. The world average is 39% in the last year, and the US says it has increases of only 1.5%*. I disagree... sure wish my grocery bill had only increased 1.5%!!!

The published FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) Food Price Index on the graph shown above is a lot closer to what I personally experience in my geographic area, with the increase in grain prices affecting everything from meat, cereal grains and soft drinks to ethanol added at the gas pumps.

"Consumption of the four staples that supply most human calories — wheat, rice, corn and soybeans — has outstripped production for much of the past decade, drawing once-large stockpiles down to worrisome levels. The imbalance between supply and demand has resulted in two huge spikes in international grain prices since 2007, with some grains more than doubling in cost."  Source

Some of what's interesting in these charts is the price of various food groups, shown above. Look at the spike in sugar, known to be in most of the addictive junk food, sodas, etc. It's amazing to me that meat is relatively flat in comparison, even though most US meat is raised in CAFO's and fed grains. (Meat prices are expected to go down briefly then surge as US cattle ranchers sell of herds due to drought - lack of hay with the smallest hay crop in more than 100 years.)

Global wheat prices more than doubled in the second half of last year, according to a new report from the World Bank. The price of corn, sugar and cooking oil also soared.

Why are global food prices skyrocketing? Who is hungry as a result? And what does it mean for the U.S.?

Skyrocketing Prices  attribute the price rise to several factors — some familiar to me (and probably to you), some less familiar.

1. The rise of biofuels, like ethanol made from corn. This market, driven largely by government subsidies, has created demand that is what economists call "price inelastic" - that means demand stays strong even as prices rise. (Note: The US says for the first time ever, more corn will go for ethanol than animal feed.)

2. More demand from the developing world, particularly for meat. Livestock are now fed grain and confined rather than being pastured on grass, so increasing demand for meat means increasing demand for grain. This source of demand has also been price inelastic.

3. Disappearing stockpiles Because of WTO (World Trade Organization) rules, the U.S. and Europe have been moving away from subsidies that led to vast reserves of wheat and corn.

Of course, subsidies still exist in the U.S. and Europe, but they've taken a different form. Governments used to buy and stockpile surplus food from farmers. Now it's more common for governments to give farmers subsidy payments without actually buying any of the food they produce.

4. Stock Market Speculation The volatility created by declining stocks is in turn compounded by speculation — traders betting on the rise or fall of prices.

So, what's the Bottom Line for most of us?
It is unlikely any of us can grow enough food (including grains) for sustainability on a city or suburban lot, nor is it likely we can avoid GMO grains in our foods (think corn meal and soy / canola oils added to almost everything) unless we are both wealthy and knowledgeable.

What we CAN do is grow our own fruits, greens and vegetables, even if some are just grown in buckets on a balcony, or in straw bales on a driveway. Buy enough OP (open pollinated) or heirloom seeds this fall for next year, but please... be careful to only buy seeds for things you and your family will actually eat. (Some seeds have a relatively short shelf life; our world seed supply is in danger; many varieties are already extinct, and seed prices are going up.) Plant the seeds next spring and learn how to save seeds for the following year. If you are a beginning gardener, even just a handful of tomatoes will produce enough seeds for another year!

If you don't have any space at all to garden, buy bulk vegetables at a farmer's market and learn how to freeze, can or dehydrate what you don't eat fresh. Starchy carbs are filling, often with empty calories, so start experimenting with carbs that are more nutritious.

If you hate Brussels sprouts, try some new cooking methods that leave them yummy rather than over-cooked and strong tasting/smelling. Try cauliflower and broccoli with fresh lemon and a hint of garlic instead of tasty but fattening fake-cheese sauce in a package. Make your own flavored real butter sauce for fresh vegetables, or those you have frozen.

Try some herbs and spices you don't usually keep on hand. There's a whole world of flavor available!

Learn how to make ghee (clarified butter) which stores on the shelf a long time (in a dark, cool spot like the bottom of a closet), and then watch for butter on sale to make ghee. Ghee makes a tasty butter sauce, and it's great to use in a sauté. (I mix mine with EVOO for a sauté.)

Learn how to render fat or schmaltz from beef, chickens and hogs at home; scrap fat is available at the butcher's, and home-rendered is far better and cheaper than the processed, hydrogenated fats in the stores. Use it to cook instead of processed PUFA oils. It's healthier, if for no other reason than the better balance of Omega 6 to Omega 3 EFA's. Our brains are almost entirely comprised of fats, and we need the nutrients found in animal fats such as fat-soluble vitamins such as Vitamins A, D, and K.

Learn how to buy and cook the less common and less expensive cuts of meat, including the very nutritious organ meats. (BTW, I won't eat organ meats from supermarket CAFO meats as most of the organs store toxins; I will only eat them from grass-fed, hormone-free animals.)

Start weaning yourself and family from highly addictive (and expensive) things like sodas and chips... and also wean yourselves from nutritionally-poor fast food. Learn to grow greens like Swiss chard and kale; you can dehydrate them into chips (with a tasty topping) instead of buying potato chips or corn chips. 

Find a nearby family who has chickens and buy or barter for eggs. There is a lot nutrition in eggs from free-range chickens!

There are many things we each can do to help offset food price increases; we just have to start somewhere. Even with all my efforts to produce more of my own food over the past 4-5 years I still buy a lot, but just not as much as if I were still totally dependent on the system. I also now make better choices with my food dollars, read all the ingredient labels carefully, and double-check unit prices because sometimes bigger boxes are not cheaper.

* "Despite the fact that the world price of staples like wheat, corn and sugar have risen by more than 50 percent in recent months, the price of food in the U.S. has barely budged — food prices here rose only 1.5 percent over the past year. That's because the price of food in the U.S. is driven largely by labor costs and other factors, rather than by the price of the ingredients." Source


  1. Great's exactly where I've been putting a lot of energy into learning & teaching. Still have so much to learn & put into practice.
    Yes, I've seen food prices skyrocket the past few years, if the increase has only been the 1.5 %, I wouldn't be as concerned.
    I have been spending more in bulk & storage anticipating a continued rise in food costs.

    Good advice on growing greens. Preferring meatless meals, I am learning to use beans much more from scratch.

  2. Good post! One thing I did not see you mention was buying beans and grains in larger quantities and learning to really cook with them - true whole wheat bread, oatmeal from rolled oats with maple syrup or brown sugar, or chili with beans you soak the night before. We have done this in our household, and found it cut prices by a lot. The downside is finding a place for a bushel of wheat and 20 pounds of Great Northern beans...

    Also, we find it useful to think of meat as a flavoring, rather than the main attraction. A few strips of bacon go a long way in corn chowder or a pound of ground beef in a pot of chili for 12 still tastes meaty, without the cost.

  3. Anne, great place to put energy!

    JJ, Hmmmm, I have posted about buying and storing bulk grains, beans, etc. several times over. Guess I just assume most folks know to do that now.

    I have several 3 and 5 gallon food grade containers, left from stocking up for Y2K. Problem is they are plastic and if they went in one of the sheds where there's adequate storage space, the mice would chew right through them and feast all winter!

    Storage space inside the house is at a premium. With 3 of us combining separate households in a small house, it's like squeezing an 180 pound woman into a size 6 girdle.


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