Why 4% Food Inflation Figure Is Bullshit (USA TODAY Article)

Submitted by Dmitri Davydov on Tue, 2008-07-08 18:31.
Rebecca Woods and her family in Lathrop, Mo., have turned to the land, planting hundreds of vegetables and relying on their own chickens for eggs.

Retirees Sally and Robert Jones of Alpine, Texas, have reverted back to some of the menus that got them through graduate school many years ago, living on beans, stews and soups.

Dave Snyder of Mobile, Ala., goes to four grocery stores in search of bargains. Nancy Sierra of Fort Myers, Fla., now eats peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. And Tiffany Nicosia of Charlotte says that, more and more, she whips up new recipes with whatever is left in her refrigerator.

They are just a few examples of how Americans are changing their meal planning as food prices continue to climb.

When USA TODAY asked readers to report how they are coping with higher grocery bills while still eating healthfully, dozens of people responded with lists of ways they're cutting costs. Their ideas range from curtailing restaurant meals to planting gardens, using coupons, shopping smarter and cooking more economical meals.

Is all this necessary? Government statistics say yes.

Overall, food prices climbed 4% in 2007, the biggest annual increase since 1990, and prices are projected to rise 4.5% to 5.5% this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In a recent USA TODAY/Gallup Poll of 1,016 adults, 46% said the higher cost of food is creating a financial hardship. They said they have noticed an increase in the cost of milk, fruits and vegetables, meat, bread and eggs.

"The biggest problem is the food prices are not going to go back down," says Phil Lempert, one of the nation's top trackers of supermarket trends (supermarketguru.com). "Traditionally, we've seen an increase, and it comes back down as the commodities come back down," he says. "I don't think we are going to see that."

Often when food prices increase, the first items that grocery shoppers leave out of their carts are the healthful foods — fruits, vegetables, fish and lean meats, says Adam Drewnoski, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Instead, they buy more calorie-dense foods loaded with sugar or fat, such as sweetened cereals, packaged macaroni and cheese, and noodles to fill hungry stomachs, he says.

It doesn't have to be that way, Drewnoski says.

People can use these difficult times to their nutritional advantage by buying locally grown produce, growing some of their own food or brushing up on their cooking skills, he says.

"It takes three things to be well nourished: knowledge, money and time," Drewnoski says.

"If you have three out of three, you have no problem. If you have two out of three, you can manage. So if money drops out, you can use your knowledge and time to find and cook affordable, nutrient-rich food. If you have no time, then knowledge and money will tide you over. You can buy (nutritious) takeout.

"The problem is when you are zero for three, you are a recession basket case," Drewnoski says.

"It becomes a difficult situation, and I sympathize."

'We were sinking financially'

Several USA TODAY readers said that for years, they dashed through the grocery store, blithely grabbing whatever they needed, and didn't realize how high the prices had gotten until they took a hard look at their budget.

That was the case for Rebecca Woods, 50, a children's book author, who lives on 3 acres in Lathrop, Mo.

During the past year, the grocery bill for her family of five, including two teen boys and a college-age daughter, doubled from $800 to $1,600 a month.

When she figured that out, she says, "I about choked."

"We were eating whatever we wanted — yogurt, bagels, name-brand cereals. I wasn't looking at the price of anything. I was at the point where I bought the same thing every week. I ran into the grocery, I bought what I needed and ran out."

But, she says, "I realized we were sinking financially and couldn't go on that way."

The family decided to economize on dining out, food and gas. They cut back on eating out from a couple of times a week to about once a month. They've also consolidated their trips to the grocery store in Liberty, Mo., which is 23 miles from their home, Woods says.

"Now we call the list in to our daughter, who works in town, and she gets the groceries before she comes home."

This spring, they took their gardening to new heights, planting 235 potato plants, more than 1,000 stalks of sweet corn — each with a pea or bean plant as a companion to climb the stalks — and dozens of winter squash, tomatoes, peppers and carrots.

They also have a small orchard with nine fruit trees — pear, apricot, apple, plum and peach.

Woods' family plans to can and freeze some of the produce and share the rest with neighbors and friends.

The family also keeps a cow for milking and several chickens, which produce about two eggs every day.

"In short, many of our habits are changing dramatically, and we are prepared to change them further if or when the times get worse," Woods says.

"It's very satisfying that we can take control of this portion of our lives without making any dramatic sacrifice."

A challenge for retirees

Retirees are hit particularly hard by higher food prices, and many have been forced to find ways to economize.

Sally Jones, 69, of Alpine, Texas, steers clear of processed foods and shops the perimeter of the grocery store.

"I'm buying the most reasonably priced fruit and am now making my own salad dressings, which is much healthier," Jones says.

"We're cutting back on portion sizes as well — something my husband and I both need to do anyway."

But Jones says she misses the times when she could buy whatever she wanted.

"The grocery store was one place where I could sort of throw all caution to the wind, but no more. I haven't been able to shop as luxuriously as I used to … as (prices) have slowly crept up."

Dave Snyder, 64, a retiree in Mobile, Ala., has a circular route that takes him to four grocery stores. He scouts out the specials and often buys meat that has been reduced for quick sale.

"You have got to get there early, and you have to learn to vary your diet based on what's on special," Snyder says.

He's wary of coupons. "I find that coupons are an encouragement to impulse buying — a real budget killer," Snyder says.

He and his wife, Beth, 62, are both good cooks, so they rarely dine out. But when they do, they order water with their meal, bypass appetizers and split an entree and dessert.

"We are not cheap, and I still give a 20% tip to our server, if he or she has earned it," Snyder says.

Nancy Sierra, 61, a behavior analyst for a school district in Fort Myers, Fla., says she has learned to skimp on meals.

For lunch, she and her husband often eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, carrots and bananas. Her cost-cutting evening meals: a can of fat-free ravioli, egg salad sandwiches or a baked potato.

"I like meat, but it's too expensive," she says, adding that sometimes she buys chicken breasts if there's a buy-one-get-one-free sale.

She has cut out salads and other expensive vegetables in favor of canned vegetables. She says she looks for sales in the produce department more than any other place.

"If something is on sale, we get it, and if it's not, we don't. I don't waste a thing. We eat all our leftovers. Now that gas is taking up a lot of money, I've had to cut down in other places. I think it will continue to go up, and it'll affect everything.

"I guess we'll be eating dog food next."

Many younger people have also made changes in the way they eat as a result of the higher prices.

Tiffany Nicosia, 28, of Charlotte, used to go out to lunch or dinner several times a week with friends, buy whatever she wanted at the grocery store and drive her gas-guzzling SUV to work.

No more.

Eating out is now an occasional treat, and when she goes to the grocery store, she shops sales, uses coupons and buys in bulk, repackaging the food into smaller containers when she gets home.

She frequently goes to farmers' markets in downtown Charlotte to buy produce.

"The other day I got four kiwis, two apples, one pound of green beans, a bunch of red potatoes and three oranges for $4. It's easy to eat healthy if you get creative with it," she says.

She makes new dishes out of whatever she has left over in the refrigerator. For instance, if she has chicken, celery and a few spices, she searches for a recipe on the Internet that uses those ingredients.

"A lot of things turn out kind of funky, but a lot of them turn out well," she says.

As a result of her efforts, she has trimmed her dining-out budget from more than $100 a week to less than $30, has cut her weekly grocery bill from about $80 to $45, and spends $12 a week to take the bus to work instead of $85 to drive and park.

Nicosia says that eating out less and cooking more with fresh ingredients has not only trimmed her budget but also her waistline. During the past year, she lost 42 pounds.

"You have to do what you've got to do," she says. "You want to get more bang for your buck, so you have to be creative about it. I don't want to waste money."

More planning, fewer frills

For some people, the higher food prices coincided with other life events that made them rethink their budget.

That was the case for Randy Vance, 52, and his wife, Linda, 50, of Winter Park, Fla. He is editor in chief of Boating Life magazine. She worked for a wine supplier, but the company was bought out, and in March she took a severance package.

Linda, a gourmet cook, used to stop at the grocery every few days and buy whatever she needed to prepare elegant meals for her husband and their 13-year-old daughter, Amy.

A typical dinner might be grilled chicken and goat cheese with a balsamic glaze, mushroom risotto and cooked baby carrots. Linda also relied on takeout food or partly prepared meals.

But those items were costly. She says she studied the total family budget and found the amount she spent each month on food was "shocking": $1,100 for groceries alone.

After doing an e-mail survey of a few friends and family members, Linda realized that in order to cut food costs, she had to dramatically change the way she planned meals, cooked and shopped.

She started to do menu planning for two weeks at a time and began shopping for less expensive cuts of meat (brisket, hamburger) and bulk items at discount clubs and other grocery stores.

Instead of buying packaged instant oatmeal or fancy rice pilafs, she now gets those foods in bulk and packages them in small plastic bags. She also buys fresh vegetables in bulk, and to make sure that none of the produce goes to waste, she roasts the vegetables right away and stores them in the refrigerator.

She makes simpler dinner fare for her family, such as Salisbury steak and hamburger casseroles.

Linda says she has cut their food bill in half.

"My refrigerator has half the foods in it that it used to have. The challenge is, can I go two weeks without going back to the grocery store? It takes practice."

But, she adds, "It's fun to beat the system and buy in bulk and still eat healthy food."

[Via - USAToday.Com] 

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