Friday, September 12th, 2008
Coping With High Food Prices
This summer I noticed that many of the grocery products I buy skyrocketed in price, downsized in volume, or both. Blame oil prices for transportation hikes or the sinking of the American dollar or whatever. We’re all paying for it.
When I thought about this subject, Brett Levy came to mind. He’s the blogger behind DadTalk. When he’s not writing about his two kids Seth and Lael, he’s taking a look at big picture economic and societal issues. I asked him to write a guest article about food prices. Somehow, between moving his family across the country and acclimating to the insane heat that is known as Arizona, he found time to say…
While waiting for Seth to get out of school, I asked a couple moms, "Do
you notice anything different at Whole Foods?"
"Yes, the produce isn’t as fresh," complained one mom.
"Perhaps it’s sitting on the shelves longer?"
"Uh, their prices," answered another. "We don’t
go their as much."
A few days later, I was at the Scottsdale-Phoenix Smart & Final, a
Western chain that sells cleaning, restaurant and bulk food supplies at low
cost. When we lived in California,
I would load up on toilet paper, paper towels, tissues and a few other items
like water and healthy snacks. The store there often was frequented by
restaurant owners and janitors.
But in the spic-and-span Scottsdale Smart & Final, well-dressed
moms and dads pulled up in the largest SUVs I’ve ever seen. After listening
to some conversations and talking to one parent, I discovered they were newbies
at the chain.
I soon discovered Americans are increasingly turning to discount
retailers to cope with rising food prices. Both Sam’s Club and Costco
experienced a large increase of shoppers from September 2006 to April, reports The New York Times. Almost 12 percent of the new shoppers had incomes above
Aldi, a food store that emphasizes no frills and limited product selection,
is also seeing a surge in traffic, reports The New York Times. Despite the stores’ narrow aisles, limited choices and
lack of traditional shelving, shoppers have been spending far less at Aldi
stores for decades. (My mom occasionally shopped at the stores when I was
growing up in the Chicago
area. Sadly, there are no stores in Arizona.)
Before you sniff, "I never heard of Aldi," you should know
that this German company owns Trader Joe’s and is responsible for that chain’s
relatively low prices.
For parents hoping that a recent decline in oil and commodity prices will
provide relief, think again, reports another New York Times story. Many companies are keeping prices high to offset losses
earlier this year.
Pricing is not the only way food manufacturers are squeezing consumers.
Some companies are shrinking package sizes, reports the Canadian
"Skippy peanut butter, made by Unilever, now sells in
16.3-ounce jars that look the same size as the previous 18-ounce jars because
of a larger indentation at the bottom. Kraft is reducing the number and in some
cases the size of items in one of its cheese lines, for example. Sara Lee has
reduced the size of some of its deli meat packages from 10 ounces to nine
ounces. The prices, for the most part, don’t go down."
This is happening even as retail food prices increased an average of 6
percent this year. More from the Canadian Press:
"These rising food costs have to be paid for by
somebody," he said. "The question is how are you going to pay for
them? Are you going to pay for them in keeping your out-of-pocket cost constant
by buying smaller portions, or are you going to be paying more for what you
paid last year?"
School lunches are especially hard hit. In the Albany, N.Y.,
area, school lunches are expected to rise by up to 18 percent, reports the Times-Union.
Other regions have also reported increases.
High food prices are even worrying health care experts, reports The Wal Street Journal. That’s because Americans with chronic conditions,
such as diabetes, are hard pressed to pay for the high-quality food they need:
"Fruits and vegetables are by definition
becoming luxury goods," says Adam Drewnowski, director of the University of Washington Center for Obesity Research.
In a study released last December, he found that the prices of some healthy
foods in Seattle-area grocery stores had jumped 16% between 2004 and 2006,
while less-nutritious items had gone up only gradually. "The nutrition
gap is growing," he says. "My fear in public health is that it will
continue to grow."
Tell me about it. I start in the fresh produce section whenever I go to
a grocer and use the rest of the store to fill in the gaps. When produce prices
are too high, I buy more frozen fruit and veggies from the freezer section. Needless
to stay, our freezer is stuffed.
What’s particularly difficult to gauge: ingredient substitutions and
quality reductions. When food companies are stressed, for example, they often
substitute corn syrup for sugar. But what do food manufacturers use when corn
gets too expensive? No idea.
Because I regularly check ingredient labels â€“ my wife is allergic
to corn syrup and I’m allergic to milk â€“ I have a sense of when
substitutions occur. But as far as I know, there is no good way to track
product changes, which usually happen without fanfare unless someone gets sick
Another kind of substitution: country of origin. For example, salmon and
grapes often comes from Chile.
Melons coming from Honduras
recalled in March for salmonella contamination. But often fish, meat and
produce are labeled. The same cannot be said for packaged foods, which may have
ingredients from multiple countries.
Perhaps the best indication that food companies are cutting back on
quality can be measured in recalls. Whole Foods had to recall some beef after
one of its providers switched to a less expensive packing house known for less-than-stellar
quality, reports The New York Times.
And don’t forget more than 1,440 people were hospitalized
after consuming jalapeÃ±o and Serrano peppers contaminated by salmonella, reports U.S. News and World Report. The Food and Drug Administration wasted 89 days
blaming tomatoes for the outbreak. Expect more recalls if food makers and
growers continue to cut costs.
What can apprehensive parents do?
Now that we’re living in the
suburbs instead of on the 15th floor in Chicago, we’ve planted a garden.
Perhaps nothing will grow in the hard, gooey-red Scottsdale soil, but certainly some crops â€“
zucchini always grows â€“ will take the edge off of high food prices. An
added bonus: my kids get to learn something about botany and dirt.
Farmer’s markets are another good option, though some charge far
beyond big box stores. Savings success will vary by family and location.
Chicago’s and LA’s farmer’s markets were exorbitant to begin
Changing what you buy can also make a big difference: avoid the
high-end specialty products around the rim of stores like Whole Foods and
processed foods in the middle of all grocers. Potatoes are still relatively
inexpensive. Store-brand products and frozen produce often tend to be less
Another option is those 99 cent stores. To be honest, I refuse to buy
expired food or cans from questionable origin, but if you’re okay with
the idea, at least you cannot complain too much about inflation. The first ever
price increase at the stores was about a penny, reports the Los Angeles Times.
That’s a 99.99 cent store, in case you didn’t follow the link.
Thanks Brett! So Thinga-readers… How have food prices impacted your family, and have you changed your eating or buying habits?