The Consumer Price Index (CPI) for all foods is projected to increase this year by 2 to 3 percent. If that doesn’t sound particularly alarming to you, consider this: While the average costs for processed foods continue to remain relatively stable, fresh food items, like meat, dairy products, eggs, vegetables and fruits are all much more expensive now than they were a year ago.
Beef prices increased over 6 percent last year. Pork is up by 11 percent. The costs for dairy products are almost 4 percent higher. Milk is over 5 percent more expensive. Prices for cheese are up by over 4 percent on average. Eggs cost over six percent more. Butter prices are nearly 22 percent above last year’s. Potatoes cost 7.4 percent more. And prices for fresh fruits increased by almost 4 percent on average.
These are just a few examples and the statistics vary considerably between government- and media reports trying to keep up with highly fluctuant markets. But the trend is clear: Food prices are steadily increasing and there are no signs for this to change in the foreseeable future. The Bureau for Labor Statistics has calculated that costs for food will continue to rise faster than overall inflation.
The reasons for this price spike are multiple. For example, more farmland is being used to grow crops for biofuels, like ethanol, which is made from corn. Over six percent of the world’s grain supply is now being diverted to fuel production and the numbers will only go up as the price of oil continues to climb.
Another factor is the greater demand for food worldwide. As the world population grows and developing nations become increasingly wealthier, there is globally more demand for quality food. Especially meat products are being consumed in much greater quantities than they were ten years ago. To satisfy those emerging markets, more livestock is being raised and additional grain is used for feed.
Commodity speculation, which bets on the direction of prices for rice, corn, soybeans and wheat, also drives prices up and contributes to the global food price inflation. Throw in the fact that important food producers, like Russia and Australia, have recently been impacted by severe droughts and flooding, which destroyed large parts of their crops, and you have a perfect storm.
Food price inflation has not yet reached acute crisis levels in the United States. Other countries around the world are much more threatened than we are at this point. But the growing demand, combined with limited supplies and market speculation will eventually have a significant impact on our shores as well.
These alarming developments cannot be easily reversed. Unlike the housing market, the accelerating food prices are not a bubble waiting to burst. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the costs for world food supplies have reached this year the highest level since records were taken in 1990 and there are no indications that this trend will change any time soon.
Consumers trying to make ends meet, of course, don’t have any means to respond. While it is possible to postpone or forgo expenditures for luxury items or cut back on gasoline costs by driving less, it is much harder to stretch one’s food budget. Yes, there are ways to save money for groceries, but buying food items of lesser quality has direct negative consequences for people’s nutritional health.
At a time when so many families struggle to keep their heads above water, it is especially worrisome to think that healthy nutrition is becoming less and less affordable. Our best efforts to turn our national health crisis due to obesity and malnutrition around will fail if fresh and wholesome foods become luxury goods that are out of reach for an ever-growing part of the population. In fact, a serious food crisis would quickly accelerate our existing public health crisis as well. Both concerns are closely connected and need to be addressed as one.
On an individual level, we all must re-learn to treat food as the precious commodity that it is. Many of us are willing to spend more of their income on gas for their cars than on good nutrition for their bodies. Buying and eating healthy food is an investment in our health and well-being that can save and protect us from diseases and provide us with energy and strength. Therefore, the quality of our food should have the highest priority among all other purchases.
Buying your fresh food supplies at a farmers’ market near you is a first step in the right direction. There you can get the best quality for your money, reduce transportation costs and you support the local economy as well.
I have written about the importance of public policy changes many times in the past and those who read my blog know where I stand on these issues. I am a strong advocate for tax incentives and government subsidies for organic and sustainable farming, especially for small family-owned farms that serve their local communities. I also like to see many more fresh food outlets in the so-called “food deserts,” that persist in our inner cities and low-income neighborhoods, so people don’t have to travel for miles to find a decent supermarket or have to make do with junk food from convenient stores and fast food joints. As I said, this is a fast developing crisis, and it is not only about money but also about our ability to maintain our health and well-being.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, available in bookstores, at http://timigustafson.com and at Amazon.com. You can also follow Timi on Twitter at http://twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD.