This week's column has an additional political bent, not in a Democratic or Republican kind of way, but in the economy and how it affects food prices. This is also a piece I wrote for BuzzFlash.com (yes, I have a relationship with the Web site). You can read the whole column here as well.
We didn't have to read the stories online or in the newspaper to know grocery prices are going up. We know just by going up and down food aisles in the grocery store.
In the wholesale prices for January just released, food prices rose by 1.7 percent, the biggest monthly increase in three years. In particular, prices for beef, eggs, and bakery products were all up sharply.
If the food involves corn, the price of that food will go up. And there are lots of those foods, thanks to our obsession with corn, as profiled in "King Corn" or Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma."
And given that we are in a presidential year, where you would think there would be pressure to help the economy, well, good luck. We have an incumbent in the White House who isn't concerned with the price of food. After all, it became a Bush family rule in 1992 that no family member would ever be asked the price of anything in a grocery store ever again.
In 1992, "it's the economy, stupid" was the cry. George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton actually battled on the economy, and who would make things better. In 2008, Iraq and illegal spying dominate headlines, and even on an economic level, credit card debt, college debt, bankruptcies, energy costs, and health care costs have bigger headlines than the price of food.
So don't expect much help when it comes to your food bill in 2008.
Now we should point out that our food prices have been kept low for political purposes for some time. The cost of high-fructose corn syrup isn't much in pennies, but filling up foods with fillers such as high-fructose corn syrup cost us more in weight and health bills.
But wages have also been low, and so when food goes up (as well as gasoline), it makes an impact on consumers. When you aren't sure whether you want to burn the gas to save 40¢ on a gallon of milk, money is tight.
So the food prices will climb higher, but is there anything we can do about it?
There was the story of a friend of a friend who says he survived for 3 months of gefilte fish, water, and day-old bread. This was back in the recession of the early 1990s and he was a college student. I can't vouch for the story since I didn't see him do it. But I met the guy, and it wouldn't surprise me at all.
But you don't have to resort to those extremes. The good news is there are things we can do, but it won't be easy.
Thanks to the unstable economy, people who are struggling already know how to survive with a bit of creativity. Buy in bulk, use double coupons, and switch to generic brands. Is there more we can do? Here are a few tips:
* Spend more time in the outer walls of the grocery store. Grocery stores put produce, meat, bread, and dairy against the walls. The less time you spend in the food aisles themselves, the better you will eat and the lighter your food bill will be at the end of the trip.
* If you live in a large enough area, hit an ethnic grocery store. You will be surprised how cheap and good the produce can be.
* Grow your own food. Depending on where you live, this may not be viable for half the year. But if you have time and not much money, a few homegrown treats can stretch a food dollar.
* Buy foods with more fiber. Pick the whole wheat or whole grain breads and spaghetti. Foods with fiber make you more full and you eat less, therefore stretching out how much you spend.
* Beans and rice. Let's face it: Beans and rice are cheap and can stretch your food bill out.
* Cook more at home. Eating out can do damage to a food bill.
* Finally, eat less. Most of us could stand to consume less food. If a pound of spaghetti normally lasts 4 servings, make it last for 6 or 8 servings. If you can double your use from a pound of spaghetti, even if the price goes up, you still save money.