Theres a touch of suspense in our visits to the grocery store these days. We creep cautiously over to the milk aisle, bracing for the price. If its under $3 a gallon, a small victory has been won, but the trend seems to be heading in the other direction, and someday I suppose that $3 milk will be just a misty memory.
So, put this in the One More Thing to Worry About file: the rising cost
Those of you who buy milk each week probably dont need a bunch of fancy statistics to underline the fact that food is getting more expensive, but here goes:
Food prices went up by four percent last year on top of 2.4 percent the year before, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. And prices could rise as much as 10 percent this year.
So, lets be optimists and assume the worst: by 2009, food prices could be up as much as 16.4 percent of what you paid in 2005.
But some staples have gone even higher: in the past year alone, milk rose 13.3 percent, white bread went up 16.3 percent, and eggs were up 29.9 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A record 28 million Americans will be on food stamps this year.
Even so, were light years away from the food riots that took place recently in Cameroon and Egypt: the Department of Agriculture reports that Americans spent just 5.8 percent of their incomes on food in 2006, which is far less than the citizens of other countries.
But thats probably small comfort if youre traveling from the gas station to the grocery store.
Who are the culprits in rising food prices? They are many, but somehow, they all circle back to ourselves.
In India and China, for instance, people have a higher standard of living and are eating much better these days, thanks to all of the flatscreen TVs, video games, tainted dog food and other stuff theyve sold to American consumers. That means higher prices for grain, rice, fish and meat over here in Consumerland.
Then too, one-fifth of the U.S. corn crop was diverted to produce ethanol last year. Were literally feeding corn to our automobiles instead of to chickens, hogs and cattle. That means higher prices for chicken, pork and beef are coming to a grocery store near you soon.
Higher fuel prices for shipping foods to market are being passed on to consumers. It makes you wonder how much longer well be eating tomatoes from Holland, strawberries from Mexico and shrimp from Thailand, among other imported foods.
Global warming is the 600-ton Godzilla on the table whose effect on food prices remains unknown. Record heat waves have already destroyed crops around the world -- such as 36 percent of Italys corn crop in 2003, according to Newsweek. Overall, global warming will bring more rainfall, notes science writer Sharon Begley in Newsweek. But rainfall has been coming in fits and starts -- dry spells interrupted by deluges. This is a prescription for withering crops and then washing them away.
Big news recently was the fact that Costco and Sams Club started limiting customers to two or three bags of rice. Its not that the world is running out of rice: its simply that India, China, Vietnam and Thailand are cutting back on their imports in order to meet rising demand in their own countries. The price of their fancy for-import-only basmati rice rose from $850 per ton to $2,000 this past year.
Theres not much we can do as individuals about the price of rice in China or droughts in Italy. And we may be stuck with the price of staples like milk and eggs, the same as we‘re stuck at the gas pump.
But there are some things we can do to take charge of our own lives and cut costs.
For starters, we could relearn how to eat. That involves simply eating less, which is the norm throughout the world.
Its common knowledge that Americans have an obesity problem. Currently, 60 percent of adult Americans are overweight, and its predicted that by 2020, half of all American children will be overweight if current trends continue.
Yet, it‘s almost impossible not to gain weight with the huge food portions we‘ve come to accept as normal in America.
That‘s not the case beyond our borders. In most of the world, for instance, meat is considered more of a garnish than the main event at a meal. Outside of America and a few Western countries like Germany, people dont eat hunks of meat the size of bricks for dinner and consider that normal. They typically use a few shreds of meat -- a palmful at most -- in their rice or pasta, along with plenty of vegetables.
Also, a sandwich overseas is more on par with what wed consider a snack here -- its small and waistline-friendly.
Many fine restaurants already practice the less-is-more philosophy, concentrating on flavor, rather than heaping portions.
But, if you believe that you need a shovel-full of food on your plate for breakfast, lunch and dinner each day, then switching to a Weight Watchers-style diet is probably a bitter cruel, unthinkable idea.
Also worth noting: inexpensive home cooking has become something of a lost art in America. How many young people do you know who get most of their meals from fast food restaurants or rely on processed foods? It‘s a recipe for poor nutrition as well as a hefty food bill.
Maybe its time to return to the home economic skills our grandparents took for granted: Things like slimming down your diet, planting a garden, and relearning how to cook inexpensive, healthful meals out of soups, casseroles or the kind of nutritious peasant cuisines of stir-fries and wraps that are popular all over the world. The brave new Age of Thrift seems to be here at last. Its time to adapt -- or pay dearly.