The Edible Money Crunch: Real, Imagined, Virtual?

Yesterday, the bean counters at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released their latest Consumer Price Index (CPI), and on the surface, the picture ain't pretty. According to the report, food prices for the first half of 2008 shot up by 6.8 percent on a seasonally adjusted annualized basis, already surpassing the 4.7 percent annual increase for all of 2007.

Based on these numbers, that means that a 10-dollar bag of groceries is now closer to 11 bucks, and that 100-dollar weekly food bill is more like $111. Multiply those numbers by four, and you're shelling out $44 more per month -- for now.

Worldwide, however, the jump has been much more substantial. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), which tracks global commodities such as rice, sugar and wheat, the food price index has increased 57 percent between March 2007 and March 2008. And here's yet another wrinkle: In many developing countries where the currency is tied to the dollar, a weak dollar means fewer imports, more exports and less local food to go around -- i.e. shortages. Shortages as well as prohibitive increases have resulted in riots around the world; check out this eye-opening map of food riots that took place around the world earlier this year.

I'm putting all of this on the table because I'm curious: Has the continually surging CPI trickled down to your own pocketbook? No doubt Americans have been feeling the sticker shock at the gas pump this year, (although we're still paying less than much of the rest of the world), but is your pain the same at the supermarket checkout counter?

What, if anything, are you doing differently with regards to your weekly food budget? And what are you hearing from friends and family in the developing world? Your stories, your comments, and your morsels of wisdom are all welcome in the comments area. Food for thought, please!

On a related note.: Today at 11 a.m. ET, editor Ben Popken is hosting a live Web chat about the "grocery shrink ray," a new phenomenon you may or may not have noticed while food shopping.

By Kim ODonnel |  July 17, 2008; 9:29 AM ET Food Politics
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I noticed the "grocery shrink ray" a while ago with ice cream because it used to be that you'd pick up a half gallon container for $4. Well, no more: now it's $4 for a slimmer container of the same product, so I've stopped buying it. I can use (or save) that $4 elsewhere in my weekly food shopping.

If I really need to have ice cream, I can make my own at home for less (or try Kim's blueberry sorbet! yum!).

In respose to our creeping grocery bill, I plan meals, budget, and cut luxuries (like ice cream). I try to stick to a list in the grocery store. Sadly, I am also changing products to save money: the organic flour we usually used went up from $4.05/5# bag to $6.35/5# bag!! (ouch!!) I can buy a non-organic but somewhat regional commercial brand from the grocery store for $4/5# bag, or the store brand for significantly less.

Finally, I have a set amount to spend at the farmer's market that is a portion of our weekly food budget. But if I go over - and I usualy do - it comes out of my "pocket money" for the week. For the farmer's market, it's worth it to me to spend a little more, because it's with people that I know and who are also feeling the pinch right now.

Posted by: Centre of Nowhere | July 17, 2008 11:15 AM

It's definitely affected me. I've both raised my weekly budget (from $35 to $40) and changed how I shop. I'm drinking less soy milk (went from $3.19/half gallon to $4.19/half gallon) and coffe (from $4/lb to $5/lb). On the other hand, I'm buying more food at the local market because it's no longer so expensive compared to the national chain.

Posted by: mollyjade | July 17, 2008 11:17 AM

One thing that this CPI doesn't take into account is the shrinking size of grocery items. The prices are heading up on some items, but other items (like Ice Cream and many others) are keeping the same price, but decreasing volume or quantity. You end up paying more, because you have to "Refill" more often. But the prices stay "the same".

I wonder how much of the downsizing is because the government wants to be able to keep the CPI in check thru an illusion.

Posted by: Eric | July 17, 2008 11:34 AM

I did find something that hasn't risen in price in the past year: salt.

Posted by: Fran | July 17, 2008 12:07 PM

I'm a graduate student who's very conscious of my grocery budget. I was one of the lucky ones who "locked in" my prices by buying a local CSA fruit & veggie share, so that has been great - I spend about $12 a week on produce, much less than I used to at the grocery store.

To further cut costs, I've switched from organic to regular on a number of products and have largely given up meat. I've also started planning my week's meals in advance and making a list of everything I'll need. This helps me avoid a mid-week run to the grocery store (where it's just so easy to pick up that delicious whatever that's not on my list).

Finally, I've been going to Costco with a couple of friends and buying in bulk, then splitting up large packages into more single-friendly serving sizes. The per-unit price on many of these items is dramatically lower, and the quality about the same, than what I get at the regular market.

Posted by: CaitVaughn | July 17, 2008 2:14 PM

sorta off topic. i've been using the vietnamese marinade. love it. used it on some grilled eggplant & squash 2 nights ago. last night i made fresh tomato sause because the 'maters in my garden are starting to ripen. had about 1/2 cup of sause left. added it to the leftover grilled veggies of the night before. it turned into a spicy sort of ratatoulle (sp?). so to try & tie it into today's topic. don't be afraid of leftovers!

Posted by: arlington | July 17, 2008 4:06 PM

Unfortunately one of the things I've had to do is cut some of the organic things I've been buying. I already bought pretty much nothing that was prepackaged, so when the organic eggs went up to $6/dozen vs. $3.50/18, and the organic milk is $7/gallon vs. $3.50 for the non...well, the answer was obvious, even though I really didn't want to.

I still cook everything from scratch and try to buy produce from my local coop. But I'm feeding 4 people, so the price difference ins staples really adds up.

Posted by: Cec | July 17, 2008 4:56 PM

Our biggest change has been to consciously reduce our waste of food. In the past, we've too often forgotten about leftovers, bought redundant perishables because I couldn't remember if I had some at home, or purchased something unusual (e.g. kohlrabi) that I've just allowed to rot because I didn't figure out how to use it. Now I'm trying to plan our meals less and focus instead on seeing what I've got on hand and creating something interesting out of leftovers and staples. It's been satisfying, mostly, and simpler, too. Tonight, for example, will be homemade pizza using leftover chicken and tomato sauce and basil from the garden.

There is a terrific cook book published by the Mennonite Church of North America (probably not the official name of the church) called "More with Less." It was first published in the 1970s when the church called on it's members to reduce their food costs by 10% to help address the world food shortage. While the recipes are not very exciting, that really isn't the point of this book. I find the many essays about how to cook more frugally, nutritiously and simply very inspiring. I use the recipes to help me think about food differently and to get ideas about how to use what I've got on hand.

Posted by: esleigh | July 17, 2008 6:22 PM

We've never really had a food budget, just bought what struck our fancy at the store that week. Now, after taking a closer look at the last few bills, we've started to cut out some of the organic fruits and vegetables and are buying store brands instead of name brands. I try to buy fresh fish whenever possible but now I find myself buying frozen fish, like salmon and tuna, instead of buying from the fish counter because of the price.

Posted by: dupont | July 18, 2008 10:30 AM

I have not cut my food budget per se. I have cut out other expenses: eating out, clothing, gas for short trips (combine trips), books (use the library more), other entertainments etc

I still buy local organic or local whenever possible. I do buy in bulk and freeze or can or dry. Case in point I just bought a bushel of peaches at a local orchard for $18: a lot will be frozen for smoothie and winter desserts. A full size freezer is worth the investment if you want to eat well on budget - as well as learning what's in season and how to cook.

I did publish an article on my blog in June on how to eat well on a budget. Link is:

Some people can't afford to pay more for food in our country and must cut out their food expenses when many other expenses are rising - and that is a shame! but many of us can pay more: we need to re-prioritize our expenses and decide what's more important: cable or wholesome healthy tasty food?

Posted by: Sylvie, Rappahannock Cook & Kitchen Gardener | July 18, 2008 3:25 PM

I'm going wholesale and to a distributor! Does that count? And thank goodness for a super generous friend that always treats me to dinner when I don't feel like cooking!
However, it did hit me personally when I was recently buying casava root and it went up 50% in a matter of 3 weeks. I was not happy to say the least.

Posted by: Bren@Flanboyant Eats | July 20, 2008 11:52 AM

I recently moved somewhere with much lower rent, and one of my main reasons for doing that was so I could continue to afford high-quality fresh food (and continue to cut back on processed food). Recently I've been buying my food just a few things at a time at farmer's markets, farmstands, etc., so I'm a little afraid to add it all up...

Posted by: Kat with a K | July 21, 2008 9:55 AM

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