Can You Afford to Feed Your Family?

“These are tough times. The economy shed more than 80,000 jobs in two months. Prices are up at the gas pump and in the supermarket. Housing values are down. Hard-working Americans are concerned.”

It might not seem obvious, but these words from George W. Bush in a recent speech at the Economic Club of New York were meant to reassure the public and investors that the U.S. economy was fundamentally sound and would continue to grow.

But as Bush pointed out, consumer confidence is rapidly tanking. For working families, a skyrocketing grocery bill is one of the most ever-present of reminders that they have been making do with less. Each week, it seems, the price of staple food–everything from eggs to milk to cereal–edges up higher.

“I’ve spent $300 in a matter of two weeks,” one shopper, Roseann Fede, told the New York Times as she left a Bloomfield, N.J., supermarket. “It used to be like $150. Milk, eggs, nonperishable things–everything has gone up in price.”

According to U.S. government figures released earlier in March, grocery costs increased 5.1 percent over the past 12 months. The U.S. is undergoing the worst grocery inflation in close to 20 years, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts prices will climb another 3 to 4 percent this year.

The problem is especially obvious when you look at the cost of individual goods. According to the Labor Department, milk prices are up 17 percent. Prices for dried beans, peas and lentils are up the same amount. Cheese is up 15 percent, rice and pasta 13 percent, and bread 12 percent. And the price of eggs has risen 25 percent since February 2007–and 62 percent in the last two years.

In all likelihood, food inflation will continue, driven by a number of factors, including the rising price of oil–hitting as high as $112 a barrel recently–which has raised the cost to deliver food and run farm and factory equipment; increases in the cost of farm commodities like milk, corn and wheat; and the declining value of the dollar, which is encouraging exports of U.S. crops and food products.

Increased government mandates for ethanol production are not only driving up the price of corn used for making it, but are pushing up prices for other staple foods–since, for example, land is being diverted from staples like wheat and soybeans to produce corn. By the end of the 2006-07 crop year, 19 percent of harvested corn was made into ethanol–a 30 percent increase in just one year. Increased demand for ethanol helped boost the price of a bushel of corn from $2 in 2005 to $3.40 in 2007.

The grim result of the increase in food prices is a record number of requests for help at food pantries around the country.

Eileen O’Shea, director of member services for the Greater Boston Food Bank, told the Boston Herald that more and more working- and middle-class families are showing up at food pantries and soup kitchens. When O’Shea recently visited the St. Francis House homeless shelter in Boston, she noticed people in suits and business attire entering the soup kitchen to eat lunch.

In January 2006, for example, the Sacred Heart Parish Outreach Food Pantry in Middleboro served 39 families a month. This past January, reported the Herald, it served 203 families.

“It’s working-class people who no longer have a job,” pantry President Bill Pye said. “Builders aren’t building, so they don’t need plumbers, they don’t need electricians, they don’t need painters, they don’t need carpenters. And when their unemployment runs out, what do they do? They come to the food pantry–reluctantly, most of them.”

According to the New York Times, for two weeks last November, the New Hampshire Food Bank was forced to distribute supplies usually reserved for emergency relief. Demand was up 40 percent from 2006, and supply was down 30 percent–an especially striking fact considering that New Hampshire is the state with the lowest reliance on food banks in the U.S.

While things may be bad for many working and poor families in the U.S., in many parts of the world, it is even darker.

According to the UN’s World Food Program (WFP), global food reserves are “at their lowest for 30 years and commodity markets extremely volatile, subject to sudden spikes and speculation. The situation has been exacerbated by the falling value of the dollar, which is the currency in which all major commodities are traded.”

Globally, wheat prices have surged 83 percent in the past year. Earlier in March, in Asia, rice prices were at a 20-year high. “When you see those kinds of increases, [people] are simply priced out of the food markets,” WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran recently told BBC News.

The WFP reports that a staggering 854 million people in the world are food “insecure,” and 170 million children are undernourished. But UN officials say they may have to begin rationing international food aid because of spiking costs. In West Africa, alone, the WFP’s food and operations costs are now 30 percent higher than at the same time last year because of price increases for basic food commodities.

Sheeran says that the hardest hit so far are people in developing countries who live on less than $1 a day. Some 80 to 90 percent of their paltry incomes was already being spent on food.

In Haiti–where a recent Associated Press report described “containers full of food…stacking up in the nation’s ports because of government red tape, leaving tons of beans, rice and other staples to rot under a sweltering sun or be devoured by vermin”–food prices have increased so much that some of the country’s poor have begun eating cookies made of dirt as a regular source of food.

“When my mother does not cook anything, I have to eat them three times a day,” Charlene, a 16-year-old woman with an infant, said of the cookies that are made of salt, vegetable shortening and a form of edible clay that is sold by the bag.

According to the Associated Press, two cups of rice now sell for 60 cents, up 50 percent from a year ago. Beans, condensed milk, and fruit have gone up by a similar amount–and even the price of the edible clay has risen over the past year by almost $1.50.

Even middle-class people and those living in traditionally stable urban areas in countries like Indonesia, Yemen and Mexico are increasingly being priced out of the food market–or forced to sacrifice education and health care in order to feed their families.

Some governments have begun food rationing. The Indian government is having difficulty maintaining a food price subsidy system, and both the Chinese and Russian governments have moved to impose price controls in the wake of rampant inflation.

Shortages and price increases have sparked demonstrations in Burkina Faso, Mexico, Italy and elsewhere–and food riots in Namibia, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Morocco, Yemen, Senegal, Uzebekistan and other countries.

“The risks of food riots and malnutrition will surge in the next two years as the global supply of grain comes under more pressure than at any time in 50 years, according to one of the world’s leading agricultural researchers,” the British Guardian reported.

“Recent pasta protests in Italy, tortilla rallies in Mexico and onion demonstrations in India are just the start of the social instability to come unless there is a fundamental shift to boost production of staple foods, warned Joachim von Braun, the head of the International Food Policy Research Institute.”

As Von Braun told the Guardian, “The first sign was the tortilla riot in Mexico City, where 70,000 took to the streets. I think that was only the beginning–there will be more. For a year or two, countries can stabilize with stocks. But the risk comes in the next 12 to 24 months. The countries that cannot afford to buy will be the losers, while those with huge foreign exchange reserves will bid up the world market.”

15 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Don Hawkins said on March 19th, 2008 at 5:41am #

    Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.

  2. HR said on March 19th, 2008 at 10:58am #

    The statistics here seem a little off. Over the past year, egg prices have jumped from 80 cents to $1.25 per dozen … on sale! As near as I can tell, that’s more like a 50 percent increase. Some stores don’t even advertise egg prices in their circulars. And, humble rolled oats have increased over 15 percent during the same period. Well, as long a people remain in love with the Chamber of Commerce and the laissez-faire capitalism it supports, they get what they deserve. Too bad the rest of us have to suffer for their damned stupidity.

  3. D. R. Munro said on March 19th, 2008 at 11:17am #

    I think I’ll plant a small garden.

  4. rosemarie jackowski said on March 19th, 2008 at 11:34am #

    Yep, food is a luxury that many can no longer afford. In some places medical and dental care have become luxuries. Recently a filling in a tooth broke and needed to be repaired. The cost of one small, simple repair of one tooth was over $1500. If you wonder why I didn’t just have it pulled – I really need it for chewing. One of my friends who lives in upper New York State goes to Costa Rica for dental work. Another friend is sending do-it-yourself dental instructions to his friends. Is there any doubt that we are in big trouble?

  5. D. R. Munro said on March 19th, 2008 at 11:37am #

    I’ve had a missing filling for over a year now, and I can’t bring myself to pay some dentist what amounts to roughly $3,000 an hour to spend 15 minutes putting mercury amalgams into my face.

    The pain isn’t that bad.

  6. hp said on March 19th, 2008 at 11:52am #

    I have gums like an alligator..

  7. Arch Stanton said on March 19th, 2008 at 12:14pm #

    Oh come on, people. A 50% rise in basic foodstuffs is a small price to pay for biofuel production so the rich/celebrities can keep up those midnight jet flights to brothels in Prague and Bangkok, and rub your faces in shit on awards shows on MTV. You want glamor? You gotta pay the piper. Why are you still paying for cable anyway?

  8. rosemarie jackowski said on March 19th, 2008 at 2:52pm #

    Arch…I am still paying for cable so I can get C-Span. The FCC allowed Comcast to recently re-bundle so now I am paying more than ever because Comcast took C-Span out and re-bundled it with a lot of sports and junk channels. It’s like being forced to buy 50 pounds hamburger when you only want a loaf of bread.

    D.R. Munro… The broken filling had sharp metal posts protruding and I could not eat. We need to get dentists to come here from Cuba. Castro offered medical aid during Katrina. We need it.

  9. D.R. Munro said on March 19th, 2008 at 3:13pm #

    Oh, don’t think I was judging you because your tooth fixed, I wasn’t. Sometimes there is no choice and they have you trapped.

    Mine was merely a minor cavity that I had filled, so the nerve isn’t exposed and the only time real pain sets in is when cold air or cold liquid hit it, and I really don’t want to finance another dentist’s trip to the Carribean next summer.

    And yes, we do need it.

    Medical and dental . . . these are basic human needs.

    People who say that dental work is superficial have never had real tooth pain. Tooth pain is the worst kind there is if you happen to be unlucky enough to get it.

  10. rosemarie jackowski said on March 19th, 2008 at 3:25pm #

    D.R. Munro…Yes, I agree. Tooth pain can be worse than child birth pain. I have had both.

  11. hp said on March 19th, 2008 at 4:30pm #

    And speaking like a real poor person, which I am, I say once again; I have gums like an alligator.

  12. hp said on March 19th, 2008 at 5:01pm #

    I once, and this is the truth, pulled out one of my own teeth. With Channellock pliers.
    Ironic in a physical sort of way because I once worked at Channellock tool company. Shoveling pliers with a pitchfork, all day.

  13. D.R. Munro said on March 19th, 2008 at 7:59pm #

    I don’t know what is more painful . . .

    Pulling out your own teeth with pliers, or working at a plier factory all day.

  14. hp said on March 22nd, 2008 at 3:51pm #

    Being poor is a lot more fun than just talking about it.

  15. Caprice said on June 3rd, 2008 at 4:30pm #

    The article was very informing, maybe the stats were a little off and I am a mom and a college student who argues with her hubby constantly that I need to be working not back at the university trying to become a doctor; because we have two boys and life is a struggle and boy did you guys make me laugh because I have a toothach and I cannot go to the dentist because I cannot afford it, no dental with our insurance and I’ve had both of my boys naturally and I’m not sure which is worse. : )