My trips to the grocery store, which once offered a relaxing consumer diversion at the end of a busy day, have become something of a pain. That's right, I'm one of those odd folk who get their jollies pushing a cart up and down the aisles, handling the produce, looking for new products, comparing prices.
Or at least that's the person I was until buying food for the week became a major financial transaction. I first started noticing the rise in prices this summer when I found myself leaving the meat department empty-handed, unwilling to pay the sale prices on basic cuts of beef or even the markdown prices on meat that was closing in on the sell-by date. As a result, we did less grilling this summer than we ever have.
While the steep rise in food prices has gotten some press in recent months, I'm surprised that it hasn't received more. Undoubtedly, this is because consumers - and the media - are more preoccupied with the price of gasoline. Even so, the priorities seem to be a bit topsy-turvy here. This is food we're talking about. It's human fuel, not car fuel.
In trolling around the Internet looking for confirmation of my supermarket sticker shock, I found a variety of factoids and statistics that suggest the grocery price increase is more of a problem than many of us have admitted.
For example, based on the food price increases during the first half of 2007, we were on track to see a 7.5 percent increase in grocery prices for the year. By comparison, the core inflation rate is about 2.6 percent. The last time the United States saw a food price increase of this magnitude was 1980, when inflation was out of control and interest rates were through the roof.
Over the past five years, food prices have risen more than 12 percent. In the past year, the price of eggs is up more than 18 percent. The price of a gallon of milk is about $1 higher than it was in 2002.
It's nice to be reassured that I'm not imagining these things, but the comfort in that is short-lived. This is, after all, a practical problem that all of us who eat on some sort of budget need to figure out how to manage.
As I've thought about how to get the most bang for my food buck, I have been drawn back to some basic lessons my mother, a child of the Depression, imparted when I was moving into my first apartment during college. She was convinced then, as I am now, that prepared and prepackaged foods are less economical, don't taste as good as made-from-scratch and aren't particularly good for you.
Among the things she taught me in that crash course on living well on little money was how to buy meat on sale and stretch it out through several meals. For example, a whole chicken can still be found for under $1 a pound. Remove the organs, rinse it, salt the inside and place a chopped onion in the gut. Put the chicken and three cups of water in a slow cooker and cook the chicken on low until the meat is tender. The meat and stock will make soups and casseroles for several days.
Recently I did something similar with a couple of pounds of bottom round steak I got on sale for about $2.10 a pound through a two-for-one special at a local supermarket. I cut the meat into chunks and simmered it in beef bouillon and water, with onion, sliced mushrooms, garlic and bay leaf, for a couple of hours until the meat was tender. I was able to use the beef in a stroganoff one night and a stew the next night with plenty of leftovers.
Suddenly, many families who are used to eating whatever they want are having to think strategically about food. We'll know that a presidential candidate has connected with average Americans when we hear a debate answer or sound bite about the price of ground beef.