Friday, August 15, 2008

everything's fine. keep eating.

Two very interesting developments to report concerning food. The first has gotten reasonable coverage in the newz. Apparently the multinational corporations selling us our dessert are offering us less for the same price.

There's a reason why the tub of ice cream you bought last week looks a tad smaller than ones you bought last summer. It is. Many major ice cream makers, hit by higher dairy costs, have shrunk their standard containers to 1.5 quarts from 1.75 quarts, about 1 cup less.

Check your freezer. I did and found what this article suggests, that what I thought were half gallon containers of ice cream were really 48oz of chocolate and 54oz of vanilla, neither of them 64oz which would equal one half gallon. And it’s not just ice cream.

General Mills began downsizing cereals last June. Some boxes of Cheerios and Wheaties shrank as much as 1.5 ounces. "Prior to the change, our package sizes were larger, in many cases, than competitors'," spokeswoman Heidi Geller says.

Apparently they think you should pay the same amount for less because their competitors sell you less. I love the logic. And companies are being sneaky about it. Here’s another example.

Two packages of soap with the same wrapper, pulled right off the same grocery store shelf and selling for the same price didn't look different at first glance. After a closer look, the older package is three bars of four to five ounces of soap and the new package is three bars of four ounces of soap. more…

There’s a list of articles at the bottom of this post if you’d like more examples, but I do want to share one more.

The Agriculture Department proposed today to reduce the amount of food served to children receiving federally subsidized lunches in schools throughout the country.

The proposal would abandon a goal set at the program's inception 35 years ago: to serve lunches that give children one-third of the recommended dietary allowances for a variety of nutrients. The new rules do not set firm or precise overall nutritional goals.

Lynn Parker, a nutritionist with the Food Research and Action Center, a nonprofit, public-interest law firm, said that the proposed changes were significant because many children from low income families depended on school lunches for one-third to one-half of the nutrients they consumed in a day.

Nutrition specialists said that even children from more affluent families did not always receive nutritionally sound, well-balanced meals at home.

As schools reopen this month, ''people will be paying more for school lunches and getting less,'' said Mr. Matz, who represents the American School Food Service Association. He said that the Federal Government was ''balancing the school lunch budget by taking food away from children.'' more…

That folks, is evil at work. We’re fighting a war we entered into based on false premises that is costing US tax payers more than 10 billion dollars a month. But we need a balanced budget so let’s take food away from children. Wow.

The other item of interest is the wink and nod game going on over the economics of food. According to the U.S. Census Bureau U.S. retail and food services sales for the May through July 2008 period were up 2.7 percent from the same period in 2007. So yea! for the growth economy, food sales are up! But wait a minute. They aren’t talking about units of food, they’re talking about dollars of food. And we all know food has gotten more expensive. So if food is more expensive are we really buying more or just paying more? George Ure has already explained it very well so I’ll share a bit from his website.

Say you are set about the task of analyzing milk sales. If you look strictly in a dollarized way, you will be able to report "Milk sales are up 5% compared with last year." Milk was $5.00 a gallon last year, in this example, and is $5.25 this year. "No biggie, just normal price inflation..." you'd be thinking. But, this is dead wrong.

The truth could just as easily involve two variables, not just the one. The unit volume of milks could have dropped 10% an double digit inflation could be at work. Say last year you had 1,000 gallons of milk sold at $5 for $5,000 in sales. But, what happens this year is unit volume was only 950 gallons of milk? You'd still look at $5,250 in receipts for milk, but the price per gallon could have been $5.52 for 950 units, yet as an economist, you could report with a straight face that milk says were up 5% while the unit price was up 10.4%! Ain't life grand?

So companies are packaging small amounts of food to look like the sizes we’re used to buying and charging us the same amount. In the meantime the rising cost of food is making it look like food sales are up and everything is rosy. The truth is tricks and games in the distribution of food are masking the food crisis in America as is arrives.

Let’s be clear. Hunger is never about scarcity. Hunger is about distribution. While talking to someone about food just the other day he said, “You sound like you’re an advocate of food rationing.” To which I replied, “You don’t understand, we already do that. We ration food by price.” If you do one of the jobs in this country that we don’t value, like making clothes or teaching children it’s likely that you’re finding it increasingly difficult to feed your family. 12% of the population of America is food insecure, meaning they don’t get enough to eat on a regular basis. And as a society we tolerate this because we’re told stories about how poor people don’t work hard enough or that if we just tinker around a bit more with the genetic makeup of our crops then we’ll finally be able to grow enough food for everybody. It’s all lies. The American people are willing to work hard to meet their needs. If any of you don’t know hardworking poor people who have trouble feeding their families just let me know and I’ll introduce you to a few. Even easier would be to volunteer at your local food pantry and meet a few of them who live close to you.

And so I get very angry when I read stories about the reaction of food companies to higher commodity prices. They aren’t interested in addressing the issues of resource depletion and energy descent. They are unwilling to make real changes to a broken agricultural system- just as unwilling as our political leaders. The food industry wants to make money on the way down by tricking people into spending the same amount on less. Our leaders in Washington want to take food away from children. And the bankers shout, “Hooray, food sales are up!”

The question is, are there others of you who are angry? I know there are so maybe I should ask are there enough of us? Are there enough people angry at the way we ration food in this country- to say nothing of the quality of the processed stuff we’re eating- are there enough of us to do something about it?

I think there are. When I go to my local farmers market and see the surge in attendance I think yes, we can do something about it. When I see local meat available at my farmers market for the first time in my memory- meat without pesticide residues, hormones, genetic modification, antibiotics, and carcinogenic preservatives- I think to myself that our numbers are growing. When friends show more than just expected interest in my conversations about how our relationship with food must change- when they want rain barrels and raised beds and they want to trade bread for vegetables and eggs- I have a way to balance my anger and frustration with hope in the future. I have hope that we might make a change in the way we eat sooner rather than later.

This spring I helped write a book on the changes we need to make in the way we eat. I also welcomed my daughter into the world. The two are related in more ways than one might first think. The future of feeding looked different when I held the spoon to her lips as she tasted solid food for the first time three nights ago. (She much less messy than our older daughter, so there’s hope there too;-) And as I did so I realized that there is so much work to do. The work we each must do to help our families, our neighborhoods and our greater communities become more food secure is the work of a revolution in eating. Come at it from a place of anger or compassion or with a desire for a healthy, tastier alternative to industrial agriculture. Come at it any way you like but please join the growing group of us who want to make a difference in this world and who think changing the way we eat is a great way to start.

Companies shrink packages, not prices
Packets shrink, but cost doesn't
Some food companies shrink packages, but not their prices

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

My Commuter Cycle

This is the second in a series of posts I'm writing about the easiest way to cut back on the amount of money you spend on gasoline- don't buy it. Riding a bike has many benefits not the least of which is the low cost of getting around. Recently I wrote about hauling big stuff on a specialized bicycle. In this post I'd like to share my commuter cycle with readers- the bicycle I ride to work and back.

I started bike commuting about a year ago and I love it. Yes I burn less carbon, yes I use less oil and yes I'm in better shape. But the reason I've stuck with it is that riding to work is just so much fun. I started at my local bike shop. The owner helped me put together a great setup tailored to my commute. I ride a Trek 7.6 hybrid. As you can see in the picture above it has:

1) A Straight Bar. This means I ride in an upright position. I see cars and they see me.

2) A Headlight. Inevitably a bike commuter will be out after dark. This light helps me ride safely after the sun goes down or before it comes up.

3) A Rear Blinky Light. Apparently the space program led to great advancements in LED technology. Thanks to John Glenn and gang I have a red light on the back of my bike that blinks and can be seen up to 1 mile from my rear.

4) A Helmet. Safety first.

5) 700c Road Tires. These ain't stubby mountain bike tires. They're designed to help the bike move faster over pavement so I won't be late for dinner.

6) A Rack on the Back. This is key because if you're riding to work, you're going to need to carry stuff. My rack is compatible with my two year old daughter's bike carrier and also with the pair of saddle bags (called panniers) shown in the picture. In them I carry my lunch, a change of clothes and anything else I need for work. On the way home I can stop at the store to pick up anything we need at home.

7) A Bike Lock. It stays in the panniers. It keeps my bike safe when I'm not riding it.

8 ) A Tube Replacement Kit. This also stays in the panniers. With precautions, tube punctures can be minimized but every once in a while I have a flat. A spare tube, the tools to install it and a way to inflate the tube have me up and running again in no time.

9) Toe Clips or Clipless pedals. Using these will helps me better leverage the full power of my legs. It helps me get to work and back faster..

10) A Water Bottle Cage. This will helps me stay hydrated.

11) A Computer. OK this isn't necessary but it is nice to see how fast I'm going, how far I've ridden and to track my progress as a cyclist.

12) Bar Ends with Built-In Rear View Mirrors. These help by giving me another position for my hands and also by helping me to see what's coming up behind me.

Depending on what your particular commute looks like your needs will vary. That's why I recommend visiting your local bike shop to help get you started. If your commute is less than 40 miles round trip commuting on a bicycle is really possible. Give it a try.

"i used to fantasize about living in a healthier place, one where i could ride my bike, for example. then, one day, i started riding my bike. now, without having fled or escaped to anywhere, i live in a place where i can ride my bike." – heretic fig