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The Cost of Eating

Apr
28
2008

You may not have noticed, but food prices actually started going up over two years ago. I was acutely aware of the trend because I was watching the average food costs for my clients climb from 30 percent to 40 percent by the end of last summer. Because I charge a flat rate for food and service I was also watching my income decline. So last August I bumped my prices up. I’m already almost back to a 40 percent food cost. (Note: I buy from grocery stores just like you do.)
Part of the problem is that I won’t compromise on quality for either myself or my clients.
Instead I’ve accepted smaller profits from my personal chef service and, like so many others on a limited income, I’m eating more carbs because they’re still fairly cheap as compared with meat. However, Asian rice prices have tripled this year. American bakeries report the price of flour has increased 15 to 25 percent. And corn continues it’s upward trend.
It would be nice to point to a single factor that we could address but unfortunately it’s far more complicated than that. As some wag noted, modern agriculture is the process of converting petroleum into food. Fertilizers, herbicides, tractors, and transportation all play a role in the truth of that assertion. But now we’re also converting fuel (in the form of oil) into fuel (in the form of ethanol) this is mind-boggling. Nevertheless, petroleum can only go up in cost from now on and to the extent it’s a function of food production that means food will continue to go up.
Climate change is affecting crops. Droughts and flooding are both becoming more common in areas where they were rare: too much rain is as bad as too little. Furthermore, weather becomes less predictable and predictability is essential for agriculture. A wet year followed by a dry year makes farming a gamble, but a wet decade followed by a dry decade makes it impossible.
The two largest societies on earth (India and China) are switching to a more Western diet that is not only a more expensive/meat-based diet, but it means they’re now bidding for the same food we are – and there are more of them. Furthermore, China, our largest loaner nation, is using our own dollars to compete.
Then there are the hidden costs. Industrial agriculture – the feed lots and chicken warehouses – have largely been able to avoid the costs of their pollution. Instead those costs are passed on to us in the form of lower real-estate prices near factory farms, higher medical costs resulting from both the pollution and from the indiscriminate use of antibiotics. And the direct cost of subsidies to Big Ag while ignoring the needs of the small independent farmer.
Mostly, though, our food system has become too complex and too detached from its purpose. It’s no longer about feeding people but about making money. There’s nothing wrong with making money, I’d like to make a lot more than I do (my net income in 2007 was less than $25,000), but my job is feeding people and I’ve noticed a bright side in that.
My cheffing business dropped off when I raised my prices last summer, but so far this year all of my cooking classes have been full. People still care about quality food and if they can’t afford to pay me to make it for them, they’re still managing to pay me to help them make it themselves. And while semolina flour may have jumped 45 percent, pasta is still cheaper than a pork chop.

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