Wednesday, April 2, 2008

High Food Prices, Take Two

So often my posts are inspired or informed by New York Times articles, I fear that I sound like a broken record. But today, I noticed a NYT article (Kim Severson's Some Good News on Food Prices) about something I wrote about here and here a few weeks ago. The gist: High food prices might have some positive effects by: 1) reducing the portion size of high-calorie items, and 2) reducing the cost difference between organic and local food and conventional food.

I would never say it's good news for food prices to go up. As someone with a family and 5 mouths to feed (6 including the dog), I'm feeling the crunch every time I run to the bodega for milk or orange juice. Two separate visits this weekend for breakfast staples set me back for more than $10 each time, and I was buying only 2 or 3 items. Personally, sticker-shock aside, I can well afford more expensive food. But I know that many of my neighbors can't. The sign on the local food pantry, which I pass daily, usually says "Sorry No More Pantry Today." It features a little smiley face that breaks my heart.

Yet, I do think there is a huge swath of people who can afford to spend more on food. The decreasing price difference between organic food and conventional food will help average shoppers look twice at their alternatives. I think that many who try organic and local produce and dairy products will be convinced not to go back. The taste and freshness are often so much better. Plus, the cost of grocery-store food has to be put in perspective. When you think about how much money it costs to feed a family on take-out or packaged, processed foods, the price of food that you cook yourself, even if it is organic, is so much lower. Plus, you can really budget when you're feeding a family. You might have expensive grass-fed beef on one night and then turkey burgers on the next.

Reducing portion size to combat high food prices is a win-win. The portion sizes of restaurant meals and NY take-out food, like bagels or pizza, can use a little trimming. Americans simply expect too much food on their plates and are possessed to eat whatever is in front of them, regardless how outsized the portion. One study showed that participants didn't notice the portion they were given (they just ate it), even though they were given 50% to 100% more food.

Recently my husband and I went on a date during Brooklyn's "Dine In Brooklyn Week. We went to a trendy, expensive place that we dared not bring the kids. The special menu featured a choice of appetizer, entree and dessert from a limited list of choices, a standard " Restaurantprixfixe. These entrees were also on the regular menu, which had a much longer list of choices in a wide price range. The special prices that were about one-third less expensive than a normal dinner. How could the restaurant afford to do this? Well, the portion size was smaller, of course! And all the better for us, in my opinion. I'd rather have three reasonably-sized dishes (with room for dessert) than pig-out on one thing or on multiple things as is often expected with big appetizers, big entrees, and big desserts all in line. The table next to us ordered the regular-sized dessert, for instance, and it was clearly twice the size of the prixfixe one. The special menu entrees were smaller too, but plenty of food and in line with an "at-home" portion of dinner. Of course, even the normal portions of a Brooklyn place, probably have nothing on the national chain restaurants that often describes huge portions as a "value."

Some Good News on Food Prices NYT, 4.02.08
As Jobs Vanish and Prices Rise, Food Stamp Use Nears Record NYT 3.31.08
Increased Portion Size Leads to Increased Calorie Intake. Dr. Barbara Rolls, Obesity Research
Fooling the Satiety Meter (With Recipe) Science News, 2.18.06

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