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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Diet for a Small Planet and Food Prices

Warning: This will be a short, rushed, and probably subpar post. I have so much work to do.

Many frugal types write about saving money on food. There are various strategies for this: stockpiling, couponing, eating lower-priced items, and more. I have written about this topic myself. Then along comes Duchesse, who wondered why all the press on saving money on food? She mentioned that her husband comes from a French tradition, with its deeply-rooted attitudes towards living and eating well. I wrote something along these lines a while ago too, when I remarked that Louisiana residents seem to spend on food in the European tradition. Of course, Louisiana comes from a deeply-rooted French tradition as well.

Speaking of rooting: I was rooting around my pantry, where I store the excess of my excess cookbooks. I was looking for some books for Frugal Son, especially Jacques Pepin's La Technique. Amazingly, I found it.

I also found a bedraggled copy of Diet for a Small Planet. A blast from the past! Is there anyone who didn't own a copy of this book and dream of saving the world from hunger by combining proteins?

I flipped through the book and only saw one recipe I remember making: Lentils Monastery. This is a regular old lentil soup with a little sherry in it. The sherry must be the monastery part.

Now, what has this to do with food prices? Well, in an appendix, there is a list of foods under the heading "Cost of One Day's Protein." Now I don't know if the prices are circa 1971 when the book was first published, or circa 1982, when the "revised and updated" version came out. But I now see why I've always suspected that I spend about the same on food as in years gone by.

Let's say the prices are circa 1982. In 1982, I was in graduate school, teaching 3 sections of freshman composition per year for the princely stipend of $300.00/month. One year, we got a $100.00 raise. We foolishly thought this meant $100.00 a month, because students at other schools got this much. But no, it was a $10.00 per month raise. I digress.

Here are some of the food prices Lappe lists, with recent prices in parentheses:

Eggs: 93 cents (99 cents to $1.99)
Milk: 42 cents/quart ($1.00)
Cheddar cheese: $2.90/lb ($5.00 for yummy Cabot)
Black beans: 69 cents/lb (99 cents)
Peanuts: $1.98/lb (the same!)
Chicken breast on the bone: $1.69/lb (I got some for under $1.00!)

Hmmmmm. Food for thought. Maybe farming methods are producing cheaper food, but of lower quality. Certainly, my current income is more than ten times my graduate student stipend (thank God!); my food costs are not that different.

So Dear Readers, I will not be back on track for a while. I am trying to persuade Frugal Son to write a post or two. I will return as possible.

And, of course, a question: what do you think of these numbers?

8 comments:

Someone said...

"Maybe farming methods are producing cheaper food, but of lower quality."

Yes, that's it exactly.

If you have not read/listened-to-on-CD Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, I recommend it!

It's shocking to hear today, for instance, that foods like meat and eggs did NOT used to be so unhealthy for us...

Funny about Money said...

Hmmm.... I'm not so sure food is any worse than it was in the 1970s and early 1980s. In the 50s, yeah, some things absolutely tasted better...you could get real tomatoes in grocery stores and turkey had a flavor. But....

In the early 80s, in my part of the country, you had a heck of a time finding a decent piece of cheddar (or any other kind of cheese, other than "American" and rubberized white with holes punched in them, dubbed "Swiss"). Brie, camembert, and more elegant cheeses might be found in specialty stores (if your town had one, which it probably didn't), but certainly not at the Safeway.

It was not easy to get good, inexpensive wine (we had plenty of Mountain Red and Blue Nun, but very few choices that weren't plonk).

There was no organic milk, organic eggs, or organic anything. Well...we had one co-op that sold the saddest wilted stuff; if you wanted food free of chemicals, you had to grow it yourself, and in my part of town, the soil was contaminated from decades of lead-laced tailpipe exhaust. (We didn't understand that then and imagined we were growing bounties of "organic" veggies!)

Most restaurants served salads made of iceberg lettuce. Never heard of mache. Gathered watercress from the Hassayampa River; never saw it in a grocery store. "Prepared salad greens" meant you washed a head of lettuce, broke it apart, rolled it up in paper towels or flour-sacking, and stored it inside a plastic bag inside the fridge.

Few stores sold unsalted butter. And "Greek style" yoghurt...you mean Mountain High? You could buy lots of margarine, though--in some restaurants, that's all they served.

Fresh fish was not to be had in inland cities, certainly none fresh enough to qualify for sushi.

Pasta was made by American Beauty. You didn't get much else unless you had an Italian grocer in town, which most cities did not.

Orange juice came in frozen concentrate, or if you were too lazy to mix your own, you could buy bottles of orange juice made from concentrate. Juice not made from concentrate was unavailable, unless you squeezed your own.

My friends and I were into Julia Child and Laurel's Kitchen. We ate well and we learned to cook pretty well. But we did it because we were affluent and we had plenty of time to run around the city shopping in specialty stores.

Frankly, I think if the cost pattern you've noticed holds true across the board that's pretty darned amazing. It means food actually costs LESS than it did, in terms of what we earned, back in the day. And our choices today are a lot better.

Chance said...

Oh, you brought back such as rush of nostalgia. Eat lentils and save the world in Diet for a Small Planet makes me laugh today. If only. Still, it was that book that caused the first flame in me about eating with intention, and voting with my food dollars to support sustainable agriculture.

I think Funny's got a point, access to high quality food was nil then. I remember going to the "health food" store then and not seeing much fresh food, just strange hard loaves of seed bread and shelves of canned organic food,whatever that meant, cause there was no certification then.

I think I pay more now because I mostly eat organic, and I pay the extra buck or two a dozen for eggs from pastured, happy hens at the local farmstand. But it is in the ballpark, I don't pay much more and I have way better choices now.

I think all the buzz on food and frugality comes from another source entirely. In a time of deep financial anxiety, people have more control over food spending than say, credit card interest rates. They are taking a beating in other areas and there is not a damn thing they can do about it.

But obsessively couponing to save a few cents gives people some empowerment. While the charms of couponing elude me, I have noticed that bloggers who start there change over time and start talking about pro-active steps in other areas. Gaining a sense of mastery in the food spending area leads to empowerment in other areas, seems like.

Others have lived on take out and resturants during the boom times and if they are under 35ish, that would be their adult life to date. So they are learning how to cook for the first time and are astonished at how much money they save (blogging about it as they go).

Me, I have always cooked some, but 4 years ago I couldn't have told ya what the price of a gallon of milk was, failing the Bush Sr. price-of-bread test (he didn't know either, now presidential candidates study local food prices. So now that I am a fallen yuppie on the skids, I pay more attention to food prices and look for ways to save, but overall, I think you are right, I don't think I am paying much more than in 1980.

Jeez, for a "subpar post)"(you never have subpar posts, BTW)you should made me think. Great post.

Duchesse said...

Yes, you never have sub-par posts, Frugal!

In '70s I tried to be a good macrobiotic hippie and got... anemia. Went back to an omnivorous ways.

We pay quite a bit for food, I'm per Michael Pollen's "Eater's Manifesto", huge fan! Hardly any waste: lots of soups. Read about $5 chickens and wonder what's in them.

My challenge, DH doesn't like beans, particularly... and you know how hard it is to change one's H.

Would enjoy Monastery Lentils and prefer that to plastic pillowy antibiotic-ridden chicken.

Deja Pseu said...

Ah, the Lentils Monastery! That is *my* lentil soup, and the only recipe from that book I still make today. I started cooking from that book in college to save money, as well as the planet; I could make up a big pot of lentils for a buck or two that would last a week. And cheaper than cold medicine: add a few dashes of Tabasco to a bowl and it's a decongestant!

Frugal Scholar said...

@Everyone: Wow! I shot this out last night. Truly, a blast from the past for many. Interestingly, Frances Moore Lappe is an alum of the school where I taught for a few years, so I am only a few degrees of separation from her. I'm going to have to make that lentils monastery again. Every time I buy a bottle of sherry, Mr. FS drinks it up, so I nver have any for cooking.

So food has gotten worse, as per Omnivore's Dilemma. And better, as in we can buy brie, tofu, and San Marzano tomatoes anywhere now.

More food for thought.

Midlife, menopause, mistakes and random stuff... said...

I too love the diversity of food now Frugal Scholar.......far more things are more affordable (well, somewhat) to us all.
Mr. FS's been drinking your cooking sherry??????? Break down and buy him a bottle of wine girl, lol :)

Steady On
Reggie Girl

Frugal Scholar said...

@Reggie--He drinks the seldom-used sherry when he runs out of wine. Don't worry!