Is the rise of food prices all bad?

Outrage abounds over a report that companies are shrinking portions but not prices, but it might be good for us

Topics: Food Business, Food Psychology, Nutrition, Food,

Is the rise of food prices all bad?(Credit: Willie B.thomas)

Slayers of elitists and other warriors of the downtrodden: Look! I bare my throat to you, fleshy and fat and ripe for the kill. But before you draw your blade, let’s talk about this for a minute. Is the increasing cost of food in America an entirely bad thing?

A recent report in the New York Times announced that American grocery store “shoppers are paying the same amount, but getting less,” and proceeded to quote a woman whose three-box pasta dinner for her large family didn’t quite satisfy. She only later realized it was because those boxes now contain 13.5 ounces of noodles, not 16.

The report goes on to catalog other shrinkages: cans of tuna going from 6 ounces to 5; buckets of ice cream going from 2 liters to 1 ½; orange juice from 64 ounces to 59, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

An immediate and obvious reaction is that this is an outrage — a problem that really puts the screws on people who already have trouble affording enough food to feed their families. Hunger — and the threat of hunger that policy wonks call “food insecurity” — is no joke. (Even if we’re not entirely clear on how many people are truly hungry, and what food insecurity really means.) My point is not to minimize the difficulty this kind of price inflation will create for people truly struggling to eat.

But there is something else that struck me when reading the report. It was the ice cream. And then the Reese’s mini peanut butter cups. These, and presumably many other processed and junk foods, are among the items “shrunken” this way.

Is that really so awful?

First, Americans spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than anyone, ever. In 2008, during the economic crash, we spent an average of 5.6 percent of our income to feed our families, the lowest since 1929. At this point, overeating affects many more Americans than chronic hunger, by far. (Perversely, obesity and diet-related diseases like Type 2 diabetes are actually much more common in lower-income communities, which speaks to a prevalence of junk food that confuses the line between “hunger” and “malnutrition.”) And if current trends continue, over 40 percent of Americans will be obese within the decade.



So how do we deal with this? Anyone who tells you they have a clear answer is selling you snake oil. But a big part of it has to be eating more smartly, and yes, eating less. It’s weird to say this, but maybe food should cost more. Not because we should be poorer, certainly not because we need to be protecting the profits of corporations, but because we have real trouble valuing what’s cheap.

Food, for most of us, is blessedly and cursedly cheap. It’s plentiful. And so we plow through huge dinners nightly. And so we mow down whole containers of ice cream. It’s in our nature to want to eat more. Our bodies and brains have descended from animals that have struggled, really struggled, to get enough food to survive forever. We want to pack as many calories into ourselves as humanly possible, for when the lean times inevitably come. Only we’ve engineered and marketed away most of the lean times, and yet we keep gorging.

So there may be something significant and strangely hopeful about how this food inflation is manifesting. It’s not that prices are rising per se, but that portion sizes are shrinking. That means that if you could afford a box of pasta or a bag of chips before, you can still afford one now; no one is taking all your chips away from you. But the limiting of portion size might do us some good.

Studies by Dr. Brian Wansink at the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab regularly show that people keep eating not until they feel “full,” but rather until there is some external signal to tell them to stop. In one notable experiment, Wansink’s team rigged a bowl of soup to secretly keep refilling itself. Without realizing it, diners eating from that bowl ate 50 percent more soup on average, and some ate three times the amount of soup they might have otherwise. We eat mindlessly, as a function of habit and instinct, and so with a surplus of food, we are constantly overeating. Knowing that, maybe we don’t have to begrudge that extra couple of ounces of food companies are saving for the next bag. 

Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>