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 22
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Talking Heads, 1977
    This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
    Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Blondie, 1977
    This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
    They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
    Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bathroom, 1977
    This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
    Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977
    “The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
    Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
    When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Dictators, Bowery 1976
    Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
    We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery view, 1977
    The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
    I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
    Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
    May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Legs McNeil, 1977
    Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Suicide, 1977
    Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
    I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Tommy Ramone, 1977
    Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery 4am, 1977
    End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.

  • 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>