Warning! Food inflation on the rise (and what to do now)

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Outline

  1. Foodflation & Shrinkflation
  2. Supply
  3. Desperation
  4. Solutions

There’s a food crisis in America’s future.  We take for granted how easily we obtain our food from restaurants or grocery stores, yet we have recently seen how fragile those endpoints of a more extensive food distribution system are.  Even in the best of times, there are regular recalls on foods for health and safety reasons.  Even in the best of times, natural disasters can completely grind to a halt the fragile food supply system.  If you are dependent upon that system to even buy your bulk supplies, there is a good chance you might be caught up in its collapse.

In this blog, I’ll examine how your dollar is increasingly becoming more and more worthless and buying you less, the food desperation that may be looming on the horizon, the current fragile state of the food supply system, and real solutions you can implement today to prep yourself to weather even the worst of disasters–be they human-made or natural. 

So let’s jump in.

Foodflation & Shrinkflation

Foodflation is the continuous rise in the price of food which is higher than the general inflation level.  You can see this in real-time by visiting your local grocery store.  The carts have gotten smaller, but your receipt total keeps getting higher.  Food prices are soaring faster than both inflation and incomes all around the world.  This is happening right now at an accelerated rate due to the events of last year, and it will continue into the foreseeable future.  Ultra-loose monetary policies and an anticipated post-pandemic economic recovery have driven up the prices of raw materials.  As companies, already under pressure from pandemic-related disruptions and rising transport and packaging costs, initially foot the bill, they will pass the added costs on to consumers.  Over the next several years, food costs will continue to go up.  Global food prices soared to a six-year high in January of 2020, and the total cost of that spike has only just begun to be passed on to the average consumer.  Have you ever seen a price go up and then go back down?  Probably not.

Even before Covid and other disasters, food prices were on the rise.  The last time the federal minimum wage was increased was mid-year 2009.  It was increased to $7.25 an hour.  Since that modest increase, a dozen eggs will cost you 12% more.  The cost of a loaf of bread is 18% higher.  Food and beverages as a whole category are almost 25% higher.  Prices were already accelerating upwards before several natural disasters and a faltering economy.

While the dollar’s buying power has decreased, so have the portions you are buying through a process termed Shrinkflation.  In economics, Shrinkflation is the process of items shrinking in size or quantity, or even sometimes reformulating or reducing quality while their prices remain the same or increase.  Coffee, cans of tuna fish, breakfast cereal, hot dogs, even toilet paper have all shrunk in size over the years.  They unveiled their “new look,” and it was significantly smaller.

In a more stable marketplace, one where you have a choice between three or four grocery stores and good distribution channels, incremental cost increases can be absorbed across the food supply chain.  When those prices are high for a sustained time, as they have been for several years now, the cost eventually gets transferred to the consumer.  When there are runs or shortages on any of the main staple foods, stores adjust their prices dramatically upwards.  Pandemic price increases and an uncertain political future drove prices upwards last year, and prices typically don’t go back down once they have gone up.  

Supply

The American diet lacks diversity, is highly dependent on just a few staples, is controlled by corporations, and depends on a just-in-time delivery system that is incredibly fragile.  Most Americans are dependent on obtaining all their food resources from a single store.  If those workers go on strike or someone at the corporate offices determines that the store isn’t profitable enough, the doors could be shuttered.  In a nation of abundance, there are at least a few areas that have been declared food deserts where affordable and nutritious food just cannot be obtained.  If the store is the final endpoint of the network, transporting the food to market is another fragile network component.

When the ice storm hit Texas, roads became impassable for a time.  Food and gas distribution came to a halt.  When the Iowa derecho struck in 2020, millions of acres of corn and grain silos were destroyed.  Beyond these disasters, however, even consumer spending habits can leave food in overpacked silos.  Outbreaks of COVID-19 in meat processing plants slowed production during the late spring of 2020, helping to drive up retail meat prices. Grocery supplies also were disrupted when a near-shutdown of restaurants sent hungry Americans to the food store, resulting in spot shortages.  After COVID hit America, grocery purchases increased nearly 30%, but restaurants were forced to cancel orders.  Food-service suppliers faced abrupt order cancellations across their entire customer bases.  Food processors make less profit off individual consumers than they do off large operations, so bringing food to market for the individual consumers can easily be disrupted.  When you add runs on stores with already lean inventories and even the simplest of a natural disaster can easily set off an explosive chain reaction in the food supply lines.

The reality is that the ecosystem of the food distribution network in America is very fragile, which extends to the farmers and ranchers.  Corporate agricultural operations have for years squeezed out of business family-operated farms and ranches.  Between corporations, manufacturers, and marketing groups, the bulk of the American diet has been reduced to just four crops–corn, wheat, soybeans, and rice.  These provide ⅔ of the calories in a standard American diet.  They lack genetic variance, which makes them more susceptible to blight and crop failure.  While not devoid of nutrients, these aren’t nutritional powerhouse foods either.  They are also fed to the animals we eat as well.  This reduces the quality of our meats as well.  Have you ever tasted the difference between a burger from a grass-fed cow or bison and a standard burger?  There’s a difference in nutrient levels you can taste.  Most of the other crops you might eat, like bananas, apples, pineapples, tomatoes, avocados, and more, have to be picked well before they are ripe to get them to the store.  This further robs them of both taste and nutritional value.  There are hundreds of types of apples in the world, and we eat about a dozen different types from the stores.  There are hundreds of chicken breeds in the world, but we eat just a few and get our eggs from only a few.  Our dependence upon a select few animals and genetic diversity lacking crops also makes them susceptible to wide scale collapse like was seen with the Irish Potato Famine.  Over 90 percent of United States corn and soybeans are currently produced using very specifically isolated and modified genetically engineered varieties.  The lack of genetic diversity could cause the crops to one day collapse.

You don’t have to look very far to see how fragile the entire food system is in America.  You don’t have to look any further than your pantry to see how our diet lacks diversity.  It may look like you have a good variety when you open the door to your pantry or refrigerator, but really look at the base ingredients, then tour a farmer’s market.  When the United States food system is functioning correctly, the only benefit is that you can obtain food without foraging or growing it yourself.  The plan, however, is so fragile and with so many parts just barely balanced that moving away from our agrarian, foraging, even locally sourced foods places us dangerously close to a food crisis.

Desperation

With inflation on the rise and the dollar continuing to weaken, foodflation will continue to the point where some will be priced out of some stores altogether.  America has not fully recovered from the millions of job losses experienced last year.  According to recent research, an estimated 12% of U.S. adults have recently experienced some type of food shortage.  Food banks around the country have resorted to rationing distributions to try and make supplies last.  According to a survey conducted between late October and early November of 2020, almost 26 million adults said their households either sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in the previous seven days.

So take it all together.  A fragile production system relies on very few genetic variants and has shown that it is susceptible to failure.  There’s a just-in-time delivery system with multiple moving parts that could fail and collapse the entire system, and it has shown that it has failed in several places just in this last year.  There are ongoing natural disasters that we are threatened by the effects of even when they do not occur in our region.  There’s a sluggish economy, and continued unemployment, and a rise in food insecurity.  There is foodlfation and shrinkflation, and the occasional panic runs on some items in stores.  When you add all those things together, you get a population increasingly more desperate for reliable food.

It’s not going to get better, either.  We aren’t going to suddenly experience bumper crops, less costly harvesting, production, and distribution.  We aren’t likely going to wake-up to a stronger dollar and falling prices.  So, the slide into food insecurity across the nation is what the future holds for millions upon millions of Americans.  You may even know someone experiencing food insecurity issues right now.  Government subsidies to individuals and non-profit food banks aren’t likely to keep pace with demand, so meals will have to be skipped to make ends meet for many.  It’s going just to take one shove from any direction to collapse the entire house of cards that is our food supply chain.  The desperation of our stomachs is exponentially increased in any disaster.  While you prepare, it doesn’t mean your neighbors have.

Solutions

Many solutions can decrease dependence on a food supply system destined to fail for the prepper, and you already may be implementing them in small ways.  Now is the time to consider expanding your efforts.  Here are several solutions you can plug into your prepping to decrease your dependency on a food system that is likely to fail and increase your self-reliance.

First, find local sources for some of your staples or become a local source provider.  Is someone near you or at the farmer’s market selling eggs?  Strike up a deal for a dozen per week.  They will appreciate the guaranteed business, and you will have built a relationship.  You may even consider raising chickens on your own.  The same is true with local gardeners.  I always have too many hot peppers at the end of the season, and I am looking to trade for things I can’t or don’t grow.  A friend of mine grows massive zucchinis.  He gave me one last season.  They’re great on the grill.  He tells me he has more zucchini, kale, and tomatoes from just a few plants than his family can even eat.  He trades them out to the neighbors.  The key here is to build a local area network of resources and bartering.  Then, if the more extensive food system fails, you still have garden and small farm resources to keep food on the table.

Second, stop throwing out food.  You can dehydrate or freeze dry vegetables and fruit before they go bad.  You should can and preserve food that is in season.  You can even can meat.  You can pickle food.  You can learn to make jerky, pemmican, and hardtack.  The bottom line is that you should know the skills now to add to and supplement your food stores.  Relying upon stopping by the store on your way home to pick up a quick item or just driving through for a quick fast food meal is depending upon a system you know will fail.  Take charge of your food stores, and learn how to preserve them and use them.

Third, eat your supplies.  I cannot stress this enough.  Many people buy a few emergency food kits and call it done.  That’s a significant first step, so by all means, do that, but supplement these kits with real food you eat regularly.  If you don’t eat them regularly, start cooking and incorporating them into your diet.  After a disaster strikes is not the time for you to discover that your body really cannot process beans and rice three or more times per week.  After a disaster, don’t expect that simply adding boiled water into a mylar pouch for the following days, weeks, months, or years will get you through.  Ensure your food supplies include your staples like beans, rice, pasta, and canned foods, but supplement these with dehydrated fruits and vegetables, and make sure that you also eat these things regularly in your diet.  Get by on your own supply.

Fourth, form or join a buyer’s club and buy in bulk.  Involve your family, friends, and like-minded preppers.  Get together and agree on what you want to buy in bulk and where you can get the best quality for the best price.  Get together as a group and do any other processing of excess amounts you need for long-term storage.  Eat a little and save a little back.  View it as an opportunity to learn from others and to help others.  Do you know someone that knows how to make preserves, and this is your first season with a big harvest of homegrown strawberries, or you see an incredible deal on locally grown berries?  That is the time to make arrangements and have them teach you in exchange for a few jars.  You can also trade excess jars for other food items you may need.  Obtaining food in bulk and learning how to process it is an essential prepping skill.

Fifth, bake your own bread.  If you want to start small, start with bread.  You will learn a skill you can apply to many other aspects of your cooking.  More importantly, you will instantly save three or more dollars per week if you eat bread three or more times per week.  That is over $150 per year you will put directly into your own pockets.  I say bread instead of cookies because baking cookies twice a week isn’t going to be good for your health.  Also, there are so many different types of breads, minor tweaks here or there, various grains and flours, and variations.  It may be fattening, gluten-free, flat, airy, grainy, fried, topped with other ingredients, or whatever you want; but knowing how to cook bread is a real solid step to free yourself somewhat from dependence on the fragile food supply system.  You will feel better, and you will know the ingredients you are using are all things you know and not additives to extend shelf-life.

Finally, garden and forage some of your food.  Not all of us have a little piece of land or five acres of land.  You may live in the city, in an apartment, and with no balcony.  If that’s the case, you still need to be regularly growing your own food.  Maybe that’s a mushroom kit or a miniature herb farm. Perhaps it’s a patio pepper or tomato plant. Maybe you are fortunate to have a larger area to plant or a rooftop or community garden.  Growing some of your own food lessens your complete dependence on the food supply chain.  It provides you a skill you will need in the extended aftermath of a disaster.  It will keep your supplies topped up and feed your other skills like dehydrating, pickling, and canning.  I put foraging in this category because even in the city, you should know where wild plants grow.  A friend of mine recently converted his lawn to clover.  He jokes that it’s one big salad for him.  There are thousands of edible plants that you walk by on any nature walk, and you need to build your knowledge and use of them.  After a disaster is not the time to ponder whether you can eat a leaf or berry.  After a disaster is not the time to know how to cook, process, or digest a plant.  Set a goal to garden and forage a little something new every month.  Within a year, you will have a fantastic knowledge built up.

Conclusion

While most every American is dependent on a super fragile food system, you can take concrete steps today to decrease your dependence.  While I know it isn’t a reality for many of us to raise our own chickens or grow our own wheat berries, it is imperative that we develop the skills we need and create the stores of the things we need now.  It’s essential to make sure that you have food stored away sufficient to last you a minimum of 90 days.  I recently did a video detailing how to store enough food for one person for one year which I’ll post a link to in the cards above. Still, you need to start incorporating the solutions presented in this video into your daily life.

It isn’t a matter of when the food supply chain will collapse in your area.  We have already seen that occur in pockets throughout the country.  It’s not a matter of when there will be a run on your local stores or when the restaurants are forced to close.  We have already seen that happen this last year.  We have also seen processing plants close, natural disasters wipe out crops, recalls on food, and a fragile, just-in-time delivery system completely halted.  Don’t let any of those events drive you to food desperation.  Prepare now to keep food on your table.

What’s your advice?  What’s the one thing about food you wish you would have known or the one thing you’re glad you learned? 

As always, please stay safe out there.

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