Wednesday, October 15, 2008

AFJ in Houston Day One Session Three

Thanks to apple retrieval, I missed a little bit of the first part of "The High Price of Food," moderated by Robin Davis of the Columbus Dispatch. Rosalinda Benner, RD/LD, the corporate dietitian for the HEB Grocery Company, said the average family has cut out 70 per cent of its eating out. The store is trying to help the takeout-dependent learn how to cook simple, fast, nutritious meals. HEB stocks its stores in accordance with local demographic patterns, so North San Antonio won't have the same foods as South San Antonio. By eating takeout, people are used to instant gratification, so they must learn to cook and budget. She offered a handout with several tips such as shopping for weekly specials, getting family members to take a team approach to food preparation, saving grocery receipts to track spending, doubling recipes and freezing leftovers, don't take the kids shopping and eat before you go. HEB does community outreach with recipe cards and a seasonal magazine with recipes and advice. She has seen sales of organic food drop in the tight economy.

Brian Greene, president and CEO of the Houston Food Bank, offered some sobering statistics about food and income. Lowe income families spend 32 percent of their income on food compared to 11 percent for families of average income. For fuel, the numbers are 11 and 4 percent, respectively. The food bank gets food donated by grocery stores like HEB of their overstock and surplus commodities from the USDA. Restaurants are not a large source of donations since their kitchens are very efficient. However, the Bank through an affiliate does take excess hotel event food. Thanks improved resource shifting learned by FEMA post-Katrina, the Food Bank did well during Ike in Houston, and still sending food to communities south of Houston and Galveston which were harder hit.

Factors affecting food banks (you can check to find one locally) are less excess inventory at grocers, fewer surplus commodities (the Houston Food Bank got 2 million less pounds last year than in previous years as farmers reduced production due to falling prices and rising costs).

Brian Anderson, a livestock and dairy economist from Texas A&M, laid out the intricate interplay between oil, corn, ethanol and livestock and dairy prices. Nitrogen fertilizer is derived from natural gas and hay prices are at record highs. All of the commodities futures markets experienced the same rapid devaluation as the stock market. We're just seeing the beginning of the price increases since there's a lag between calving and slaughter of 16-18 months. You will see lower beef prices in the short term, but pork and chicken will rise. Supplies will also be reduced as production costs rise.

The weak dollar has increased exports (Russia is a big market for dark poultry meat). However, corn is used for farm raised fish as feed so the prices will be impacted. Even cheap and reliable turkey will increase in price. If all beef were grass fed, production would decrease by 50 percent (editorial comment: This would be a bad thing?). Also, with research on using other forms of biofuel besides corn-based ethanol (in West Texas getting fuel from algae is being studied) is on the horizon.

As one attendee noted, "I could be squeezing algae for a living." However, there were better things to come

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