May 1, 2008

Food a Spicy Plate for the Media

In the mainstream media, food is hot news right now. The “food crisis.” Corn-based ethanol. Farming. It’s as if somebody opened a window of a room that’s long been shuttered.

The New York Times, for example, has been running a series of agriculture-focused articles. The most recent article looked at farmers and the growing cost of chemical-based fertilizer. The cost of these fertilizers has reached the point, the Times explains, that some farmers have taken to the “age-old” practice of using pig manure to fertilize their fields.

Not to be outdone, the Washington Post also has been running a series of articles on food and the “food crisis.” In today’s paper, the focus was along the lines of other articles recently documenting how rising food prices domestically are affecting people’s lives.

One response, the Post notes, is an increased use of scissors:

Take the uptick in coupon clipping. According to NCH Marketing Services, a coupon clearinghouse in Chicago, the number of grocery coupons redeemed in 2007 increased by 100 million, or 6 percent, to 1.8 billion. The rise reversed a seven-year decline. "Every year, manufacturers have made coupons more difficult to redeem by shortening the expiration date and increasing the purchase requirements. And every year, people redeemed them less," said Charlie Brown, NCH's vice president of marketing. "This tells me that consumers are now more determined to save money."

This is interesting, in large part, because these days we buy very few products from the big name brands, meaning that even if our family wanted to, we’d find very few, if any, coupons for the products we regularly purchase.

This was also surprising:

One thing consumers haven't skimped on are organic products. Over the past 12 months, organic food and beverage sales jumped 25.5 percent, to $4.3 billion, according to Nielsen. Many shoppers who prefer organic are finding other ways to cut back rather than give up products that they think are healthier and better for the environment.

Case in point: Poli Marinova, a Bethesda marketing communications manager, said she has cut her grocery bills by almost 30 percent without switching to conventional foods. Instead, she skips "luxury items" like sushi and prepared sandwiches and soups. "We're buying a lot less overall at Whole Foods. We used to buy juice, biscuits and baby food from there," she said. "Now, we get a lot of that stuff at Costco or the Giant so we can afford to keep buying organic."

It's gotten to the point where Congress is actually holding hearings on the topic, so they must see this as a politically expedient way to make themselves look like they give a rip be hearing from their constituents about this.

At a hearing on the high cost of food on Capitol Hill, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) summed up the current situation this way: "When you walk down the street, you hear people complaining about food prices almost as much as gas prices."

Yes, because Sen. Schumer spends so much time walking through the neighborhoods in his home district.

Even some of the big networks’ evening news programs -- in between must-see segments on teen pop stars’ bare shoulders and self-centered Midwestern pastors -- have found time to report on this topic. Talk about miracles.

The former 2007 Farm Bill, now the 2008 Farm Bill, is also making news, as the House and Senate search for a bill they can agree on. As much as it pains me to say it, this is the one time where the current resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is actually doing some good. According to the Wall Street Journal, the White House thinks the subsidies in the bill are way too big and is promising a veto if they aren’t slashed.

Some of the regulars from The Ethicurean are at a conference in Phoenix where the Farm Bill is a hot topic. Good reading.

Speaking of farms, two new reports that have not received the media coverage they are due – one from the Union of Concerned Scientists, the other from the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production -- have reached unsurprising startling conclusions: CAFOs and industrial agriculture are bad things.

Finally, as for actual food, this recipe for a banana-poblano sauce sounds extremely interesting and quite delicious. In this case, the Washington Post food folks used it on turkey chops, but a white, flaky fish feels like a better option to me.

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