The real dirt on inflation

24 Oct

I was researching inflation today.  I realize that charts and tables aren’t a real exciting start to the week, but I wanted to know…what does the government have to say about inflation.

Apparently, its a bad word.  Even the Consumer Price Index almost seems whitewashed to sanitize the information.  Reading those reports soon aggravated me.  Who cares about new car prices?  I don’t even KNOW anyone who is considering buying a new car this year.  All car purchases in my circle of friends and acquaintances have been solely of used vehicles based on necessity.  The tiny price increases that are being recorded by the CPI do not reflect my shopping experiences, nor do I believe they indicate the experience of the average worker in the USA.

I have no idea what they are buying at the grocery store to indicate that food at home increased x amount.  I know my shopping has changed considerably in the past year as I struggle to make a small set amount of money stretch to feed us for the designated period of time.  A year ago, I bought premium dog and cat food.  We ate beef at least once a week.  We often used convenience foods such as frozen skillet meals, and they were name brand items.  I regularly used more expensive ingredients such as extra virgin olive oil (the good stuff too!) real butter, and cream.  We ground our coffee fresh.

I can’t remember the last time I bought a chunk of beef.  We eat a lot of beans.  The pinto, white and red beans that I bought last year for about 99 cents per pound bag are now priced at $1.19 or higher.  Last year, I could buy a loaf of bakery French Bread for .99-1.50 per loaf on average.  Today, I can buy a loaf of cheap sandwich bread for about $2.

A typical grocery store list for me is going to be much shorter than it was last year, and even last year’s list was shorter than the year before.  Two years ago, I almost never bought ramen noodles of any kind.  These days, ramen noodles are often featured as the base for our lunch or dinner.

I also shop differently.  Those guys at the flea market or sitting alongside the road selling vegetables or fruit are much more likely to see me today.  Their produce is often bought straight from the farm or packing house, and it may be “seconds” that were refused by wholesale companies for reasons ranging from too small to too large or misshapen.  That’s okay with me.  I’ll take misshapen and the wrong size for the right price.  I’ve discovered the quality is usually quite good.  Yesterday’s find was a sack of small sweet potatoes for $7.  I gave some to my daughter and we’ll be eating a lot of sweet potatoes over the coming weeks.  I might not like them much anymore by the time Thanksgiving arrives.

The real deal on inflation is that government agencies no longer have my faith that they are reporting numbers accurately.  We have seen many stores go out of business in the recent past as well, reducing competition between grocery stores.  In many towns, the only store available is now Walmart, and it is likely that they supply half or more of the food served for dinner each night in the USA.  It’s a little bit frightening to think of any one chain having that much of a monopoly on the market, as it essentially leaves the control of our food supply in their hands.  On the part of the consumer, this is a really bad picture, as that means that prices, selection, and availability are all controlled by one single corporation.  It isn’t any better for the producers, as they have only a single outlet to sell their product to.

It’s a sad picture.  No faith in government reporting.  Controlled supply and prices by one corporation.  Shrinking economy and available dollars for purchases mean the average American grocery budget is tighter.

What can we do about it?  How can the average American family help restore the open market and competitive pricing?  How can we begin to regain the buying power we had even five years ago?

I don’t have the answers, but the questions are serious.  If we don’t do something soon, we will end up like the old stories of communist Russia, where consumers stood in long lines to wait to buy whatever the store had left to sell, paying outrageously high prices to get those items as well.  Maybe all Americans will be forced to start using food cards purchased from the government and allotting how much each family can spend on food purchases.  Rationing?

Granted, Americans are fat, but it is also a well documented fact that the diet of poor Americans is less healthy and more prone to causing obesity.  Seeing our food budget shrinking means that often, we may choose to have a bag of chips and a soda for lunch, spending $2, because we can’t afford to spend the $5 or $6 for a healthy sandwich or salad.  More often, we are eating hot dogs purchased for 88 cents a package even though we know they are full of sodium and nitrates, high in fat, and very short on real nutritional value.

I think I need a “survival garden.”  Not survival in terms of apocolyptic events but rather survival in terms of economic and nutritional survival.

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