Rice and Wrong: Food Costs Flummox

Here are strategies for combating the crisis.
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Food prices are igniting riots in developing countries -- and quietly claiming a chunk of my family's bottom line.

Record rice and wheat prices were clearly reflected in my family's recent $350 grocery bill for mostly grain-based and dairy products. The continuing global agricultural crisis has obviously ensnared my local community and probably many others.

I rarely break $300 at the grocery store -- even for a large order. But this outrageous tab -- to ensure proper nutrition for my five-person family -- is an alarming indicator that the price of yet another significant nondiscretionary expense (in addition to fuel) is going haywire.

Free Rice, Don't Panic

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In another alarming sign,

Wal-Mart

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has announced that its Sam's Club warehouse stores are now limiting sales of Jasmine, Basmati and long-grain rice to four 20-pound bags per customer, due to supply and demand issues.

Costco

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also reported an increased demand for staples such as rice and flour, as customers stock up due to worries about prices and possible shortages.

I'm deeply troubled that concerns about food hoarding now exist in a country that's supposedly famous for its "amber waves of grain."

Can bread lines -- or an equivalent crisis -- be looming in our nation's future?

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Food prices are rising due to a confluence of world events. The growing economies in India and China mean that more residents can now afford better-quality food, so global demand for meats and grains is rising.

Additionally, a greater share of the U.S. corn crop is being diverted to producing biofuels, such as ethanol. The European Union also has set targets for biofuel production, which it now may reconsider in the wake of worldwide riots that coincided with the prices of rice, corn and wheat doubling during the past year.

To compound matters, rising fuel prices are increasing the costs of transporting food around the globe -- and we all pay the consequences at the grocery store. Civil unrest, poverty and weather conditions also play significant roles in food prices.

Fortunately, I haven't heard of any food riots in the U.S. -- at least not yet -- but that doesn't mean that people aren't hurting. The average price of a dozen large eggs was $2.20 last month, compared with $1.64 during the same time last year, and just $1.30 in 2006, according to the consumer price index. That's a startling 69% increase in two years.

Obviously, chickens have to eat too, and their feed is more expensive. Fuel-based distribution costs exacerbate the problem. Eggs are an ingredient in a broad range of products -- from baked goods to frozen meals -- so that 69% increase is passed along to you. The price of white bread has also increased 30% since 2006, to $1.35 from $1.04 for a one-pound loaf. My family can easily go through a loaf of bread during the course of one meal.

Fortunately, my family can manage to suck up the extra cost of food -- and gas -- by making cuts elsewhere. Maybe we'll forego a movie or a few restaurant meals. In the worst-case scenario, we can even eat a little less and shed a few unwanted pounds. But in developing countries such as Haiti and Yemen, the crisis often means the difference between survival and starvation.

Perhaps we, as individuals, can't personally eliminate the political conditions and poverty that interfere with food production and availability in developing countries. But I think we can collectively play a role in influencing food prices from our own backyards.

The most obvious solution, I think, is to use less fuel and consider alternative-energy vehicles -- which both seem more appealing as gas prices head to $4 a gallon, possibly by summertime. Ethanol mandates may be only one of several factors affecting food prices -- but why should our country's driving habits and lust for SUVs contribute to more costly necessities for the world's poor?

Supporting local agriculture is another way to put a dent in this crisis -- particularly with warmer weather approaching. Buying and freezing local produce not only supports farmers in your community, but also cuts down on pricey fuel-based costs of transporting produce from other countries and far-away locations within our own borders.

Curbing our driving habits is a plausible consequence to rising gas prices.

But when food prices run amok, who wants to stop eating?

Suzanne Barlyn is a writer in Washington Crossing, Pa.