Countering Rampant Food Price Inflation, by SaraSue

When one of my daughters, who has a good job, starts complaining about how insane food and supply prices are, I pay attention.  She has started shopping at Walmart searching for the lowest possible prices.  Her recent cart rung up at $450 and she didn’t buy hardly any food – mostly toilet paper, paper towels, dog and cat food, a few household items, and enough food for a few good meals for her family.  She exclaimed, “This won’t even last us a week!”  I keep telling her to shop Costco for certain items – you get way more product for the price – twice as much product.  Yes, you pay more due to quantity, but the per quantity price is much lower.  Well, that’s how I do it, but I understand that Costco can feel overwhelming cost wise.

How to buy food and supplies

For instance, if you buy dog food from Chewy (I used to) to be delivered, you might pay as much as $50-$70 for a large bag.  The price is the same online at Costco.  However, if you go into a Costco store and purchase, that same bag of dog food is $35 because you aren’t paying shipping costs.  “Free Shipping!” is not free.  At Walmart, you’ll pay for a lesser quality of dog food, half the size bag, for the same $35 price.  I don’t like going to Costco and pushing around one of those really huge trolley carts.  It’s very cumbersome, but when I go I can fit 4 bags of dog food, a case of paper towels, a case of toilet paper, and the other things I need and pay about $350.  Those things will last several months, not just a week. 

I shop completely differently now in this age of inflation.  Even if you shop “paycheck to paycheck”, you can still put some money aside rather than spend it, so you can purchase the larger-quantity items.  I can see how the math makes sense, but it’s hard to convince others.  If money is terribly tight, form your own “food and supply co-op” with friends and go in on those bulk items, take them home, and split them up.  People used to do that all the time, and many still do.

I don’t buy meat at a regular grocery store.  The prices are crazy unless you find a really good sale and stock up.  But, I’ve become very suspicious of where that meat is coming from (possibly Mexico) and how the meat has been treated (before and after harvesting).  So, I buy in bulk from a local rancher.  Mr. Rancher apologized to me that he had to raise his prices… by 25 cents/lb.  That’s some honesty right there.

I realize everyone can’t raise their own steer or pigs or chickens, as I have been attempting to do.  I also realize that “pastured” meat is selling in some places at absolutely insane prices.  Organic, whole, chickens from Costco are half the cost of sourcing “pastured chicken”.  I’m not going to pay $26 for one chicken, but I might pay $25 for 2, maybe.  I know many who will pay those prices, but that means they have the kind of cash it takes to do that.

I have found that there are plenty of people in rural areas who will sell their meat at a reasonable price, say, for a half (a steer or hog), because selling some covers their cost to raise the animal and they keep the other half.  It makes perfect financial sense for them to do it that way.  They end up with “free” meat, other than their labor/land/feed costs, and you end up with pastured meat at a price you can afford.  I’m not discounting their costs because I’m doing it myself, but if I’m going to grow for my family anyway, one or two more steers or pigs doesn’t make that much of a difference if I have the capability.  My labor/land/feed costs are pretty much built in already whether it’s one or three animals.

It takes time to get to know these ranching and farming families, but it’s very worthwhile to find them, and get to know them.  The farmer’s market isn’t always the best place to find these people (but can be), because the people I’m talking about aren’t doing a volume that justifies setting up at the Farmer’s Market.  Many do, but most don’t.  It’s all about who you know.  I know a gal whose family provides “slop” (leftover food from their household) to a neighbor who is growing out a hog.  In other words, they help feed the pig in exchange for some pork at harvest time.  There are all kinds of arrangements like that out in the country that you’d probably never know about.  Right now, I can buy half a steer for about $4-5/lb and that includes all the steaks, brisket, hamburger, roasts, etc.  That feeds a family of 7 quite well for a year, in my experience.

How did I find Mr. Rancher?  I went to the Farmer’s Market when I was new in town so I could meet local farmers.  I bought a brisket – it was expensive.  I brought it home and cooked it up for the family and it was incredibly delicious.  So, I contacted Mr. Rancher and asked if they sold halves or wholes.  Why yes they do!  When you buy in bulk it costs a lot less per pound than buying by the piece.  Yes, I have to order in advance, wait for the meat, even pay a guy to deliver it to me from the processor ($100 for someone to deliver several hundred pounds of frozen beef to me from a processor that is a 2-hour drive away is more than worth it to me), and I need a large chest freezer.  He unloads it straight into my garage where the deep freezer awaits.  But, that is a convenience I pay for and not necessary.  That’s how I found Mr. Rancher.

Finding pork was a little different.  My daughter heard of a family raising a couple of pigs, so my daughter bought half a pig, and I traded her beef for pork.  Later I found out that many people in my community raise a pig or two, lots of people raise beef, and neighbors purchase what the family doesn’t need.  I just started asking around.  I asked at the Feed Store.  I asked people I had come to know.  Everyone knew someone raising a couple of pigs.  Just about everyone out here raises chickens, so it’s a hard sell to charge outrageous prices for chicken.  It’s just not “a thing”.

For people who have lived their whole lives in ranching and farming communities, this information is not new!  It’s been going on forever.  It’s just us former city folks who had no clue.  We had no idea that you could find your food from somewhere besides a grocery store, and going to the Farmer’s Market was a big deal, and usually expensive.  Even U-Pick farms for fruits and berries was a planned family outing, and you often still paid a lot more than purchasing from a grocery store.  It’s almost as if, dare I say it, there’s a whole “underground” food system.  I use the term “underground” because it’s not advertised in any regular way, and most families stay under the regulating radar.  Which will get you in trouble if you try to do that at any sort of volume.

Ditch the grocery store

Regulations are very dependent upon where you live.  What I am discussing here is avoiding the larger producers and seeking out small farms.  Most folks are very honest, and very careful, to follow the rules.  I think it’s fairly well accepted that there are “gray areas” where bartering comes into play amongst neighbors, as much as the IRS hates you for it.  Basically, here where I live, there are USDA meat processors, and Custom meat processors.  IF you are going to sell to the public, then your meat must be harvested and labeled properly at a USDA-certified processor.  Most Custom meat processors are also USDA certified (not all), meaning that a USDA inspector is available to inspect meat that will be for sale to the public.  If you are a home grower and not selling to the public, and need your meat processed, you just say so, and it costs a little less per pound to waive the inspection requirement.  When a trade occurs between neighbors, you know where your meat came from, and don’t need to rely on a USDA inspector, in my opinion.  Neighbors helping neighbors is a long-honored tradition and the “regulators” need to mind their own business, in my humble opinion.

I focus on protein – specifically meat.  Animal meat is the best possible protein for a human body. (Vegetarians please don’t hate on me, but if you must…) When times get hard, having meat in a family’s diet is very important, especially for growing children.  Also, having the animal fat for cooking, and the bones for making stock, provides a very nutrient-dense diet.  Finding, and getting to know, people who already know how to do it, on a small scale, could be a lifeline for your family in the coming days or years.

What I am trying to illustrate, is there are ways around the insane inflation we are seeing.  You have to “flip the script” on how you are used to shopping and purchasing.  For instance, we have Amish here and I often go to the local Amish store to see what’s in season from their local growers.  Many of their farms are open to the public.  I found boneless, skinless, chicken thighs, which is one of my favorite foods, in 10-15lb bags in their freezer section for $20 each. It today’s market, that’s cheap!  I don’t buy everything the Amish produce because I have found many of the foods to not be of the quality I want, but there are many things that are very good – mostly the fresh produce.

Do it differently

In our little town and surrounding countryside, there are a large number of good-sized, Christian, families where the moms are home, raising the children; the children are homeschooled, and they are very intent upon finding whole, nutritious, foods.  I know this because they come to my little farm to purchase raw milk.  They are on a quest to go back to the old-fashioned ways of living, and it warms my heart to see them.  These young moms are absolutely amazing, as are their husbands and children.  The children get to see the cows where their milk comes from and they love to know their names.  Yes, it takes time for those moms to make the trek with a van full of children to come visit, but wow, what an experience for the children.  The moms “get it” that “inconvenience” is not something to be eschewed, but embraced, for the love of the children.  It’s a glorious thing to see.  And then there are the more mature men and women, some who remember what the taste of fresh milk was like.  One fellow told me that he remembers drinking milk from his granny’s cow and he was so happy to be able to get fresh milk.  I watch these families source their foods from various ranchers and farmers and it’s a delight to see it.  It gives me hope that our society is not completely lost, and that whole new generations of people are coming up who’ve figured out what really matters.

With that being said, I do think it’s possible to beat food inflation, but not by switching over to eating cheap, highly processed, “junk food” that will make you sick in the long run.  It’s going to take some research, some snooping around, some legwork to find alternative food sources.  I feel like I have almost “arrived” at finding the things my family needs.  I love fresh tomatoes, and I love to put up a year’s worth of tomato sauces, but I can’t afford grocery store tomatoes.  There are several farms here that sell 20lb boxes of tomatoes for $10.  Can you beat that price at the grocery store?  I purchase berries similarly.  Remember, if you don’t know what to do with 20lbs of tomatoes or berries or anything – get together with friends and split it up.

Another key concept is to learn to eat with the seasons.  Look up your growing zone, google “harvest calendar” in your area, seek out the farms, and watch for those roadside produce stands that pop up here and there.  If you still live in the city or suburbs, make it a point to go to the countryside once a month or every other month, etc., after you’ve located producers.  The further out you go, the cheaper it gets.  Farmers aren’t dummies.  They will charge what the market will bear.  I’m not bashing Farmer’s Markets, but honestly, my experience with some of the bigger ones is seeing ridiculously high prices.  I’m not paying $25 for a quart jar of honey!  But, I will pay $8.  And being a farmer now myself, I completely understand the desire to build labor cost into your pricing.  And that’s fine, as long as your clientele can afford it.  Most folks these days can’t, and I’m speaking here to the families who are suffering from food inflation.  Go to people who grow food on a small scale and cut out all the middlemen.  Yes, it’s a lot of work to search these people out, but it can be a lot of fun, and especially if you do it with friends and family.

The next step, for me, is to see what I can raise here.  My first homegrown steer will be going to the butcher this year.  It’s hard work, but I think worth the effort because my cost per pound for good food will further decrease with proper land and animal management.  In any case, I’ve met the most amazing and capable people who have really blessed my life, right out here in the countryside.  If you see a sunburned, dirty, farmer, bless them and thank them for growing food.