For every person who stares absentmindedly at the shelves in their local grocery, there are hosts of what I call “strategic shoppers.” Armed with a concise list, precut coupons and a store flier, these supermarket soldiers battle for low prices. Ask one of these informed consumers and they’ll tell you that the price of their bounty has been going up. Indeed, according to a USA Today article, food prices went up 3.9 percent in February, the largest jump in 36 years.
Increases have been particularly heavy for meat products. The Consumer Price Index shows that meat prices have risen 6.2 percent since January 2010 and the USDA expects the increases to continue throughout the year. Shoppers may soon see a 7 to 8 percent price increase for beef and a 6.5 to 7.5 percent jump for pork. One former economist for food giant ConAgra warned that we should also expect a spike in chicken prices, as the poultry industry has been bearing the brunt of additional costs for some time now.
So what is a budget-conscious shopper to do? Many consumers are finding that the easiest way to balance their grocery bill is to simply cut back on meat. MSNBC offers a concise breakdown: “The cheapest cuts of beef, such as ground round, average $3 per pound in U.S. cities (lean and extra lean); boneless chicken breast costs about $3.40 a pound; and canned tuna is about $2 per pound. Contrast that with dried beans and lentils at less than $1 a pound and rice well below $1 per pound… Even tofu, the chicken of the vegetarian world, is usually well under $2 a pound.” According to recent research by the American Meat Institute, 46 percent of shoppers have already discovered this for themselves, opting to cut their bottom line by buying less meat.
If you’re not particularly concerned with the price of your dinner, keep in mind that the occasional meatless meal may have significant impact on food budgets in other parts of the world. A tremendous amount of grain, corn and soy goes toward feeding livestock: a single pound of beef, for example, takes 10 to 16 pounds of grain and soybeans to produce. As noted in this month’s edition of Foreign Policy, when “global consumption of grain-intensive livestock products climbs, so does demand for the extra corn and soybeans needed to feed all that livestock.”
The choices on our plate therefore impact developing countries where much of the population survives on grain. Americans typically spend 10 percent or less of their income on food. But, as Foreign Policy puts it, “for the planet’s poorest 2 billion people, who spend 50 to 70 percent of their income on food, these soaring prices may mean going from two meals a day to one. Those who barely hang on to the lower rungs of the global economic ladder risk losing their grip entirely.” This is particularly true in developing Asia, where a recent 10 percent increase in food prices could push an additional 64 million people into extreme poverty. By making a conscious effort to reduce the amount of meat we eat, we can not only improve our own economic standing, but also ensure that others are able to afford the basic staples for survival.
If this tale of empty wallets and world hunger is leaving pangs of sadness in your carnivorous heart, fear not! There are plenty of ways to cut back your consumption while still enjoying your favorite meat dishes:
Go Meatless on Monday: A new national campaign encourages people to skip meat one day a week for their health and the environment. Meatless Monday can be an easy, weekly way to remember to cut back; it may even reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
Have half a helping: Seamlessly reduce your grocery bill by slicing your usual meat portion in half. Make room instead for rice, beans and vegetables (canned and frozen are just as nutritious and tend to be cheaper). Not only will you save some money, you’ll be sampling a wider variety of nutrients.
Know when you won’t notice: I can tell you that my mother’s homemade lasagna tastes just as delicious when it isn’t packed with a pound of chop meat. The same goes for your five-alarm chili or a freshly wrapped burrito: Some things are so tasty on their own that they don’t need anything extra.
Take a more traditional approach: many cultures have eaten a mostly vegetarian diet for generations (and have better health for it). This means that the world is full of delicious, meatless meal ideas! The occasional ethnic dish can help you expand not only your food budget, especially if you’re enjoying something made with rice or beans, but also your pallet and culinary skills.
Tami O’Neill is a web editor for Meatless Monday, a national campaign encouraging everyone to cut meat one day a week for personal and planetary health. When she’s not maintaining social networks or working to launch new initiatives, Tami can be found blogging about all things food in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Photo: Tami O’Neill.