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Our rising food costs

In recent years the cost of food has been escalating. Supermarket prices spiked in 2008 by 8 percent, including a 69 cent rise in a 5-pound bag of flour and a 58 cent rise in a 32-ounce bottle of corn oil. In 2009 fresh vegetables increased by more than 4 percent, while beef went up 6 percent and pork increased 11 percent (meat prices are affected by rising grain feed costs).

Last December the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service predicted in 2011 a further 2 to 3 percent increase in food prices. This year green beans have surged to $41 per bushel from $11 last December. Cucumbers skyrocketed 150 percent and green bell peppers rose 55 percent.

This month the Dow Jones reported the price of corn surpassed wheat prices (an historic anomaly). The U.S. Agriculture Department predicts the surge in corn costs in the coming months also will trigger accompanying rises in meat, cereals, vegetable oil and pasta.

Some of the explanation for short-term price increases can be attributed to weather such as in 2005 when Hurricane Wilma wreaked havoc on the Florida citrus crop, much the way that the tomato crop was hurt by storms in 2004.

But other factors are also at play. The rising cost of gasoline and energy costs, the weakening of the American dollar, the rising demand for ethanol and other biofuels and the nutritional improvements of developing countries like China, India and Malaysia are straining the demand on food. In the case of corn, this summer’s heat, drought-like conditions and in some areas flooding is also blamed.

Regardless of the cause, local residents are feeling the pinch at the supermarket, which can be especially oppressive for those on fixed incomes. Last March, Millbrook Mayor Laura Hurley, Washington Supervisor Fussy Prisco and I collaborated on a joint governmental effort to help Millbrook residents in senior housing or without lots large enough for gardening to grow their own food to help alleviate the supermarket price surge. The village was looking for space. I offered county space at the overgrown 90-acre Eastern Government Center.

Generations ago when this space served as the infirmary, the land was farmed to provide work and food for the indigent and elderly. Today it is overgrown and underutilized. Our respective governments are currently moving ahead to open a small community garden next spring on county land for use by community residents.

In Stanford, the Sisters of Charity operate a 200 member Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) where more than 50 different vegetables are grown and set aside on a weekly basis to shareholders whose fees keep the farm operational. Other produce is donated to local food pantries or directly to families in need. The CSA movement has been growing across the country and in some places includes eggs, bread, milk and other items.

Initiatives like the above can help impoverished or struggling consumers. At the same time we must be mindful of the provider, so that farmers can maintain profitability to ensure survival while ultimately maintaining a secure local food supply. In that respect, perhaps a few extra cents for farm products is not a cause for concern at all.

Michael Kelsey represents Amenia, Washington, Stanford, Pleasant Valley and Millbrook in the County Legislature. Write him at KelseyESQ@yahoo.com.

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