I’ve watched a few episodes of that Extreme Couponing show, and I found it a bit horrifying. I can understand why a show like it would be on, but I don’t think it’s in any way realistic. I also wonder if that level of couponing is healthy or ethical.

Is Extreme Couponing the New Hoarding?
Who needs that much stuff? It’s entirely possible that the people depicted on the show donated their hoards right after the taping, in fact one episode focused on a man who was using his coupons to create care packages for our troops, but I doubt that’s the case for the majority of the people on the show. Many of them have built storage space for their stockpile. One family took out insurance on their stockpile! No matter how well it’s organized, a stockpile that big could easily be considered a hoard. One episode depicted a woman stockpiling diapers even though she doesn’t have a baby! Another woman amassed 25 years worth of toilet paper. Raise your hand if you think a roll of toilet paper will last 25 years in storage without disintegrating?

Several couponers expressed the high they get from couponing. Guess who else gets that high? Hoarders. Just because you got the item free, or have it well organized, that doesn’t mean you need it or should buy it.

Is Extreme Couponing Healthy?
Many of the couponers didn’t look very healthy. Most were overweight. I saw a lot of frozen dinners being dumped into those carts. I didn’t see a whole lot of produce. Maybe they use their savings to buy fresh foods and plan a healthy meal plan, but it doesn’t look that way. Just because you can get ten Stouffer’s frozen pizzas for free, doesn’t mean you should. Is saving money worth shaving a few years off the end of your life? What about the increased health costs you’ll face because you saved so much money on crappy food? Where is the balance?

Is Extreme Couponing Realistic?
Absolutely not. Many stores are tightening their coupon policies, sometimes as a direct result of this show. At the very least, most people don’t have several hours a week to devote to compiling coupons, which will make it difficult to save 95% on their groceries. I’ve saved 30% a few times, but even that took careful planning. It was around the holidays, so the store was having mega sales, and it was in the peak of the recession when really good coupons were available. I’m not seeing those coupons anymore.

Is Extreme Couponing Ethical?
In the case of the woman who allegedly committed coupon fraud, clearly the answer is no. For most people, it’s not unethical to coupon, however it’s not always polite. My local Ralph’s once ran a really great promotion on condensed milk. It was free when combined with a coupon. I happened to need condensed milk for a recipe, but I couldn’t get any, because the shopper before me had cleared the shelf. Who needs 20 cans of condensed milk? Is it fair to clear the shelf to build up your stockpile when other people might need just one or two of the item for a recipe that week? Why should they have to drive to several stores and spend more because you only had 19 in your stockpile and needed more?

I don’t fault people for saving money, but there has to be a line. Most of these couponers cross that line from frugal to obsessive. That’s not true of all couponers, but I don’t think you get on a show like Extreme Couponing if you’re simply frugal. What do you think of these shows? Are they borderline hoarders?

 

Today we look at one cause of rising food prices that took a long time to create, and will take even longer to fix, if we even can. That’s food shortages. Food shortages have three causes, actually. The first is climate change. The second is a rising global population. The third is the number of people in emerging societies who want to eat like those in developed countries like the U.S.

Climate Change and Food Shortages
Weather has always had an effect on food production. A freak cold snap could destroy an orange crop one year, but produce gorgeous cherries. A heat wave could ruin a crop just before harvest. However, these and other climate issues are becoming more frequent. Australia was once a global bread basket, but several years of drought followed by flooding drastically reduced grain output for several years. In addition, growing regions are shifting. In 100 years, Napa will no longer be able to produce wine, but areas further north will be.  But we’re not set up for the shift of the almond growing region or the peach growing region. It takes more planning than most people or states or nations are capable of. So, instead, we will see foods disappear or their prices shoot up as they become more rare.

At the same time that our climate is making it more difficult to produce food, we’re making more people. Those people need food. However, the increased demand also increases the price, so many of them simply can’t afford it. In the U.S., we get upset if we spend more than 10% of our income. Imagine spending 50% of your income for one meal a day for your family?

The last factor is the economic improvement of those growing populations. When emerging countries become economically stable, they often look to the established nations as guide for their lifestyle. Populations that once enjoyed simple diets with no or small portions of meat, now want to eat as much meat as Americans. People who used to eat local breakfast foods now want to eat toast and tea every day, even if their country hasn’t traditionally produced bread. Although we can all agree that it’s great to try foods from different cultures, we can’t all eat like Americans. Frankly, Americans shouldn’t be eating like Americans!

Solution to Food Shortages: Change Your Eating Habits
Americans didn’t always have meat for every meal. We also ate less food in general, and that was healthier for everyone. So, if food prices are high because of shortages, the solution is to change the way you eat. Skip meat in a few meals a week. It can be any meal, but lunch and dinner are more likely to be meat-focused than breakfast. In addition, reduce your portion sizes. American portions have become ridiculous. You don’t need eight ounces of steak for dinner. Four ounces is a proper portion size. Eat more veggies and fruits, too. They’re more filling with fewer calories and costs.

Make a menu plan based on what you have and what you need to use up, then shop to fill in. Don’t shop and then decide what to cook or you’re likely to waste food. We’re all guilty of it occasionally, but wasting food is as bad for your wallet as it is for the planet. Think about that next time you buy a container of sour cream so you can use one tablespoon in a recipe, and then never use it again. (I’ve done it, I admit it.)

You’ll notice that I didn’t mention coupons. I do coupon, but I tend to use them for more for paper and drug items. The food coupons I use are generally for condiments, dried beans, rice, and canned goods that are components of home-cooked meals. They’re great for reducing costs, but only as part of a larger strategy to change the way you eat to a more natural, local diet. Sure, you can get a rock-bottom deal on frozen dinners, but they’re not usually healthy and a long-term unhealthy diet will increase your healthcare costs. That’s a whole other issue!

The second biggest factor in rising food costs are production costs. They have sort of a domino effect: as each part of the food production process becomes more expensive, the end product becomes more expensive.

Rising Production Costs
Water, fertilizer, seeds, animal feed, and everything else are also getting more expensive. Part of this is due to the price of oil, part of it is due to the increasing scarcity of water, part of it is due to patented seeds, part of it is due to using food grains for energy.

Oil is used in several parts of the food production process. There’s the oil needed to transport food to market, or to transport grain to the farm, or to transport crops to the factory for processing. Each line in the chain includes oil costs when selling up the chain, until finally it reaches you.

Water is also becoming more expensive as it becomes more scarce. Think about your own water bill. It’s probably gone up in the past few years. Now multiply that by the amount of water to produce anything, from corn to cows to boxes. That’s built into the price you pay.

Seeds should be cheap. They come from previous year’s crop. Just save seeds from the previous crop, replant them, and you’re good to go. You only pay for seeds once. That’s how it should be, but in this age of Monsanto, that’s not how it works. Now, seeds are modified so that farmers can only use them once and then have to buy new seeds the next year. In some crops, seeds can be saved, but Monsanto sues farmers who do that. So, factor the cost of new seeds into your calculations.

Using food grains, like corn and soybeans, for fuel. When you use food crops to run cars, that food is no longer available for people, which means there are more people clamoring for the same food items, which makes them more expensive.

All of these affect the cost of producing food. The manufacturers have to include all of these costs in each item they sell, which you then pay at the grocery store. You always pay more because you have to pay the combined total of all those other processes.

Solution to Rising Production Costs: Grow or Cook Your Own Food
If you grow your own vegetables in a small patch, you won’t need nearly as much fertilizer or seeds. You can save seeds from the previous year if you use heirloom plants, which usually taste better anyway. Hybrid seeds are built to make the produce stand up to shipping, not for taste. If you don’t want to mess with seeds, or live in a region with a short season, buy plants from the nursery. A $2.99 six-pack of lettuce will grow all summer, and you can pick it as you need it. That’s about what two heads of lettuce cost, so you’re saving a big chunk on your food bill from one small investment.

Once you get a garden established, it’s not too expensive to keep it going year after year. Victory gardens were popular during World War II because food was scarce. They were just part of life during Word War I and the Depression. Now they’re making a comeback. If you can find a small plot of land, or even a sunny balcony, you can grow a small victory garden. Call it a food crisis garden if you want to be trendy.

In addition, it’s time to learn to bake your own bread and switch from ready-made meals to homemade meals. The raw ingredients are much cheaper than the processed version, and you can usually use some of those raw materials for several dishes. Sure, you have to buy a chicken to roast each time, but you don’t need to buy a jar of salt, more herbs, and oil every time. Leftover chicken can be stretched into a soup, salad, sandwich, casserole, quesadilla, or other entree. The bones can be used for stock. Basically, the raw components of any dinner are cheaper than buying a pre-packaged meal most of the time, and healthier.

If you buy the ingredients used to make a loaf of bread, you’ll be able to make multiple loaves for the same cost as a single store-bought loaf, and avoid preservatives. All you need is flour, yeast, sugar (for the yeast), water, and oil or butter. If you bake a lot, buy a three pound bag of yeast from a warehouse store for $3.99 and keep it in the freezer. That investment is about the cost of one loaf, but it will last all year!

Of course, some things are more difficult to make, so you’ll have to keep buying those. Yogurt is easy to make and worth the effort. Butter is more work, so it’s probably not worth the money or effort. You obviously can’t raise your own cow in the backyard. You could, if zoning and space permits, grow some chickens for fresh eggs.

I’m seeing complaints all over the web about rising food prices. It’s true, food prices are rising, although less so here than in other countries. American actually pay less now than families did in the past, it just feels like more because we got used to cheap food. This week, I’m outline several causes of rising food prices, and some solutions you can implement at home. Today focuses on oil prices.

The Faux Rise in Food Prices
I won’t argue that food this year is cheaper than food last year. It isn’t. Part of that is inflation, part of that is due to the sharp increase in oil prices. However, food isn’t more expensive now than it was fifty years ago. In the 1950s, families spent 21% of their income on food. Today we spend 9%. And still we want cheaper food.

Sure, some items are more expensive, but that’s because we’re importing fruit from Chile and grain from all over the place. In the 1950s, staples like sugar were imported to the mainland, but most families did without fresh strawberries in January. Most families also had to cook their own meals entirely. TV dinners were a new thing, and fairly expensive.

As wages have risen, the cost of food hasn’t kept up, but we have more options than ever. If you’re paying significantly more than you used to, think about where those food expenditures are going and what you ate when you were a kid. It’s probably pretty different. Perhaps if you went back to the basics of home-cooking with whole ingredients (but less fat and salt than cooks used back then!), you’d see your costs drop.

However, there are some factors that will make that 9% expenditure rise, and the first is rising oil prices.

The Effect of Rising Oil Prices On Food Costs
Rising oil prices are partly to blame for rising food prices. Food has always been more expensive in distant locations. Just ask Hawaii. That’s because it costs more to get food from place to place. The cost of transportation is also factored into the cost of raw materials used to produce processed food, so you’re getting a double-whammy.

Solution to Rising Oil Prices: Buy Local
Buy as much unprocessed, local food as you can. Local food costs less to transport fruit 100 miles than it does to transport it 1000 miles, so you can probably get it cheaper, and tastier, by buying it from a local producer. Farmer’s markets are the best place to find local growers, but CSAs and natural foods stores are also options. Your grocery store may even have a local section, but some of them mark up the price because it’s a good sales pitch. If you look, you can find local sources of food that are probably a lot cheaper. Yes, your options will be limited to what’s in season in your region, but do you really need strawberries in January? They do actually grow in my region year-round, but I find they taste better in the spring/summer, so I don’t buy them in January. I buy citrus and apples, which are in season, and just as tasty.

 

Since I moved into my house almost two years ago, I’ve wanted to build a Square Foot Garden. But first I needed a place to put it. I have several existing planters, but two of them are too low for a SFG. One holds our barbecue, a rose bush, some bulbs, and a potato bush that I rather like. (Note: a potato bush is in no way related to potatoes.)

I did have a very large, triangular raised brick planter filled with a shrub I hated. My first thought was to rip out the shrubs, take a sledgehammer to the bricks, and put a couple of traditional Square Foot Garden beds in its place. But several people, including my husband, suggested that I use the existing planter instead, so I made my own version of an SFG. If you have a planter, you too can plant an SFG without taking additional space or building boxes. Here’s what I did:

  1. Remove the shrubs or hire someone to remove them. This is what the box looked like before. We asked the gardeners to cut down the shrubs and pull out the roots.
  2. Make a map. I drew the plan on graph paper I printed off the internet. Since my planter is 10 feet by 8 feet by 16 feet instead of 4 by 4 feet, I had to make a path. I roughed out a few potential paths and finally settled on one design.
  3. Lay bricks, stones, or gravel on the path. I didn’t bother to lay my bricks on sand and fill it in, like you’re supposed to, because this first year was an experiment. I also used a mix of old bricks my dad gave me and new bricks I bought.
  4. Dig out the existing dirt. We used some of it in the new planter, but most of it went onto our hill to try to snuff out some weeds. I didn’t dig out under the bricks because nothing grows under the path (except weeds).
  5. Mix new dirt. If you read the book, you’ll find the recipe for Mel’s Mix: 1/3 vermiculite, 1/3 peat moss or coir fiber, and 1/3 blended compost. (Calculate your needs by the cubic foot.) I used E.B. Stone’s compost, or you can buy five different kinds of compost to get a balanced mix. If you make your own compost, then it should be well-balanced already. My old dirt was primarily sand, so I used some of that, too.
  6. Fill the box with the new dirt. Wet it down. Fill again.
  7. Buy 8 foot strips of lath and a box of lath screws. Look in the gardening department for the lath – I found it in the back of the Home Depot garden area. The people in the lumber area had no idea what I was talking about.
  8. Lay out grids in the box. Because I was creating my own layout, I made each box exactly 12 inches across. The result shifted my graph paper plan slightly, but it looks good and each box is a good size. To cut the lath, I laid it in the planter, then drew a cut line so it would fit just against the edge of the box. A hand saw was all I needed to cut it. I needed a drill to get the screws in, but it went quick. When I needed to connect sections, I screwed three pieces together.
  9. Add a trellis (optional). I propped the six-foot tall tomato cage I broke open last year in the back of the box, then tied it to my fence. I supported the open edge with an extra piece of lath. I’ll use this to vine my tomatoes and peppers.
  10. Plant. I may add bubblers or a drip system at some point, but I’m still deciding about that.

So far I’ve planted tomatoes, onions, and peppers. I also put in germinated seeds for carrots, lettuce, sage, basil, oregano, chives, scallions, and parsley, but we had a heat wave and the soil wouldn’t stay moist. I’m still working on a square covering system to maintain moisture. Since we’re already in May, I’m buying seedlings this weekend rather than attempting more seeds. I’m also growing mint and rosemary, but they go in separate pots. Do not put them in your regular garden. My strawberries are in a strawberry pot so I can roll it around the yard to produce different levels of shade.

The total time for this project was about two days – one to shop for bricks and lath, and one to lay the bricks, dig out the dirt, fill it in, and lay the lath. I dug out the dirt by myself, but my best friend helped me fill it back in.

The total cost for this project was about $120, but most of it was a one-time expense. I will buy some row cover coil, for about $30, and clear plastic sheeting for another $5 to create plot covers.

Next year, my only costs will be a new path if I opt to get something nicer than the bricks and more plants. I’m making compost, so I won’t have to buy more dirt.

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