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Economy puts the squeeze on grocery bills

Higher food prices could become issue in fall election

Published: Monday, May 5, 2014 1:15 a.m. CST

WASHINGTON – With all the recent turmoil, it may seem the least of our collective worries is the escalating cost of food. But for millions of Americans, this is a daily worry.

Prices of beef, pork, fruits and vegetables are rising; current bouts of bad weather will not help.

True, we pay a smaller percentage of our incomes for food than much of the world. And too many of us have eaten too many calories over the years.

But most Americans get by on a fixed amount of money each week; 10 or 20 dollars more spent for the same amount of food means something has to give.

Not insignificantly, along with plain old bad weather, climate change seems to be an increasing factor in food prices, along with mysterious blights, government regulations, land prices and changing food tastes.

The price of limes is front-page news. (Yes, we now have the 89-cent lime. The Wall Street Journal found a California Mexican restaurant needing 1,000 limes a week that will give customers a 25-cent margarita in exchange for a bag of limes from backyard fruit trees.)

Apparently, the harsh winter and heavy rains have decreased the lime supply from Mexico, which provides 97 percent of the 500,000 tons Americans squeeze each year. Prices have quadrupled.

But this is about more than the search for half a lime to jam into a bottle of Corona, even with the approach of Cinco de Mayo.

In Florida, the citrus crop is imperiled by one of the worst blights in memory. No changing out that margarita for a mimosa or a salty dog without worrying about the rent.

As grilling season begins, we learn the number of cattle coming to market has plummeted because of recession and the dreadful winter. For 19 consecutive months inventories in U.S. feedlots with 1,000 head of cattle or more have declined from the same months the previous year. There’s evidence beef prices are the highest in 17 years.

Drought now extends to 50 percent of the contiguous United States, causing water shortages and weakening farmland values.

As for pork, prices are at an all-time high because of a deadly pig virus.

And woe to you if you crave healthful “super foods.” At an East Coast supermarket, blueberries were fetching $10 for 16 ounces, although most customers were putting them back after ascertaining they were, in fact, ordinary blueberries.

The White House, with its own carefully tended vegetable garden, seems unconcerned. President Obama, seen not too long ago exiting a $400-a-person sushi bar in Japan, has other things on his mind.

But prices are skyrocketing so fast it could be an issue in the all-important, crucial, incredibly significant, make-or-break midterm November elections. (If you have been focused on other things such as making a living, Democrats might lose control of the Senate, leaving Obama at the mercy of Republicans who can’t abide him controlling Congress.)

More significantly, high food prices hurt the poor and the few Americans left who call themselves middle class. Families are eating cereal for breakfast and dinner; fresh produce is even scarcer on America’s tables.

Chalking up the cost of breakfast a few weeks ago, USA Today found eggs up 5.7 percent, tomatoes up 6.9 percent, sausage up 8.7 percent, potatoes up 6.9 percent and oranges up 12.2 percent.

But after more than a decade of war, Americans are telling pollsters they want their political leaders to pull back from world affairs and fix domestic problems.

Who can blame them?

The trillion dollars spent on war could rebuild a lot of roads and bridges, address water distribution issues, fund research, and start rebuilding the economy so a few more dollars spent at the supermarket wouldn’t be so painful for so many.

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