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Marion Nestle’s simple rules

From Opus One blog by
February 27, 2009

I love Marion Nestle and continue to find her quick and concise thoughts useful.

Here is the latest from her about some recent research results — Duh! (Marion’s precise word, not mine). Too funny.

Examining food budgets - Part 2

Spending to save?

From Opus One blog by
February 17, 2009

Be forewarned: as always, my writing tends to be overly “train-of-though” (some would say a train-wreck of grammar) and is therefore often “enhanced” with typos and questionable punctuation — don’t hesitate to have fun making fun of it ... everyone else does ;).

Last week I started a series of posts based on some spending statistics that I have continually heard about, but never quite fully appreciate. These are meant to not to be judgements on the specific choices of others, but to challenge all of us to think about how we budget our money — in good times and in bad — and how those decisions effect both the food we eat and the healthier lives people generally strive to achieve.

Today, I may wander a bit from the core thought of food spending, but will try to follow up the first post with some more thoughts on budgets, food, health and how bad economic times bring out some seemingly counterintuitive ideas that sometimes can have a very positive effect (short- and long-term).

The other day there was an NPR show that was questioning the “Spending to save” thinking of the current US congress. Basically, how can we address the seemingly conflicting ideas of “. Americans are not saving enough anymore” and “. we need stimulus [spending] to help get us out of a economic crunch that was primarily driven by excessive spending and borrowing.

The guests did a great job of trying to talk though how some spending, if properly used to drive longer-term reduction in future costs, could be a wonderful way too spend to save. If only it were that easy.

There are some obvious one’s like switching out to compact florescent, or LCD lighting where possible — the positive effects can be astounding. There is also other spending on improving insulation through new windows or other upgrades in our houses that seems like a easy way to increase consumer spending in the short-run with the goal of saving money in the future.

Is shopping a CostCo actually saving money in the long run? Does buying from your local farmers’ market have long-term savings/cost impact? How about how we cook our meals (electric, gas, microwave)? How about the kind of ingredients? How do all of these effect our food eco-system? Many questions that may have both good and bad short- versus long-term tradeoffs.

Rather than just pointing out what I think are obvious pros and cons of some of these ideas, I wonder what everyone else thinks are the winners and losers in the debate of whether we can spend our way out of this recession with smart spending to save ideas, or not?

I will start it out with one thought... CFLs are a great idea, but is the impact of throwing away current light bulbs we all have stockpiled — and let’s admit it, we all have a monster package of them in the basement or a closet (thanks CostCo) — still unused have an mitigate the long-term benefit for some of us until we use up those old blubs? Is this a case that might be a don’t spend and save now example for some?

I am planning to dig in deeper on a couple that I have in mind related to the food we eat and post about them soon, but for the time being, I would also love to hear anyone else thinks on this subject. Thoughts?

Examining food budgets - Part 1

A few household statistics

From Opus One blog by
February 12, 2009

Author note: be forewarned, I am a fiend for typos and questionable punctuation — don’t hesitate to have fun making fun of it ... everyone else does ;).

Over the last months there has been much discussion about irresponsible actions by the likes of Wall Street, the housing industry, consumers ... and the list just goes on. I continue to wonder how this all really effects the thinking of the average person in both the short run and long-term as it relates to food.

The word budget is part of every discussion it seems — and this is probably a good thing for people to start noticing again — but, do we really know how to put into some kind of context? Are we actually examining our own habits? Making the hard choices ourselves that we are asking of others? Is economic recovery really possible if it is measured purely by consumer spending?

But first, I started digging around the basic statistics on household income and expenses in American and was frankly shocked at a couple of things. (Most, if not all, of the following are from the most recent Bureau of Labor statistics report released in late 2008 for the period ending 2006 and numbers are for the average household unless otherwise stated.) Here are just a few factoids to think about the choices we make each day:

  • Just over 45% of all American households spend more than the earn each year (Any bets on what that number was in late 2008, even higher?)
  • Food accounts for roughly 12.6% of expenses. (It was almost 30% in late 1960’s.)
  • We spend as much on our cell phones as landline phones — and combined, roughly $1,100/yr in 2006 — that equals 20% of our food total expenditures. (Why again do we need both phones?)
  • Cable/TV/Internet services account for yet another $1,000/year (again, almost 20% of our food budget)
  • Americans love to be mobile... transportation accounts for 25% more of our budgets than food does.

Obviously, I am looking at few bits of the picture, and they are averages that can skew things a bit, but not so much at the relative measures are not good indications of where we spend our money and how. At first glance, it would seem we nourish ourselves more through electronic gadgets and entertainment that on food. (And I do recognize the irony in saying this when my job is to get people to interact and share online using these same electronic gadgets.) But, hese are just some initial thoughts here and I think there is much more to be said and more practices to be challenged... but that can follow later.

There are so many thoughts that come from the few statistics I listed above, but I just wanted to let some things sink in... Any thoughts out there? Does this all sound nutty, or am I just nuts for asking?

More to follow...

Life as a Dog?

Treats optional

From Opus One blog by
February 2, 2009

Completely unrelated to food, but loved these pictures of Calla, the dog, on the blog of one of our newer Culinate members Laura.

Check out the photos of the dog at the “beach”. Simple pleasures are such fun to watch!

Death penalty for Chinese food scandal?

From Opus One blog by
January 22, 2009

Although I think what the company execs did in China is truly deplorable, but the death penalty? Check out this article from the BBC Chinese milk scam duo face death.

I guess these corporate execs won’t be showing up on other boards in the future, but what about the government officials who were responsible for the oversight and the actual coverup to keep it under wraps until after the Olympics?

Sadly, I think this could be a great incentive for more coverups in China. The next war is going to be on the food front, eh?

Cutting consumption... great post by Kelly

From Opus One blog by
November 6, 2008

Here is a great story about quality vs. quantity.

Meat quality over quantity

Less can deliver so much more — again, perhaps cutting consumption be a good thing for a “consumeristic society” like ours?

Whole Foods - Unit pricing confusion on purpose?

From Opus One blog by
October 20, 2008

With all the talk about the economy possibly going into recession (seriously we have been there for a while, but that is another story) I have begun again to look more carefully at unit pricing in the grocery store. You know, those hard to read tiny little labels on the shelf with the secondary, and ultra-tiny print, per Oz. or per Gallon prices printed on them.

This in turn, reminded me of a pet peeve of mine with some grocery stores’ confusing use of unit pricing on products sold. Are stores intentionally deceptive, or just sloppy at printing the price tags? I just don’t know, but Whole Foods just brought this issue back front and center with me yesterday ... I will get to that thought in just a moment.

But first, a quick refresher course on why we even have unit pricing in grocery stores. It is actually quite simple law that was intended to help consumers truly make equivalent price comparisons between brands and different package sizes. Great idea, in theory, but in practice it was often misused and turned against the consumer.

For example, back in a previous life working for a large consumer products company (whom shall stay nameless for those who don’t already know) my co-workers and I were constantly amazed at Fred Meyer stores for their out-right deceptive unit pricing practices. They would show a 6-pack of soda in price/ounce, a 2-liter bottle in price/gallon, and sometimes 12-packs of cans in price/pint. Or going down my favorite isle, you could find a 1/2 gallon of ice cream priced side-by-side in either pounds, gallons, ounces or pints.

In either case, the math would simple dumbfound the average person into just not being able to make an sense of price comparisons between similar products that were in potentially different size packages.

How many ounces are in a pound? An how many ounces are there in a gallon? Can you remember if it is the same conversion factor or different? Most people forget they are completely different conversions when you are talking about liquids and solids or powders. Anyway, presented with enough of this challenges of different measurement conversions, people tend to give us. Therein was a primary reason to have the unit pricing law in the first place.

Now, finally back to Whole Foods and their unit pricing “scheme.” First of all, I admit that I don’t shop there much because I tend to subscribe to the idea that their nick-name, “Whole Paycheck”, is often an accurate one. Plus, our local food coop, Food Front, is just a few blocks walk away from home, fairly priced, and simply a nicer place to go for general grocery shopping. But I always felt that given Whole Foods’ perceived premium service, and quality of products, they could certainly be up-front and clear with their unit pricing. Boy was I shocked when, just on the couple of items I needed to pick up yesterday, Whole Foods had used mixed unit pricing measurements on all the categories I was buying: canned fish (tuna), ice cream, flour.

I will give just one such example found in the Tuna section since the mix-measurement unit pricing seems so consistent throughout the Whole Foods I was in (i.e. confusing, and strangely consistent targeted unit pricing schemes).

Canned Tuna:
- 365 Brand Tuna (Whole Food private label), $1.49/can, list unit price of$3.97/lb.
- American Tuna (6oz can), $4.99/can, listed unit price of $0.83/oz. (By the way, this spectacular tasting for canned Tuna and has me rethinking the $1.49/can tuna)

(Odd side-note: American Tuna label says it has three 2-ounce servings per can, and the 365 Whole Foods one says it only has two 2-ounce servings. Both are 6-ounce cans; typo, magic, or is Whole Foods robbing me?) ;)..

Although most of should be able to quickly to the math conversion on these, the fact that 1-pound is actually 16-ounces, makes the math actually a bit more difficult. I contend, it makes it difficult enough to get you to just ignore it.

But, I then asked myself, to what end? Why make the private label brand appear as a larger number ($3.79)? Then I did the conversion of the American Tunaprice to a per pound price which turns out to be a whopping $13.28/pound. Now it makes more sense. As hard as it is to pay $4.99/can, it is almost inconceivable that they could sell any at $13.28/pound when fresh Tuna can be found around $16/pound.

There is certainly a case to say they are only trying to provide selection to the consumer since the American Tuna brand is line-caught, American fisherman are getting a premium rate for their catch, and it just tastes so much better. But, my suspicion is that that is not the reason.

Could it just be they are sloppy with making their pricing labels? Seems unlikely since I check around the store, and almost without an exception, the items priced using the “alternate” unit pricing (lbs. versus oz., units versus counts, etc.) were the private label Whole Foods 365 branded products in almost every case. Could it be they are trying to steer you to a particular brand? Probably the case, but why did the scheme almost always show a larger number ($0.83 versus $3.97)?

I am especially confused since I once worked as a package marketing manager for where my sole job was to find the most consumer friendly, and profitable package size and configuration for our products and then communicate that value to the buyer. This one eludes me.

Any thoughts by anyone else? Any examples, you have seen to confirm, or contradict this method of unit pricing deception? And why does Whole Foods do this, but not Fred Meyers* or New Seasons?

*P.S. I went by Fred Meyers thinking they would be even more “slippery” on this practice, and to my surprise, they have completely gone legit (on labeling at least) and I could not find a single example of different measuring units within any category of products. I ended up going down a dozen isles, and not a single inconsistency. I wonder if they got in trouble, or are actually realizing the value of making shopping choices easier. It still does not make me a fan of Freddie’s, but it certainly makes me even more suspicious of Whole Foods practices.

Can I manage the Winter garden all by myself?

By
October 7, 2008

My house is part of a house split into two. There is a large front yard that has been turned into a wonderful garden with blueberries, garden beds with peas, tomatoes, etc. all due to the hard work of my neighbor Hilda. She does a wonderful job of setting things up, choosing what will grow each year and I just get to harvest and eat.

The rub is that she and her husband Bill spend their winter in Melbourne, Australia, and she has been trying for several years to get me to run the garden area throughout the winter. The real challenge will be, “what to grow?” Oregon is fairly friendly in the winter, but I think I need some help. If blueberries grew in the winter, boy wouldn’t that be great (and easy).

Thoughts? Send me a note at mark@culinate.com

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