Friday, March 28th, 2008 13:11:37

Tightening the Belt and the Return of the Vegetable Garden

The AP article title Sam’s Club, Costco limit rice purchases as prices rise, by Marcus Kabel, caught my eye.

Just last night, as my mother fixed rice for my children’s dinner, she mentioned the increase in its price. At the time, I did not pay much attention, and certainly did not expect to read about U.S. rice rationing in the headlines the next day.

And it’s not just rice. The average price of gas is at an all-time high of more than $3.50 per gallon; this year, rice prices have risen 70 percent. Total food costs are projected to rise 5 percent this year. Based on the recent price stickers I have seen in the grocery store, my guess is that it will be higher.

In a recent CNN article, Mom’s new battle: The food price bulge, cancer researcher, mother and wife Amanda Richardson noted that the price squeeze has taught her an important lesson, while she has managed to lower total food costs while prices have climbed. Â

“Before, we were incredibly wasteful. We’d let food go bad. I am more conscientious now,” she said. “If prices go back down, I won’t return to my wasteful ways.”

People are beginning to cut back on eating out and buying luxury items – but are also starting to trade between categories. Maybe having an iPhone is more important than dining out, or a night dining out at a nice restaurant is more important than a new dress. People are beginning to weigh trade-offs a bit more seriously.

Maybe, just maybe, some good will come from the oil and food price increases, if we simply think from a positive perspective, and remember that, like all phases, this too will pass.

The 2003-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), noted that an estimated 66 percent of U.S. adults are overweight or obese. This is probably not new news to you. And you probably realize that this is not good news. Not good for the 66 percent who carry excess weight (and possibly endure health-related problems). Nor for the dwindling 34 percent of the population who will help subsidize the increased health-care costs of the majority. Maybe as a counter to higher oil prices and food prices, we can begin to tighten our belts a bit, and I mean literally. Following are a few ideas.

1.Drive less, walk and bike more. Just a few minutes a day of physical activity can create and enormous impact. The biggest impact of physical activity on improved longevity and quality of life can be achieved by almost anyone, according to Dr. Steven Blair, professor at the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina. If a person simply walks 10 minutes, three times a day, five days a week, then they will improve their aerobic fitness, feel better, and reduce the risk of chronic disease. We have strong evidence that this amount of exercise is beneficial and it is certainly feasible for most adults to get this amount of physical activity.

2. Eat less and better at home. According to a March 31, 2008 American Diabetes Association press release, a healthy meal need not be costly. Eating well and spending less are not mutually exclusive, said the ADA’s Ann Albright, Ph.D. In fact, healthier foods can actually save you money by reducing portion sizes and buying fewer high-calorie, high-priced foods. Tips include buying white eggs, boneless cuts of meat and using non-fat dry milk more.

3. Reduce the size of portions in restaurants. Smaller portions will cost less for the restaurants to make, leading to higher profits per serving. Smaller portions will lead to less food being eaten. In a 2005 study, Bad popcorn in big buckets: portion size can influence intake as much as taste, published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, moviegoers were given stale popcorn in big buckets, and they ate 34 percent more than those given the same stale popcorn in medium-sized containers. When moviegoers were served fresh popcorn in large tubs, they ate 45 percent more. One of the researchers, Dr. Brian Wansink, a professor of marketing and applied economics at Cornell University, noted: “We’re finding that portion size can influence intake as much as taste. Large packages and containers can lead to overeating foods we do not even find appealing.”

4. Plant a garden. Few things taste better than a home-grown tomato, as much of the nation learned during World Wars I and II, when Victory Gardens produced up to 40 percent of all vegetables consumed nationally. The more time and effort needed to plant and maintain a garden, the less time you will have to drive around in your SUV and shop, and you will be getting a bit of exercise.

5. Spend more time with family and friends. Take the time to spend time with the people most important to you — your friends and family. This can include playing games together, walking around the neighborhood, and sharing family dinners. After all, isn’t that what life is about how we spend our time?

As for my family’s efforts in these areas; we walked to school today, and are planning on planting garden in the backyard. I protested a bit at first, but have finally given in to the idea that fresh home-grown vegetables might be more important than the view from our living room.

While our finances might be a little tighter for a while, maybe we can savor life a bit more, tighten our belts and, when the flush times return, maybe we will remember, as Amanda Richardson noted, not to return to our wasteful ways.