April 29, 2008 -- Worried about the dramatically rising cost of food? Afraid of a shortage?
Well, then maybe it's time to clean out that old Cold War-era bunker and stockpile your favorite treats. Just move those gas masks to the side and start stacking up the canned string beans.
OK, so maybe that is a bit extreme. But some families have been talking about stockpiling to hedge against further increases and possible shortages.
The idea took hold last week when Costco and Sam's Club announced that they would limit customers to four wholesale-size 20-pound bags of imported jasmine, basmati and long-grain white rices per trip.
That has caused some concern, but think about the last time you bought 20 pounds of rice in one shopping trip, let alone 80, 100 or even 120 pounds.
The clubs' restrictions were probably not aimed at everyday consumers, however.
In a statement Friday, Sam's Club said: "These limits are designed to prevent large distributors or wholesalers from depleting our stock. We believe limiting rice purchases to four bags per visit is consistent with the needs of the majority of our members, including many restaurants."
In other words, the big chains are afraid some restaurants will deplete their stocks because their prices are cheaper than some traditional restaurant suppliers.
Stockpiling Hurts Everyone
The reasons for the food price increases include more grains being used for fuel production, increased demand in countries including China, and poor harvests.
For consumers concerned about rising food prices, stockpiling probably makes little economic sense, said Bill Knudson, a professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Michigan State University.
"The thing about stockpiling is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy," he said. "The easiest way to raise food prices is if everybody went out and stockpiled food."
In the past two decades food prices have only increased by an average of 2.5 percent each year. But from 2006 to 2007, prices spiked 4 percent. The Department of Agriculture is forecasting a 4 to 5 percent increase in retail prices this year.
But some individual staples have jumped in price.
The cost of white bread alone was 16.3 percent higher in March than a year earlier, according to the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics, which tracks inflation through the Consumer Price Index. Grade A large eggs were up nearly 35 percent during the same period and sliced bacon rose 4.6 percent.
Knudson said that when you compare that 4-5 percent increase to the compounded interest that families could make by saving their money instead, there is almost no financial incentive to stockpile.
Further, he said, you would need to find the space to store all the food and — more importantly — have to pay refrigeration costs for perishables such as dairy and meat products.
Knudson said that America has an adequate supply of food. Farmers this year planned 5.6 percent more acres of wheat and 17.5 percent more soybean acres.
Mark Welch, a grain marketing economist with Texas Agrilife Extension Service at Texas A&M, agrees that people should not be stockpiling food.
"No. We're not running of rice," Welch said. "We have adequate supplies of all the grain-based products that I follow."
There are some reasons to stock up on food — but food prices are not one.
Duck and Cover
Having extra food on hand was once the patriotic thing to do.
During the Cold War, the Department of Agriculture and the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization published a guide called "Family Food Stockpile for Survival."
In the 1961 guide, a two-pronged approach was suggested. First, families were encouraged to keep a two-week supply of their regular food. Second, they were told to have another two-week supply in their fallout shelter.
"Choose foods that will keep for months without refrigeration, require little or no cooking, and yet will provide a reasonably well-balanced family diet," the guide suggested.
Today the threat of nuclear war and having to live in our fallout shelters for months has faded. But there are still potential threats to our food supply — maybe a terrorist attack or a hurricane that knocks out power for a few days.
The Department of Homeland Security recommends that all families store at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food. The government suggest selecting foods that require no refrigeration, preparation or cooking and little or no water. Also, remember to pack a manual can opener and eating utensils.
Here are some other suggestions from the government on what to store:
Avoid salty foods, as they will make you thirsty.
Choose foods your family will eat.
Ready-to-eat canned meats, fruits and vegetables
Protein or fruit bars
Dry cereal or granola
Non-perishable pasteurized milk
High energy foods
Food for infants
If you don't trust the government, don't fret. The Michigan Militia publishes its own guide to stockpiling food.
"A plentiful supply of rice (preferably brown), beans, noodles, and peanut butter should always be kept on hand. You can still eat this stuff, even if there is never an emergency. Canned food will last up to a couple of years, so start buying canned vegetables, beef stew, and canned fruit soon," the militia says in its guide. "You can also find military food, and other survival foods at the next gun show, or at camping stores, and military surplus stores."
Finally, don't forget water. In an emergency you might not access to enough drinking water or water to add to your food. Homeland Security suggests one gallon of water per person per day for at least three days, for drinking and sanitation.