World Food Prices Skyrocket From pizza shops in New York to markets in Haiti, the high price of food is taking a toll. We talk to an array of people about how they are coping.
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World Food Prices Skyrocket

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World Food Prices Skyrocket

World Food Prices Skyrocket

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From the studios of NPR West, this is Day to Day, I'm Alex Cohen.


I'm Madeleine Brand. Today, our top story is rising food prices surely you've noticed at the grocery store.

COHEN: Things aren't just bad there - it's a global phenomenon. The U.N. says the whole world is facing food shortages. High prices and short supplies are sparking violence in countries where people are already struggling to survive. From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, people are angry about food shortages.

BRAND: Riots broke out in Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince this week as thousands of hungry protesters took to the streets. Mobs looted shops and tried to storm the presidential palace.

COHEN: Some Haitians have been forced to live on just bread and sugar. Abdolreza Abbassian is with the U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization, or FAO, he says they saw this problem coming in 2006 that's when world food reserves started dropping. The trouble he says, continued last year.

Mr. ABODOLREZA ABBASSIAN (Economist and Secretary of the Intergovernmental Group for Grains, U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization): Even though 2007 gave us a bumper crop at the global level, lots of exporting countries had problems. Australia had a drought, Europeans had floods and a drought, Black Sea Region, Ukraine had problems, so when supplies that started having a problem we flagged and we said well now here we have a problem because stocks are not there to help us, exporters have problems. So to all of that will translate very soon into very high prices and as months after months basically situation got worse.

BRAND: Mr. Abbasian says the reserves may recover, but that could take a decade to happen.

COHEN: Here in the United States, there are no food shortages. But in the last year, food prices have risen faster than any other time in almost two decades and it looks like 2008 won't be any different.

BRAND: The price of oil, the falling dollar, an overheated commodities market, these all can be blamed for a larger grocery bill.

COHEN: Restaurants are taking a big hit too. Michael Franks runs John's Pizza, it's on Bleeker Street in New York City. He says his costs are way up

Mr. MICHAEL FRANKS (Pizzeria Owner, New York): The price of wheat probably over the last five or six months I would say has gone from 13 dollars for a 50 pound bag to 31 dollars. You know, obviously, it hurts your bottom line.

COHEN: Franks says he's trying not to raise the price of a pie, but he's not sure how long he can hold out.

BRAND: Of course it's just not the price of wheat that's up. Soy beans are up corn is at record prices, up 30 percent since the start of this year to six dollars a bushel. That's good news for some farmers. Jim Andrew is a fifth generation farmer in Iowa. He grows both corn and soybeans. He's worried, though, about lower yields this year because of the weather.

Mr. JIM ANDREW (Farmer, Iowa): Typically, I would start to plant corn the 15th of April, and I have not as any of my neighbors moved a wheel yet. There's more rain and snow in the forecast for the rest of the week and so that will probably delay us where we would be set back and our optimum yields will not be available because we are getting a late start getting the crops in the field.

BRAND: Still, you're going to get some good prices for those crops?

Mr. ANDREW: Certainly and that's what's impacting the market somewhat is the fear that the U.S. farmer, nationwide, will not be able to get his crops in on time.

BRAND: So that would make the demand greater and therefore the prices higher.

Mr. ANDREW: Sure.

BRAND: And also the demand for ethanol is very high.

Mr. ANDREW: Yes it is. We're in an economy that just seems to continually need more fuel. I am particularly blessed to be located at what I call ground zero for ethanol production. There are four and potentially five ethanol plants within 25 miles of our farm location. So we have a fairly stable demand constantly for any corn that we produce. So we're in a good position, and that is the reason that people in the Midwest with the boom of bio fuels that is what is driving a great deal of the prosperity that in some ways we're not feeling the effects, those of us in the farm community, that our urban neighbors are feeling form the recession and all of the problems with the subprime mortgage and the problems of that nature.

BRAND: Of course, the other side to that is the more corn and soy gets diverted into fuels the less is available for food.

Mr. ANDREW: Well, you have to look at that as a mixed argument. Because I could make the argument that that food product that comes from the production of fuels you still have the soy meal and you still have the distiller dried grains. And food industry is getting very creative in being able to use those to use in packaged foods and additionally the livestock industry is coming up with very creative ways of feeding that to offset the whole kernel corn or the whole soybean.

BRAND: OK, so they are actually feeding pigs and cattle the leftovers from the corn and soy that's used for fuel?

Mr. ANDREW: Yes, yes.

BRAND: Now when you go to the grocery store you must see the other side to this. Food prices at the other end are rising. A lot of people are complaining of that and a lot of people are not able to afford as much food as they would like.

Mr. ANDREW: That is one of my concerns, perhaps not so much for those of us in the United States as I look at some of the peoples around the world that are dependent on aid from the United States in order to have enough in order to live through the next day. I would say that in the United States we have become very accustomed to a smaller amount of our overall income being spent for food.

If you look back to the 1950s during Harry Truman's time, I believe the American consumer was spending about 20 percent of their income for food and today it is eight percent or less. And because of that, often times the farmer is the natural one that is blamed when commodity prices are high. But the actual amount of grain that is used in a box of cornflakes or a loaf of bread is very minimal in price compared to the cost of the gasoline that it takes the truck to bring that loaf of bread to the local grocery store. And all of the transportation costs and the labor increases that go along with it.

BRAND: So with all this extra money, are you putting it away for the inevitable downturn?

Mr. ANDREW: We have suffered through good times and bad for about 30 years now, and it's nice to have one of these momentary movements up. We have been very conservative, that's the way you get to be five generations. And I jokingly say that my ancestors were from Scotland, and Scotsman are always known for being thrifty, so we are very conservative and are not making any bold moves and are making some outside investments with our additional profits so that we can ride through the lean times and hopefully carry this farming operation on into the sixth and seventh generation.

BRAND: Jim Andrew is a fifth generation Iowa farmer. Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. ANDREW: Thank you.

COHEN: With the cost of food growing higher, it may be little surprise that a near record number of Americans are making use of the Federal Food Stamp program. Food banks and soup kitchens across the country are also seeing a rise in need at a time when private donations and government aid are falling short. One New Hampshire church congregation decided to do something about the problem by finding out just how great the need really is. New Hampshire Public Radio's Dan Gorenstein has that story.

DAN GORENSTIEN: The Bethany Congregational Church in Greenland, New Hampshire set an ambitious goal for its members to raise enough money to purchase 50 tons of food and deliver it to 50 food pantries around the region. Church member Peter Hopkinson (ph) remembers when he first heard that.

Mr. PETER HOPKINSON (Church Member, Bethany Congregational Church): I thought, 50 tons of food, that's 100,000 pounds. It's 200,000 dollars.

GORENSTEIN: But before nearly 2,000 members started raising all that money, Bethany Church administrator Charlie Alcott (ph) says they sat down with the food banks.

Mr. CHARLIE ALCOTT (Church Administrator, Bethany Congregational Church): What they did not want was people reaching into their pantries and pulling out out-of-date products and delivering them in shopping bags.

GORENSTEIN: This was going to be a different kind of food drive.

Mr. ALCOTT: This was going to be us raising money in the church to purchase what the pantries themselves said they needed.

GORNSTEIN: In over 40 days, Alcott says church members surprised themselves, raising 65,000 dollars more than they set out to. In all, Bethany was able to purchase the 50 tons of food. Just in case you're wondering, 50 tons of food fills five tractor-trailers.

Unidentified Woman: You guys, bring the canned goods over here.

GORNSTEIN: Member Mike Lester (ph) says the food drive was so successful because church leaders inspired people to sacrifice.

Mr. MIKE LESTER (Church Member, Bethany Congregational Church): It goes against my nature. I'd rather spend it on myself, and I think of all the things I want and supposedly need, you know. My wife talked about it like, how much are we going to give? Like, boy, can we really give that much and it made a difference in our finances but more importantly it made a difference making a contribution and knowing in my heart that I did something that wasn't easy.

GORNSTEIN: So instead of spending their money on Red Sox tickets or a new TV, the Lesters donated 500 dollars to the drive. Bethany's donation couldn't have come at a better time. The New Hampshire Food Bank, which helps deliver food to pantries across the state, says requests are up 42 percent.

Mr. ROSS FRASIER (Media Relations Manager, America's Second Harvest): Starting in this past fall our food banks began to call us and tell us that they were having tremendous spikes in demand for emergency food, that food pantries and soup kitchens were having new people show up for help who they'd never seen before. A lot of these people are the working poor.

GORNSTEIN: That's Ross Frasier of America's Second Harvest, the nation's largest hunger relief organization, which oversees 200 food banks. Not only are more people seeking food, Frasier says, donations are down due in part to a smaller contribution from the USDA and less canned food. The 50-ton food drive from Bethany will allow the New Hampshire Food Bank to shift resources around, at least temporarily. The New Hampshire Food Bank estimates that a number of the pantries will run through their one-ton contribution in seven days. People at Bethany seem to put this project in perspective. They know this is probably the single largest food drive in the state's history. They also appreciate the fleeting nature of their effort. In the church parking lot volunteers have just finished packing up the last load of food for delivery.

Unidentified Man #1: Hey, Bruce, can we like pray over the end of this?

Pastor BRUCE BORIA (Pastor, Bethany Congregational Church): Yeah.

GORNSTEIN: About 20 people form a prayer circle with Pastor Bruce Boria.

Pastor BORIA: Just continue to pray Lord for the far-reaching implications of this act of kindness. Many families who are struggling, perhaps this will bring a sense of hope for them.

GORNSTEIN: Congregation member Katherine Minan knows all about the hope a person feels getting food. She remembers as a child someone would anonymously drop off food boxes at her mom's mobile home.

Ms. KATHERINE MINAN (Church Member, Bethany Congregational Church): I remember specifically opening the door one day and I probably was seven or eight, and I remember not saying anything. I just saw the box and I turned around and my mother was there and we grabbed each other and we fell down on our knees and just hugged and cried. We knew the potential of this box.

GORNSTEIN: Minan says the thing about getting those boxes was that there wasn't anyone to thank. So, she says, she tries to say thank you in how she lives. For NPR News, I'm Dan Gornstein in Concord, New Hampshire.

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