Dowling: Spring and affordable food

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(HOST) Commentator Leora Dowling has been thinking about spring, the economy, and affordable food.

(DOWLING) Once upon a time there was a woman – me – whose idea of a shopping spree was a trip to the grocery store.

I loved to wander through the colorful produce section and stroll down the aisles filled with so many choices and possibilities.  I remember casually tossing plump artichokes and ripe mangos into my basket, trying pomegranate juice when it was a new product, and getting my parmesan cheese in big chunks. But the glory days of ignoring prices and buying whatever I wanted to under the heading of "justifiable purchase" is over.  So while I still need food, and therefore must shop, a lot of the pleasure is gone.

Today I came home from running the grocery-store gauntlet feeling tired and depressed.   Not only have I determined that I don’t need artichokes, I really can’t afford them anymore. Same thing goes for grapefruit.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about deflation – or lack of inflation – and if I were in the market for a new wardrobe or new car I’d be thrilled.  But here in Vermont food prices seem higher than ever.  And the process of shopping takes much longer than it used to.  I now plan a weeks worth of menus in advance and make a detailed list of what to buy.  I clip coupons.  I also plan how I’ll use leftovers.  And of course, I compare prices and take advantage of sales.  (Which explains the 6 pounds of linguini in my cupboard)

One bright spot is that the cost of locally grown and organic food doesn’t seem so outrageously high next to the regular stuff anymore.  I buy as much as I can afford.   And I carefully read the labels on dairy, eggs, and meat looking for the words "no added hormones" and "humanely treated."

I see other people shopping with equal care too, especially people with children.  We all seem a little shell-shocked by the cost of essential stuff like a loaf of bread.

I wonder who goes to the freezer section and buys the boxes of pre-made, crust-has-been- already-removed-for-you peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?  Or the bags of heat and serve hash brown poatoes.  Or the Jello that’s already been cut into pretty little bite-sized pieces?  Can there still be a market for this expensive, lazy food?

Somewhere, I suppose.  But I suspect far more people are choosing between food and medicine right about now.  The Vermont the Food Bank distributed almost 6.5 million pounds of food last year alone, and the number of people who have to avail themselves of free food has been climbing for years.

That’s another reason to welcome spring this year.  Farmer’s markets will be starting up again soon! And for the first time ever I’m going to plant a small vegetable garden, not just the usual tomatoes and basil.  I’m determined to discover new ways to top a plate of linguini with home-grown zucchini.

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