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Stew: Making the Most of Your Food Dollar

What is stew?
That is the winning response to this Jeopardy statement: "This ancient food preparation gives you a complex seasonal meal at one of the best values for your grocery dollar." Stew is a fabulous winter staple and it's one of the world's oldest food traditions. At its heart, stew is a food preparation where more than one ingredient is slow cooked in a liquid base. These days, stew is becoming relevant again while we try to counteract the substantial increase in meat and poultry prices. In what is referred to by cattle ranchers as the perfect storm, there are many forces at work that are collectively raising prices to never before seen highs. Stews offer a way to make the most of your meat and poultry food dollar as well as offer a delicious winter meal.

Element One of the Perfect Storm
The Midwest summer of 2003 was a disappointing one for farmers and gardeners due to the drought. There has been drought or floods through parts of the grain belt for the last several years. Grains make up a large part of the human food supply but commercial livestock is entirely dependant upon it. Lack of supply and ever-increasing demand is driving the price of grains up considerably. Already, egg suppliers are increasing their prices in response to the increase in grain prices. Farmers that haven't yet run through the grains they purchased for this year's crop are holding steady. Things, however, are about to change. There are also other perspectives on why prices are going up. Some believe the increase is a correction to artificially low prices. No matter what the explanation, the fact remains there has been an increase in cost at the base level of livestock products, including eggs, dairy and actual cuts of meat.

Element Two
So, phase one of the perfect storm is the increase in grain prices. Phase two is the long-term effect of low sale price of beef to ranchers. Because so many ranchers have struggled making a living, they have recently either gotten out of ranching altogether or they are meticulously managing small herds to survive on very tight profit margins. So, we now have fewer ranchers producing ever-diminishing herds. At the beginning of this year, domestic production had fallen by eight million head. U.S. beef production isn't the full story though. With mad cow as well as hoof and mouth disease and what ever else is out there, imported meats have been hugely scaled back.

Element Three
The last element of the storm to contend with is the huge increase in the consumption of beef and other kinds of meats. One statistic states the average American's consumption of beef as having increased by three pounds annually over the last ten years. Believe it or not, being a vegetarian isn't as fashionable as it once was. Currently it is much more fashionable to swear off bread and beer for life and eat a steak instead. There is a great deal of discussion of the role of carbohydrates in our diets and in America's struggle with obesity. Many diets advise that we significantly reduce carbohydrates and use other food sources to satiate our hunger. The low-carb solution often calls for replacing the carbohydrates with proteins. Eggs, meat and cheese are low in carbohydrates, and lots of folks are having success with their weight-loss goals following these regimens. No matter what your opinion of this diet, it is greatly increasing demand for livestock products.

Organic Dairy Prices
In the past, I was a naive natural food co-op shopper who really thought that what was happening in the conventional world really had little to do with me. My awakening happened several years ago when there was a milk fat shortage. Sounds a bit odd, but milk fat is in not just milk but cheese, ice cream, yogurt and baked goods to name a few staple items. When the conventional market couldn't keep up with the demand, it started to buy up organic milk fat at premium prices. In the long run, this helped raise organic dairy prices for the duration. In addition to experiencing the same drought and natural forces as any farmer in the last several years, the organic farmer has seen an incredible rise in the competition for organic feed, land, and stock. It's very difficult for many of our small-scale organic farmers to afford the cost of organic production. Now with the rise in price of an already expensive supply and the rise in demand from natural, gourmet, and conventional markets, we'll definitely be seeing an increase in natural and organic prices in our little meat case.