Food mortgages

Remember when a trip to the supermarket didn’t require a major investment?

Food prices have climbed so much recently that buying groceries should now come with a mountain of qualifying paperwork, like a second mortgage.

“Sorry, sir,” the cashier would say, “but it appears you don’t have the financial history to take on this much debt. You’d better put back the ice cream.”

Food prices are tied to energy prices -- shipping food to your supermarket requires diesel -- and we all know how that’s gone lately. Truckers are going broke, farmers are barely staying afloat, and the oil barons would be laughing all the way to the bank if weren’t for the strain of carrying all that money.

Meanwhile, the rest of us are standing in the supermarket aisles, trying to decide whether we can afford to invest in dessert.

Maybe this is the latest strategy for curing obesity -- make food so expensive that we Americans have to curtail our eating. Won’t work, of course, because the most fattening foods are the cheapest.

The government tells us we should eat healthy fish and lean meat and fresh fruit and vegetables, then the prices on those items go through the roof. Pretty soon, all we can afford is hyphenated food like mac-and-cheese and Rice-a-Roni and Chef Boy-Ar-Dee. Every day, we get a little fatter and a little poorer.

It starts to feel like it would be cheaper to eat dollar-menu fast food all the time -- at least you wouldn’t have to heat up the kitchen -- but who can afford enough gasoline to sit in a drive-thru line? And, if you eat burgers all the time, it eventually will cause your spleen to explode.

I’d been somewhat insulated from the latest surge of food price inflation because I hadn’t been doing the grocery shopping. For years, my wife was the breadwinner, and I did the actual shopping for bread. But once she joined me in working at home, she took over the hunting and gathering.

My wife’s a more canny shopper than I am. She’ll go to three different discount grocery stores to get the best deals and come home with loads of food for less money than I might spend on, say, beer.

Bargain-shopping makes for strange combinations sometimes and some unfamiliar labels in the pantry, but she knows how to whip these items into delicious meals that might not even involve the microwave, so it turns out fine.

Recently, though, she was busy and I went to the store. I did it my usual way -- no coupons, no comparison shopping, same supermarket I always use because I know where everything is.
Holy mackerel! No, wait, mackerel’s too expensive. Let’s say: Holy ramen noodles! I couldn’t believe how much prices have soared.

I started paying attention to prices, hunting the cheapest brands, putting stuff back, and I still spent $200 on a not-quite-full cart of groceries. At the checkout stand, I swiped the “club card” that entitles me to special prices, then played Bob Barker -- “Come on down!” -- while I watched the total on the register readout diminish only slightly.

I sheepishly brought the groceries home. Our two teen-aged sons had it all eaten within, oh, three days. Then they wanted to know why we were out of ice cream.

“Because,” I told them, “I’m waiting for the paperwork to clear on the home-equity loan.”

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