Tag Archives: Economics

Chickpea Soup – One Way to Manage Your Produce Budget

Chickpea SoupRecently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) projected that the lasting drought in California could have “large and lasting effects” on fruit and vegetable prices. Since California produces almost half of all U.S.-grown fruits and vegetables, their weather has budget implications for us all over the country. Experts are estimating that consumers will have to pay as much as 10% to 15% more this year for fresh produce than we paid in 2013.

A March 12 Hartford Courant article includes a host of ways to trim your grocery budget. One way to lower your expenditures is to use canned or frozen produce, which is something I tend to forget about doing. However, many supermarket brands offer organic options and low-sodium options, which are two of the main reasons why consumers avoid them. And then I thought about a chickpea soup that I just tried, inspired by a recipe in Martha Stewart Living from November 2013, and realized that this dish is a keeper for a few reasons. It was quite delicious, only took about 10 minutes to prepare, and was relatively inexpensive to create. This is a winning combination in my book! I omitted the garlic crisps and red pepper flakes, and substituted asiago cheese for parmesan. So if the higher produce prices start to pinch at your wallet, consider trying this chickpea soup as a tasty alternative that uses canned beans.

Ingredients:
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
5 cloves garlic, very thinly sliced (about 2 tablespoons)
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
2 cans (about 15 ounces each) chickpeas, drained and rinsed
4 cups chicken broth (homemade if you have it)
1 cup water
Coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
Finely shredded parmesan (or asiago) cheese

Preparation:
Heat oil in a medium pot over medium heat. Add garlic, season with salt and pepper. Cook until oil is infused and garlic is just beginning to color (do not let brown), 2 to 3 minutes.

Add chickpeas to oil in pot, increase heat to medium-high, and cook until heated through and creamy, about 5 minutes. Smash some of the chickpeas with a potato masher or the back of a wooden spoon. Add broth and water; simmer until thickened slightly, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Divide soup among 4 bowls. Top with parsley and cheese.

Breaking News: Dessert Poll Results, Bite Taken out of Cookie Price Index, Favorite Flavor Survey

Happy June everyone! Or perhaps not so happy after yesterday’s unexpected jobs report from the U.S. Department of Labor. Analysts were disappointed to see that only 69,000 jobs were created nationwide in the month of May and the unemployment rate rose to 8.2%. This information shows that the nation’s economy continues to recover ever so slowly from the recession that ended more than two years ago.

However, there is a glimmer of hope, particularly for economists who also like to bake cookies. I just calculated the 2012 Q2 SensitiveEconomist Cookie Price Index, which shows a drop of 17% from the previous quarter. Thanks to decreases in the prices for organic whole wheat flour, agave nectar, and grain sweetened chocolate chips, the price to bake a batch of my chocolate chip cookies declined from $13.37 to $11.40. The only ingredient that saw an increase in price (of 4%) was the local honey.

This price index result is running contrary to the latest U.S. consumer price food index, which saw a 0.2% increase in March. However, if we take a deeper look at the components of the U.S. index, there are similarities. The U.S. index saw prices for fruits and vegetables, cereals, nonalcoholic beverages, meats and eggs, and other miscellaneous items all increase – yet those foods (except for the eggs) are not included in the recipe for the chocolate chip cookies. The U.S. food index component that saw a decrease was dairy – which is included in my recipe as butter. The U.S. index does not track the prices of many organic or natural ingredients like agave nectar – so that is why the indices diverge.

Speaking of cookies…thanks to everyone who participated in my dessert poll, either at the CTVegFest or online. I tallied the 54 responses and have declared that Ice Cream is the favored dessert of the respondents, garnering 25% of the votes. This was followed by Cookies with 19%, Brownies with 15%, and Pie with 13%. For all of you ice cream lovers, there are two good recipes on this blog: one that requires an ice cream maker (Peach Ice Cream) and one that does not (Banana Chocolate “Ice Cream”). These are great to try as summer gets into full swing.

Now it is time for a new survey question: what is your favorite dessert flavor? Please participate by visiting my blog’s home page, clicking on your favorite dessert flavor, and clicking “vote.” Is chocolate really the king of dessert flavors? Or will strawberry, mint, or another fine flavor win in the end? I look forward to seeing what emerges from the data.

Being Naturally Sweet: Results from the CTVegFest

Greetings from a very happy CTVegFest speaker! The festival was a great weekend filled with exhibitors, raffles, cooking demonstrations and speakers. I spoke on Sunday, April 29 all about natural sweeteners. About 30 people joined the discussion “Being Naturally Sweet: The Costs and Benefits of a Refined Sugar-Free Diet.” When I polled the audience, I was quite impressed that the majority were already trying to limit the amount of refined sugars that they consume. I first talked about how I learned that I had food sensitivities, and that by listening to my body and consulting a second physician’s opinion really started me on the right path to adjusting my diet. We discussed how tricky it is to remove sugars from one’s diet, and the possible code words for “sugar” in an ingredient list – including, but not limited to, the following – dextrin, dextrose, glucose, saccharose, sucrose, and some syrups and sweeteners. By looking at cost comparisons we all agreed that the relative low expense of cane sugar is why it is the sweetener of choice for many food manufacturers – it’s just less expensive to make foods sweetened with cane sugar than with a natural sweetener.

Yet do not despair! Even though I cannot have cane sugar, and choose to limit the amount of other refined sugars that I consume, desserts can still be enjoyed! We talked about how to substitute with natural sweeteners using sweet conversions. The question did arise about liquid versus solid sweeteners – I have not found any trouble with substituting liquid alternatives like agave nectar, honey and maple syrup instead of using granulated sugar in baked goods such as cookies, cakes and brownies. For puddings, however, I sometimes have to use a little cornstarch for its thickening properties.

The benefits of natural sweeteners are many – so that’s why many of us at the CTVegFest aim to be naturally sweet. I enjoyed discussing my journey so far with the audience, and I intend to continue the discussion right here on this blog. So thank you for hearing me speak, reading my blog posts, commenting with questions and ideas – it’s wonderful to be part of a supportive community.

At the close of my speech I asked everyone to answer a short survey. Since I am an economist, I just love to collect data! I now have the results prepared for you. The survey consisted of three questions involving rating favorite desserts, naming a favorite dessert flavor, and listing a favorite food. Thirty-one people answered the survey.

The results of the favorite dessert choices are shown in this pie chart. As for first choice selections, the group was evenly split between cookies and ice cream.
However, if the first, second and third choices are included, ice cream slightly edges out cookies.

When asked to list a favorite dessert flavor, the choice is overwhelmingly chocolate! Twenty-three of the respondents selected chocolate as their favorite dessert. I am certainly not surprised by that result! Vanilla was a distant second with three responses, and cinnamon came in third with two mentions.

And what were the respondents’ favorite foods? The answers ranged from green smoothies to pasta, and from filet mignon to chickpeas. However, eight of the responses involved seafood. Yum!

Would you like to provide your dessert preference? Please do in my first poll! All you have to do is click on which dessert category is your favorite and then click on “vote.” It will be interesting to see if the results are the same as or differ from the CTVegFest audience. The poll will be available on the front page of my blog for the rest of the month, and then we can check the answers.

Thanks again to all of you who participated in the CTVegFest! And thanks for taking my dessert poll!

Be a Guest at the CTVegFest

The Connecticut Vegetarian and Healthy Living Festival (CTVegFest) is only two weeks away! It is taking place at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford on April 28 and 29. Whether you have been a vegan for years or do not know the definition of a vegan, there is a wide assortment of speakers, demonstrations, exhibitors and entertainment that will interest you. As you know from reading my blog, I am not a vegetarian although I love vegetables and healthy living.

Speaking of speakers, the schedule is complete and there will be a great variety of issues being discussed during the course of the festival. There are presenters involving:
* Nutrition, Exercise, and Wellness
* Animal Treatment
* Cooking and Raw Foods
* Alternative Medicine
* Energy
* Film
* Entertainment

Continuing to speak about speakers, I am honored to be one! I will be discussing the costs and benefits of natural sweeteners on Sunday, April 29 at 12pm! My talk is called Being Naturally Sweet: The Costs and Benefits of a Refined Sugar Free Diet. I certainly hope that you can stop by while enjoying the rest of the festival!

If you have any ideas or questions that you would like me to address in my talk, please send me a note or comment below. Enjoy your day!

The First SensitiveEconomist Cookie Price Index

I am sometimes asked to name my favorite economic indicator. Don’t get me wrong – this does not come up in conversation all that often, although sometimes when a group of economists get together they talk about these things. I am not sure that I could pick my absolute favorite indicator although I am partial to the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Why? Well, the CPI measures the change over time in the prices paid for a “typical” group of goods and services. The CPI is a signal of inflation in the economy and is used for adjusting dollar values and cost of living calculations (including Social Security benefits).

In order to calculate the CPI, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics surveys thousands of households across the country regarding how much they pay for items including food and beverages, housing, apparel, transportation, medical care, recreation, education and communication. It’s a good way to get a general sense of inflation, however I decided that it was time to add a SensitiveEconomist touch and create my own price index based on common ingredients that I purchase for my favorite foods.

I found inspiration from my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe, and used its ingredients to create the price index. Here is how it works (the methodology): I looked for the lowest prices for each ingredient on Amazon.com (except for the local honey, because by definition I buy it locally). Then I calculated how much of each ingredient I use in one batch and multiplied that ratio by the total price I paid for the entire container. Summing up the prices per batch of all the ingredients results in how much it costs me to bake one batch of cookies. Over time I can check the prices and see if the price per batch rises or falls. To see my calculations, view my excel file: Price Index 2012-Feb

The first Cookie Price Index shows that it costs $13.37 to bake one batch of these fabulous, delicious chocolate chip delights (about 32 cookies)! That’s less expensive than buying cookies from a bakery or specialty shop. It will be interesting to see how this tracks over time and if it corresponds at all with the federally-published price indices.

A Few Tips to Save as Food Costs Rise

A few weeks ago, I found some research about the price of peanut butter being on the rise. And now there are forecasts that other foods are going to see price increases in the near future. This article by the Star Tribune (Minneapolis) provides some helpful hints on saving some cash while still enjoying a few of our favorite staples.

Bacon: Since the price of feed has been on the rise, the hog industry has decreased its production. In order to save on this food item choose those on sale and freeze the extras. A good substitute for the pork product is turkey bacon.

Beef: Increasing demand from China, Korea and Mexico is putting a premium on the price of beef. When at the grocery store, look for products that have a reduced price for a quick sale – you will want to eat or freeze immediately, but you can save some cash that way. You can also purchase cheaper cuts of meat and tenderize with a marinade or cook in a slow cooker.

Cereal: A portion of corn production is being used for ethanol, and the wacky weather has affected oat, wheat and corn crops. In order to save, check out online coupon sources such as smartsource.com or coupons.com. The increased corn prices will also affect popcorn prices – so buy in bulk now and store for use over a period of time.

Milk: Milk exports are at an all-time high because there is a growing demand from Mexico, Philippines and Egypt. In order to find a deal, buy on sale and freeze – thawed milk is best used for cooking but can be used for drinking too.

Halloween Food Statistics

Another holiday is upon us, which means that the U.S. Census has compiled another set of statistics. The observance of Halloween, which dates back to Celtic rituals, has long been associated with images of witches, ghosts and vampires. There are also foods related to Halloween; below are a few highlights from the Census findings.

1.1 billion pounds
Pumpkin production by major pumpkin-producing states in 2010. Illinois produced an estimated 427 million pounds of the vined orange gourd. California, New York and Ohio were also major pumpkin-producing states, each with an estimate of more than 100 million pounds.
Source: USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service

1,177
Number of U.S. manufacturing establishments that produced chocolate and cocoa products in 2009, employing 34,252 people. California led the nation in the number of chocolate and cocoa manufacturing establishments, with 135, followed by Pennsylvania, with 111.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, County Business Patterns: 2009, NAICS codes(31132 & 31133)

409
Number of U.S. establishments that manufactured non chocolate confectionary products in 2009. These establishments employed 16,974 people. California led the nation in this category, with 45 establishments.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, County Business Patterns: 2009, NAICS code (31134)

24.7 pounds
Per capita consumption of candy by Americans in 2010.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Industrial Reports, Confectionery: 2010, Table 1

Nuts About Fudge Brownies and Walnut Statistics

I could not resist baking these fudgy brownies that I found in the September 2011 issue of Cooking Light. Could I change the recipe so it did not have sugar but still had that fudge quality? I was willing to give it a try.

Walnuts, of the tree nut family, are optional in this recipe. According to the George Mateljan Foundation, walnuts are a great source of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients. Almost 40% of the world’s walnuts are grown in the U.S., mostly in California. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 485,000 tons of walnuts will be harvested in California in 2011, down 4% from the previous year. The crop is supposed to be of high quality because of the mild temperatures during the growing season. The price per ton of the harvested walnuts is not yet confirmed for 2011 although last year’s price of $2,110 per ton was the second highest price in the past 20 years. During those 20 years, the highest price per ton was $2,290 in 2007, and the lowest price was $886 in 1999.

All of this talk about walnuts is leading me to think about these delicious brownies…and my successful attempt at creating this dessert without refined sugar. Hooray! Enjoy the dessert!

Refined-Sugar Free Walnut Fudge Brownies

Ingredients
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup agave nectar
3/4 cup cocoa powder
1/4 cup honey
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup grain-sweetened chocolate chips
1/3 cup fat-free milk
6 tablespoons butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup chopped walnuts, divided

Preparation
1. Preheat oven to 350°.
2. Combine flour and next 5 ingredients (through salt) in a large bowl. Combine 1/2 cup chocolate and milk in a small saucepan; melt chips on low heat, stirring occasionally. Stir in butter, vanilla, and eggs. Add milk mixture, 1/4 cup chocolate, and 1/4 cup nuts to flour mixture; stir to combine.
3. Pour the batter into a 9-inch square metal baking pan coated with cooking spray; sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup nuts. Bake at 350° for 19 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out with moist crumbs clinging. Cool in the pan on a rack. Cut into squares.

I am sharing this recipe with Joy of Desserts, Simply Sugar and Gluten Free, Beauty and Bedlam, Lady Behind the Curtain, This Chick Cooks, Miz Helen’s Country Cottage, Food Trip Friday, Sweet as Sugar Cookies and Something Swanky.

Quick! Make These Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies Before Prices Increase!

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, the prices for peanuts and peanut butter are on the rise. The peanut supply is lower than normal due to two factors: (1) fewer peanuts were planted because farmers opted to grow more profitable cotton and corn, and (2) the prolonged high temperatures this summer adversely affected the peanut crop.

Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia produce the majority of the nation’s peanuts. According to the USDA, an extreme drought in Texas and Oklahoma has reduced the peanuts harvested.

J.M. Smuckers, which makes JIF, has announced that the price of its peanut butter will increase 30% starting in November. Other peanut companies are likely to follow suit.

So what should we do? I say let’s bake, bake, bake…and fast before the prices rise. There are lots of peanut butter foods from which to choose – I have already shared recipes for Peanut Butter Cups, Honey Peanut Butter Frosting and Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Brownies, and now I am happy to share a terrific recipe for Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies below. The recipe was inspired by Terry Walters’ Clean Food; I used whole wheat flour instead of teff and swapped grain-sweetened for semisweet chocolate chips. I plan on enjoying these delicious cookies often…and stocking up on peanut butter this month so I can keep baking them through the winter.

Ingredients:
1-1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup chunky 100% organic peanut butter
1 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup grain-sweetened chocolate chips

Directions:
Preheat oven to 350°F.

Combine all dry ingredients in one bowl and all wet ingredients in another. Pour wet ingredients over dry and blend until just combined – do not overmix. Fold in chocolate chips.

Drop batter by heaping teaspoons onto cookie sheet. Place in oven and bake 13 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove from oven and place directly on wire rack to cool. Makes approximately 20 cookies.

I am sharing this recipe with Joy of Desserts, Simply Sugar and Gluten Free, Balancing Beauty and Bedlam, Lady Behind the Curtain, This Chick Cooks, Miz Helen’s Country Cottage, Food Trip Friday and Sweet as Sugar Cookies.

Steak and Statistics

Did you know that the first observance of Labor Day is believed to have been a parade of 10,000 workers on September 5, 1882, in New York City, organized by Peter J. McGuire, a Carpenters and Joiners Union secretary? By 1893, more than half the states were observing “Labor Day,” and Congress passed a bill to establish a federal holiday in 1894. President Grover Cleveland signed the bill soon afterward, designating the first Monday in September as Labor Day. Thanks to the U.S. Census for this information and the statistics that follow.

How are you celebrating this holiday? I have had the opportunity to go shopping to take advantage of some fabulous sales, along with visiting family and friends I haven’t seen in awhile. I had a “Wicked” good time seeing that musical too! And what’s on the menu for dinner tonight? Grilled steak! It is such an appropriate Labor Day entree, don’t you think? Enjoy the following statistics and your Labor Day.

153.2 million
Number of people 16 and older in the nation’s labor force in July 2011.

84.7%
Percentage of full-time workers 18 to 64 covered by health insurance during all or part of 2009.

Americans work in various occupations. Below is a sample:
Teachers (preschool – grade 12): 3,039,523
Computer Operators: 101,889
Actors: 10,980
Telephone Operators: 32,394
Bus Drivers: 265,429
Bakers: 117,405
Telemarketers: 55,733
Hairdressers, hairstylists and cosmetologists: 395,503
Janitors and building cleaners: 1,478,204

26.2 million
Number of female workers 16 and older in management, professional and related occupations. Among male workers, 16 and older, 24.0 million were employed in management, professional and related occupations.

53%
Projected percentage growth from 2008 to 2018 in the number of network systems and data communication analysts. Forecasters expect this occupation to grow at a faster rate than any other. Meanwhile, the occupation expected to add more positions over this period than any other is registered nurses (581,500).

76.1%
Percentage of workers who drive alone to work. Another 10.0 percent carpool and 5.0 percent take public transportation (excluding taxicabs).

25.1 minutes
The average time it takes people in the nation to commute to work. New York and Maryland had the most time-consuming commutes, averaging 31.4 and 31.3 minutes.

3.2 million
Number of workers who face extreme commutes to work of 90 or more minutes each day.