December, 2008

Fruits of Thought

Counting Our Blessings

Toward the end of 1992, Queen Elizabeth II gave a speech in which she declared herself not unhappy to see that year finished: “1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an Annus Horribilis.”

The Queen did not invent the phrase but she popularized it, and annus horribilis, which is Latin for “horrible year,” has since entered into the lexicon.

With the stock market down and “crisis” in the air, is it right to look at this year drawing to a close as an annus horribilis for us all? We have our challenges and it is not trivial when people lose their life savings because their homes suddenly have negative equity or their 401-Ks are decimated. Still, it would be ahistorical to think this is the “worst of times.” Yes, we are in a recession and have problems with foreclosures, but it is worth reminding ourselves that our 6.7 percent unemployment rate means that 93.3 percent of all Americans who want a job have a job. TransUnion reports 3.53 percent of mortgages in America are delinquent, which means 96.47 percent of Americans are paying their mortgages in a timely way.

It has been a good year in other ways as well: For the first time, life expectancy surpassed 78 years as it rose for men and women, for blacks and whites. There were declines of more than 6 percent in deaths from stroke and respiratory disease, a drop of more than 5 percent in deaths from heart disease and diabetes. In fact, despite all the talk about the epidemic of diabetes caused by obesity, the decline in deaths from diabetes pushed that disease out of the Top 5 diseases and allowed Alzheimer’s disease — which stayed about the same — to become the fifth most deadly disease in the country. Flu and pneumonia deaths dropped by 13 percent and infant mortality dropped 2 percent.

One other thing: Fresh produce sales are on a track to finish 2008 at an all-time high. In fact, many good things happened in the fresh produce industry this year: A new Farm Bill for the first time dealt seriously with the industry’s concerns and included important new initiatives, such as the USDA School Fruit & Vegetable Snack program, which will generate benefits in the form of increased consumption for years to come. The industry-wide 5-A-Day promotion was successfully transitioned to a new, more progressive Fruits & Veggies More Matters program. PMA transformed its dated education foundation into a modern Foundation for Industry Talent and is closing in on raising $5 million to help attract and retain the best and brightest people for the produce industry. Fresh Express presented the results of its research effort to help enhance food safety while the Center for Produce Safety started funding other research efforts.

There has also been an explosion of new retail concepts: small footprint stores, such as Tesco’s Fresh & Easy and Wal-Mart’s new Marketside concept and niche concepts, such as Sam’s Club’s new Más Club, focused on Latinos, and Publix’s new GreenWise concept, attempting to deliver “green” food without attitude. All these and more are providing new venues for selling fresh produce.

And there are reasons to think things may be getting better for consumers: The American Automobile Association tells us that on July 17, 2008, the national average price of gasoline hit an all-time high of $4.12. As of Dec. 2, 2008, the price had declined for 76 consecutive days and was down to $1.81, the lowest since 2005. That is an awfully big savings for consumers all across the country. Suddenly, there is a boom in refinancing as consumers look to take advantage of the decline in mortgage rates. This will increase disposable income for many.

Despite all the wailing about how bankrupt everyone is, sales on so-called Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving that is traditionally the biggest sales day of the year, actually rose 3 percent from the previous year. On so-called Cyber Monday, online sales were up 15 percent over 2007.

Sure, many retailers and restaurants are not doing well, but others, such as Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, are thriving. Even upscale retailers are starting to adjust. After suffering double-digit sales declines month after month, Saks Fifth Avenue is working with manufacturers to offer discounts on high-quality, stylish goods and its sales drop in November shrunk to only 5.2 percent on a same-store sales basis.

Queen Elizabeth II used the phrase annus horribilis as an allusion to a famous poem by John Dryden. His poem, published in 1667 about the events of 1666, was entitled Annus Mirabilis, a Latin phrase that translates as “year of miracles” or “year of wonders.” What was so wonderful about 1666? It was the year of the Second Anglo-Dutch war, and the British naval fleet fought three brutal battles. The year was also marked by the Great Fire of London, which destroyed the homes of about 70,000 of London’s 80,000 inhabitants.

So why did Dryden see 1666 as a wonder? Well, Britain wasn’t destroyed in battle and a great king, Charles II, would rebuild the City of London. Besides, 1666 contained “666” — the Number of the Beast from the Book of Revelation — and so was expected by many to be disastrous. When all that happened is the whole city burned down and made everyone homeless, Dryden thought it cause for celebration!

Perhaps this is a lesson for us. It is easy to fall into despair, but most of the human race, for most of history, has had things far worse than we do, recession or not. Perhaps at this holiday season, we can look to our families and friends and count our many blessings. Tomorrow is a new day, 2009 is a new year, and we have every reason to think we can make it a great one.  pb