The Cost of Food

A few days ago Cherie came across an old household budget from many years ago and was astonished at how much money we spent on food back then. Now that we grow nearly all of the food we eat, our monthly food budget has of course dramatically decreased. These days we only buy the things we can’t produce here (like coffee, tea, sugar, etc.). So we don’t spend much money on food.

But, I wondered, why were we spending so much on food before? Even if we were buying all of our food we shouldn’t have been spending that much.

The answer was that back in those days we were buying lots of processed foods, and few whole foods.

As we advocate for better food choices we often hear the claim that good food is unaffordable. People eat poorly, the claim goes, because they can’t afford to eat healthy.

That claim, even though widely believed, is bogus. Processed foods are in general much more expensive that whole foods.

When we were shooting the Organic Wesley videos the videographer suggested that it was too expensive to eat good food. We shot one scene in a grocery store, so while we there I showed him how to buy healthy food for very little money. A ten pound bag of potatoes for $4, a bag of rice (11 servings) for less than a dollar, flash-frozen vegetables at $1/lb, dried beans–I don’t recall the price, but inexpensive. ¬†For breakfast, grits and oatmeal, very inexpensive. And even our farm-fresh eggs at $5/dozen can be breakfast for a week. He was surprised to see how little it would take to buy groceries, as long as you stay away from chips, soft drinks and the like.

Likewise, the notion that food from fast food restaurants is cheaper. Cherie once priced the ingredients and it was much cheaper to buy beef, buns, fixings, etc. and make your own burger, than it was to buy a burger at McDonalds. The most expensive cut of meat we sell is pork tenderloin at $22/lb. It is amazingly good, but should be reserved for special occasions. Still, on a per pound basis the beef jerky in the grocery store check-out line is more expensive.

On average Americans spend less than 10% of their income on food, less than any culture in history–and over half of that is for food eaten away from home. For food eaten at home we spend less than 5% of our income. By comparison, in 1985 we spent 17% of our income on food and in 1950 we spent 30%. So even if we had to increase the amount we spend on food in order to improve our diets, we’d still be well without historic norms for food spending. But the reality is that many (if not most) people who convert to a diet of whole foods will see their food spending go down, not up.