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.

 

 

Advertisements

26 comments on “The Cost of Food

  1. bobraxton says:

    Totally agree. In seminary in New York City we shopped at a Co-op grocery store a few blocks away (on the edge of Harlem) and our weekly “budget” for grocery shopping was $20 and included some processed stuff such as chicken pot pie (for convenience). In today’s dollars that would be at least about $200 and generally my grocery shopping (for same two) almost half a century later is below $100 for weekly run to the local store. Back then we “never” ate out, except wedding anniversary (for which we spent a fortune – especially first).

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bill says:

      I often get pushback from people on these stats, insisting that food is much more expensive today than it was in the good old days. I’m sure the decreasing percentage is in part because of rising incomes, but it’s well-documented that we spend less on food now than at any time in the past, even though we’re eating out more and relying heavily on processed pre-prepared foods.

      Like

  2. valbjerke says:

    We take things a step further – I make our own condiments (mustard, horseradish etc), our own seasoning mixes (burrito seasoning, garam masala etc ) which are a fraction of the price and have no odd additives and no packaging to throw out. I also make our own bar soap and laundry detergent. Our expenses at the store run around 50 bucks every two weeks (coffee, toilet paper, and if our cow is not milking – some dairy). When the cow is milking it’s less than that by far.
    More work? Yes. But worth it to me anyway. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bill says:

      Excellent. You’re one of my inspirations. We do some of those things. Cherie makes our toothpaste for example, but we do buy homemade soap from a friend. Cherie sometimes makes detergent. We don’t have any plastic containers and few store-bought toiletries now, except for my deodorant since homemade doesn’t seem to work on me for some reason. We don’t have a milk cow or goat, but we use very little dairy. I used to put milk in my coffee, but quit doing that since it was the only reason we were buying milk. We grow our own herbs and make many (but not all) of our condiments, sauces, etc. Definitely agree that it’s worth it!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. avwalters says:

    I agree. I was raised this way, and never made the conversion to the “upgrade” of processed convenience. With the exception of “food deserts,” urban areas without access to decent food, most Americans could switch to a cheaper, whole diet, with one trip to the store.

    Like

    • Joanna says:

      I was wondering about the issue of food deserts. It is a bit of a chicken and egg situation, people are now so used to the convenience of processed food that many have lost the knowledge of what to do with fresh produce. Without that knowledge it is difficult to make your own and if others are like that around you, it is then harder to access fresh food. Thank goodness there are people who are addressing both issues at the same time.

      Like

      • Bill says:

        There are food deserts, especially for people who don’t own cars. I know people who buy most of their meals from high-priced “convenience” stores, because it’s their only convenient option. But the vast majority of us don’t have that excuse. We have easy access to more affordable healthy food than any culture in history. While food deserts are real and contribute the problem, in my opinion by far the greater reasons are ignorance (a lack of appreciation for whole foods and lack of knowledge of how to prepare them) and our addiction to “convenience.”

        Like

      • Joanna says:

        It took me a while to find somewhere in Fort Collins. My nearest store was a Walmart and I nearly cried when I saw the limited range of very poor quality vegetables and wondered if I was supposed to exist on that for the next three years (the original length of stay planned). We then found a Wholefoods store which at least had nice veg and meat – but oh so expensive. You have to bear in mind that I had just come from Denmark with a 25% tax on food and I still thought fresh food was expensive in Colorado. Fortunately I did find a nice little supermarket with more reasonable prices and a good range of fresh vegetables and reasonable meat – Sunflower Market. The downside to this was it was the other end of town. So yes! It is a good job we had cars

        Liked by 1 person

      • Bill says:

        Whole Foods is too expensive. People often call it Whole Paycheck. I think they’re trying to create a shopping experience as much as anything else. Their prices are part of the reason so many people think good food is too expensive. Having said that they carry some things that may be hard to find in more conventional grocery stores. But that is changing now as the other chain stores fight for that market share.

        Like

      • Joanna says:

        That doesn’t surprise me. It just didn’t help as a newly arrived migrant to the US. 😀

        Like

      • gatheringplaceseasonfour says:

        Read your response below – Colorado – and the 25% tax in Denmark. Paying a little more attention in the grocery near D.C. – spouse put pound of “ground beef” on the list – which I dutifully got – but while I was looking, saw alternatives: ground bison (fresh?); grass-fed – beef ground; and Organic Grass-fed beef – ground – with percentages lean and fat posted. By law, no antibiotics allowed in bison – label asserts.

        Like

    • Bill says:

      We used to eat terribly (I can see in hindsight). Cherie did the grocery shopping and she bought things like “Lean Cuisine” frozen dinners. I ate lunch at a restaurant every day. In the entire time I worked in an office I never once brought my lunch. So I was spending over $50/week just on lunches. I know how easy it is to just go for “convenience.”

      Now on those rare occasions when I’m in a grocery store I just shake my head when I see obviously poor people with shopping carts full of soft drinks and junk food. Even when we ate badly we didn’t do that.

      Liked by 1 person

      • avwalters says:

        It may well be a cultural divide. Add to that, is the unfortunate reality that we have a generation of people who wouldn’t know what to do with food, if we threw it at them. I just started soaking beans for tomorrow night’s dinner. How many in America do that?

        Liked by 1 person

  4. nebraskadave says:

    Bill, people use the excuse of cost and without thought or calculation, it would seem that is true. I believe it’s more of convenience than any thing else in today’s fast paced culture. A bucket of fried chicken on the way home from work gives the parents more time to wind down from a day at work. One thing I heard on talk radio got me to watching the check out lines. They were talking about the obesity in the country. The host of the show raised this question, “how can those that are on food stamps and government assistance be so over weight?” The answer, of course, is what they buy to eat. I help my mother in law shop with the EBT card so I am well familiar as to what can be purchased with digital food stamps. Any thing in a grocery store that can be eaten can be purchased with a EBT card. The only exception is hot food from the deli. There seems to be an ever growing fast food acceptance in certain states to purchase fast food with a SNAP (EBT) card. Colorado became the first state to legalize the use of recreational marijuana, and they also might become the first state to have tax payer funded pot smoking. A Colorado Pot Shop called Rite Greens has already taken the stops to officially accept EBT. WAIT WHAT?

    http://gopthedailydose.com/2014/01/06/colorado-pot-shop-accept-food-stamps-taxpayer-funded-marijuana-welfare-recipients-2/

    It’s becoming a bizarre world.

    Have a great low cost GROF (Grow Your Own Food) Day.

    Like

    • smcasson says:

      So you probably know that if you eat out in east KY and are served a can or bottle of soda, not a fountain drink, it was “black market” cokes, bought with snap and sold to restaurants for pennies on the dollar. I’m sure it happens elsewhere too. What a world indeed.

      Like

      • Bill says:

        It’s not uncommon for people to sell their food stamps here (the going rate a few years ago was 50 cents on the dollar). From time to time I’ll see people complaining online that they saw someone buying a cart full of steaks with food stamps. They seem to think SNAP recipients are enjoying steak dinners with their food money. But in fact they’re probably selling them. Most of the people I knew who were doing it were addicts and they used the money for drugs or alcohol. Once I met a guy who sold his to get his moped out of hock because he needed it to get to his job (I’m not sure why he’d pawned it the month before, but he was homeless when I met him). Of course that left him with no money for food. It’s a messed up world sometimes.

        Liked by 1 person

      • gatheringplaceseasonfour says:

        sold: story goes all the way back to Genesis 25:34

        Like

    • Bill says:

      You’re right about convenience. I’m convinced it’s the number one reason people eat poorly. They just don’t want to take the time to shop and cook (understandable in many cases, inexcusable in others). We live in a culture where it’s common for poor people to be obese. That is a first in history. Historically only the wealthy could afford to eat so much and work so little that they’d become obese. The invention of processed foods changed all that. Now we’re the first society in history that is overfed and undernourished.

      We’ve advocated putting restrictions on what can be purchased with food stamps, as is done in the case of WIC. But for some reason any time a politician brings it up it gets shot down. Some say it’s unfair to limit the food choices of poor people (even though we do it with WIC) but I suspect the industrial food complex lobbyists carry the day. They don’t want to lose market share even if it means giving junk food to people on food stamps.

      But there is some good news. Many farmers markets are increasing the value of food stamps in order to attract poor people to the market. At our market a corporate sponsor donated the funds to allow the market to double the value of food stamps at the market. So for $5 off the EBT card a person gets $10 worth of food for example. We have a lot of customers who pay with food stamps and we especially enjoy selling food to people who pay with them or with WIC. I know those programs are just a drop in the bucket but it’s good to know to see the effort being made and I’m optimistic that things are going to get better.

      Liked by 3 people

  5. gatheringplaceseasonfour says:

    gives new meaning to the term “carded”

    Like

  6. One thing I’ve eliminated is processed meat for sandwiches. It is both expensive and full of salt and preservatives. When I cook a roast or a chicken for dinner, it provides sandwich meat for days after. It is much less expensive, tastes better, and is better for us. –Curt

    Like

    • Bill says:

      Good move. Back when I still bought meat I would go to the deli section and have the slice me what I wanted to order. It was better quality and less expensive. I’m not sure they still do that any more. Of course what you’re doing is better still.

      Like

  7. In around 1970 I visited friends in New Mexico and at one point found myself in a supply store, where I saw a bin of whole wheat selling for just a few cents a pound. I assume the wheat was intended for animals, but with some thorough cleaning it could have served just as well for people. One pound of wheat goes a long way.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      We buy grain, flour, sugar and things like that in bulk. Better quality and lower prices. And wheat is something that will keep forever as long as you keep in dry and secure.

      Like

  8. FeyGirl says:

    Those percentages were really fascinating bits of information, and just illustrate how much we’ve strayed as a culture from caring for ourselves in so many ways — as well as caring for the things we consume (I’m thinking of the slaughterhouses). I know we’ve increased our weekly spending in an attempt to eat healthier (including eating in much more). Thanks so much for sharing those numbers!

    Like

    • Bill says:

      The diversion of our resources from food to other things has happened gradually and many people will insist that food was cheaper in the good old days, not taking into account the percentage of their incomes they were spending on it. According to the USDA we’re eating, on average, 500 calories per day more than we did 40 years ago, and those extra calories are “empty” calories from junk food. Glad you appreciated the info.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s