Posted by: A Part of the Solution | April 12, 2013

The Cost of Food

It’s in the news: food costs more today than it did twenty years ago! No really, I read that not half an hour ago. And the information is correct. For a value of correct.

Twenty years ago, Americans spent 11.6% of their income on food. Today, Americans are spending 9.4% of their yearly wages on food. While the food costs more, we have experienced an overall rise in income over the last twenty years. And our real food costs have decreased.

American food costs are at an all time low. So is the percentage of every food dollar the farmer receives for the growing, harvesting and packing of the food. In 1981, farmers took home 31 cents of every food dollar spent by the consumer–and food ran at 15.1% of the annual American budget back in the day. Today, farmers get less than 20 cents of every US food dollar.

Where does the money go nowadays? The monies break out to processors, packagers, shippers, warehousers, and advertisers. Retail grocers are doing better than the farmers, in that they still get about 3.5-5% over net costs from year to year. But the ‘profit’ in grocery has remained constant since the first round of chain supermarket wars during the recession in the 1970’s.

Anywhere else in the world, and I do mean anywhere else, food represents a larger proportion of disposable income. In Indonesia, food is about 50% of the cost of living. Russians and people in India still pay close to 40% of their earnings to eat. In Turkey and Mexico, they spend 25% of their annual income on food. In Europe the numbers range from 13% in Germany(bearing in mind this is a nearly 40% increase on what the US spends, and is also still one of  the next lowest percentages on record) to 19% in the Netherlands.

I would like to make a radical proposal. Let’s commit to spending more on our food, and less on ‘stuff’. Go to and find a source of pastured meat, where you can pick up or which has a CSA delivering to your area–if you eat meat. Spend more at the farmers market every week of the year it’s open. Buy pantry items from the farmers as well, pickles and preserves, jams and sausages, plant sets and cheese. This money goes directly back to the farmers and their farms.

When you’re in the grocery store, buy the least processed versions of food you can find. Dry beans see more money returned to the farmer than canned. Fresh produce, especially the locally labeled items, gives more back to the farms than frozen.

Speaking of local, the less far your food travels the smaller its carbon footprint and the less dependent you are on fossil fuels to feed yourself. This is also true for organically raised foods, which don’t carry the collateral stigma of petroleum by-product fertilizers in addition to herbicides, fungicides and insecticides.

How will you ever spend less on stuff, though? Shop less, shop smarter. Get your books from the library–these days they even have e-books to loan. Buy clothes second hand, or at the end of the season. The same applies to appliances, cars, boots and shoes, furniture and linens. Make your own household cleaners. They’re far less expensive as well as being safe enough to eat. Consolidate your debts. Increase your household’s energy efficiency with smarter lightbulbs, a timer on your thermostat, insulated windows and fewer pieces of equipment staying plugged in. Travel on the off-season, or the shoulder season. Oh, and prepare food in the home. It costs so much less, you’ll find yourself splurging happily on berries in season, or a pork shoulder, to bring your food costs back up!


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