When it comes to food, you get what you pay for

“How much do you spend on food?”

Lately it seems I have been reading this question all over the place, especially in the food blogosphere. Recently, Ryan at Greens for Good got real with the question on her blog and I wanted to speak my two cents as well. ‘Cause I’m startin’ to get a little fed up. No pun intended.

People (myself included some days) are complaining about the high cost of food, even though on average Americans spend less on food than basically all other developed and under-developed nations. When it comes to the percentage that Americans spend of their take-home pay on food, I have seen and heard figures ranging from 10 percent to 16 percent, but either way, this statistic is a far cry from the 40 percent that our grandparent’s generation use to pay for their food. Google-searching “how much do you pay for food each week?” led me to this discussion board, which is a telling account of what people are spending on food, and what they are getting in return. I especially noted this comment, from a “Kathy” from Minneapolis:

“I am in awe of most of you who can feed your families for so cheap. I too googled this because I am spending WAY too much on food for a family of 6. We never eat out, I pack lunches every day, and buy 90% organic, including household cleaners, meats, produce, etc. All that organic stuff is EXPENSIVE, but I feel worth it for my family’s health. A lot of our health problems have gone away since eating clean and healthy foods! Plus, we are all losing weight. I am not going to put how much I spend per month here, because I am embarrassed by how much I am spending. It is comparable to Lisa above who spends $400/mo on just herself… I can see that. x 6 and we are almost there. Grass fed beef, organic milk, whole grain breads and pastas, organic chicken, omega eggs, etc… it is just EXPENSIVE, and no coupons for that stuff! I cut back everywhere else, because I believe it is more important that we are fed healthy. It is paying off! I used to spend about $600/month… but that is what made us all in such poor health! It would be hard to go back to that.”

Tell me about it Kathy, I was in awe too. Some of these people are reporting that they spend $100/month on groceries for a family of two! Either they are grossly underestimating, aren’t including a LOT of eating out, are surviving on Ramen noodles, or are growing their own food in a garden or something. I just can’t figure out how two people could feed themselves for that little money. That is literally $12/week per person.

So, let’s talk about why this isn’t a good thing.

Last night, I watched King Corn for the first time, which I think helps to illustrate where our cheap food comes from, and what makes it so dangerous and necessary to avoid. Basically, this is a simplified explanation for how our food system currently works, with a little history thrown in…

“Get big or get out,” no ‘Butz’ about it

“What we want out of agriculture is plenty of food, and that’s our drive now. This year, 1973, we’re going to see the most massive increase in production of farm products ever in the history of this country and next year we are going for a still further increase on top of that, as we pull out all stops.” – Earl Butz

Basically it all started with this guy, Earl Butz, who became Secretary of Agriculture in 1971. He completely overhauled federal agricultural policy and many New Deal era farm support programs. He urged the production of commodity crops like corn, and rewarded farmers for growing more, which forced out small farmers and began this financial struggle of the small farmer operation.

Yeah. Way to go, Earl.

Downward spiral

The more corn we grew, the more we had to find something to do with it.

One thing we started doing was feeding it to cows, who were never meant to eat a primarily corn-based diet, and now it is often 60 percent of their diet. When they do, they put on a high amount of body fat quickly, becoming obese animals (which is desirable for agribusiness who want to create food as efficiently as possible, despite the fact that it is nutritionally devoid and full of saturated fat.) According to King Corn, “If you look at a grain-fed t-bone steak, it would have 9 grams of saturated fat while a comparable steak from a grass-fed cow would have 1.5 grams of saturated fat.”) That is why when you bite into a hamburger at McDonald’s, you are eating mostly fat (well, mostly corn) and NOT protein. But the cows also suffer from a completely separate condition aside from obesity from eating corn, they develop a condition known as acidosis. To combat this acidosis, the industry began mixing antibiotics in with their corn feed. This is why antibiotics are in the industrial meat that we eat (and if it doesn’t say antibiotic free, the cows the meat came from were fed antibiotics). In fact, 70 percent of the antibiotics that are produced in this country end up in cattle feed.

Now, the other thing we started doing was scientifically re-engineering our corn to make it into high-fructose corn syrup, which is used in processed foods. In fact, most of the corn fields of this country aren’t actually producing any edible food, they are producing a food commodity, the main ingredient of a chemical reaction. We all know about HFCS now, but 20 years ago, no one really did, no one asked any questions. But all the while, Americans were becoming more and more obese, and now we know why. But we are still eating this food. McDonald’s and Tyson and all the other huge agribusinesses out there (well, there aren’t all that many, actually) are still in business.

Not in Kansas anymore

“If the American people wanted strictly grass-fed beef, we would produce grass-fed beef for them. But it’s definitely more expensive, and one of the tenants in America is that Americans want and demand cheap food.” – Farmer in King Corn

Our subsidy program rewards the overproduction of cheap corn, which translates into cheap food, and translates into more calorically-dense and nutritionally deficient food, which translates into obese people, which translates into more diabetes and other health problems, and more medications and hospitalizations and health care costs.

But the thing is, we have this information now. In 2001, Eric Schlosser wrote the book, Fast Food Nation, which has been compared by many to the work of journalist Upton Sinclair, who wrote The Jungle, investigating the conditions of factory workers in the early 1900’s. This book really paved the way for all the questions and investigation. Now, food advocates like Michael Pollan have taken this movement by storm. Omnivore’s Dilemma is now available for kids! Awesome! Millions of people know the Food Inc. story or have seen it. We are finally in a position to begin changing things. Which is great. And yet, not enough.

Yesterday, Oprah had Michael Pollan on again. I was working so I didn’t actually get to watch, but my sister basically provided minute by minute updates on my phone. Now, I know that Oprah is careful about saying anything to cross the line and land herself in another food libel litigation suit, but it pains me to no end to hear her saying things like, “But eating this way and spending so much money just isn’t realistic for most people,” (what is realistic? Spending hundreds of dollars per month on diabetes medication?) or “Remember, this is just the OPINION of some people.” (No. It’s not opinion. This is reality.) Don’t placate Americans’ fears about our food. We have salmonella showing up in our hydrolyzed vegetable protein for crying out loud. There is so much cause for concern it’s ridiculous. It is unfortunate that these multinational corporations hold so much power and influence (aka our money) that they are able to keep Oprah and other prominent figures from actually coming right out and saying what they already know to be true: that our food is slowly killing us. I consider Oprah to be a good barometer for what people in this country are thinking and believing, and I appreciate her giving attention to this topic. But we can’t let corporations keep this upper hand. It’s time to bite the upper hand that feeds us (and makes us sick).

Shifting Priorities

I’m not saying go out and spend a ton of money on your food just to say you did. But, we need to take more time to consider what we put into our bodies. Food holds so little value anymore. We aren’t caring enough about the food that we eat and it is reflecting in our poor health. We are caring much more about things that don’t really matter. What are we caring about instead? Our clothes, our cars, partying on the weekend, whatever.

So the question of, “How much do you spend on food?” really becomes, “Where do your priorities lie?” In your health? Or somewhere else?

In an effort to allow people who may feel sheepish about exposing how much or how little they spend on their food every month, I am putting up this poll. Please still leave me comments and criticisms or whatever, but also do the poll. I know it is hard to track how much money you spend, but make a rough estimate to the best of your ability. (I thought about putting up a poll asking, “What percentage of your income do you spend on food?” But I think that gets complicated. Based on rough figures in my head, and if I happen to go out to dinner that week, I estimate that I spend about $100/wk on food, less if I don’t eat out, more if I eat out somewhere fancy like last weekend. This figure represents about 30% of my ‘income’.)

I am going to do an experiment over the next week. I pledge not purchase or consume any products with HFCS, will purchase local and organic ingredients whenever possible, and will pay no attention to price. I will save my receipts/write down what I buy and report back next weekend.

In the meantime, what are some ways in which you manage to save money while purchasing healthy, local food that don’t involve sacrificing quality?

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19 responses to this post.

  1. I purchase food for my boyfriend and I, and usually my total bill for the month varies between $400-600 (sometimes its been more though). I spend more on food than I do on rent!! People can’t believe how much I spend, but I really don’t see how I couldn’t spend that much – I try to save by not buying pre-made foods and buying in bulk at Costco (bad I know, but the big organic spinach is the same as at Earthfare but $3 vs $7). I can’t wait for the warmer months when the farmers markets come back – my produce bill will be cut in half!

    Reply

    • I think that should be how it is, to spend more on food than you do on rent! Unfortunately my rent is crazy high here in DC but if it weren’t I probably would too.

      I think when you have two people sharing meals you can save money as well, because there’s more motivation to cook bigger meals and you have the opportunity to, as you say, buy certain things in bulk.

      And me TOO. I think that is an often overlooked thing as well, when certain foods are in season, like during apple season, it’s SO cheap to buy apples from local farmers!

      Reply

  2. The Farm Bureau estimates that the average American family spends between 10 and 11 cents of every $ earned on food. The farmer only gets about 17% of that food $. More is spent on transportation and packaging than on the food itself.
    Don’t believe everything you hear, especially when you hear it in King Corn or Food Inc. Cattle have been eating corn since a long time before 1971. My grandfathers fed corn to their cows before WWII and it was an old practice then. No one feeds only corn to cows. That would cost prohibitive. Mostly it’s not the grain that is fed to cows, but the whole stalk. Corn is a grass, so feeding the whole stalk is what a cow is meant to do.
    The fat in beef does not come from the corn grain, corn is mostly starch. The cows make fat from being given plenty of food of what ever kind, just like people do. They get fat from eating only grass also. Yes, grass fed means less fat, but grass fed beef is an older animal and the fat of an older animal is different from a younger one. Thus the different more “gamey” taste of grass fed.
    70% of antibiotics fed to cows is too high. It’s more like 70% of antibiotics to all livestock. The antibiotics are not the same ones that people use, and they are to keep the animals healthy just as you take vitamins and get vaccinated. It’s less expensive, and takes fewer antibiotics to keep an animal well than to treat a sick one.
    If you want advice on nutrition, get it from a nutritionist, not a journalist (Michael Pollan) or a television personality (Oprah).

    Reply

    • Hi Michael,

      Let me start off by saying thank you for leaving me this feedback. As a student, there is only so much research I have done on this topic, and it is always interesting and informative to hear from an actual farmer. (One goal of my study is to interview with one in the next couple months in order to encompass a more diverse pool of sources. And no, I don’t think Oprah has all the answers–in fact, as I alluded to, I think she actually has very few.)

      I am familiar with the statistic about food’s cost coming largely from the transportation/refrigeration etc that goes into getting it to the consumer–a detriment to the environment as well as to adding to the final cost–and also with the information you have brought to the table about farmers only getting a tiny fraction of that money. I didn’t touch on those ideas in my post, but they are important facts. This is why I am such a large supporter of buying from local farmers wherever possible, so that more of my money actually goes to the farmer that produced the food instead of some corporation/external costs.

      I can look into the statistic about the percentage of antibiotics being fed to cows further, you very well are probably right, it sounded high to me. If wrong, I will correct. But I stand by the fact that if cows were on a more grassfed diet, their digestive systems would be able to handle it better and if they were not force-fed and kept in such tight CAFO’s, they would not NEED to be routinely fed antibiotics due to the easy transmission of disease. Likewise, there are MANY nutritionists that argue humans who have a diverse diet with foods that are naturally rich in vitamins and minerals ALSO don’t need to take vitamins every day–there are also people that argue many vaccinations are unnecessary for similar reasons.

      I stand by my views on corn and its fueling of the livestock industry and making for our nation’s meat-heavy diet. Grass-fed, corn-fed, or both, meat is not something that should be a staple in our diets. If one so chooses, it can be incorporated, but not a staple. I think that has a large part to do with the obesity problem, and I don’t need a nutritionist or Michael Pollan to tell me that, I know it from personal experience.

      Thanks again for your input. I’m off to take a look around your blog. :]

      Reply

      • First, cattle on feed for meat production spend very little of their time in confined units. A mother cow and her calf are pasture fed. The calf, if going into beef production will only spend a few months in confined area where it will get some corn grain along with corn stalks, grass and alfalfa in an amount tailored to its needs. A calf will grow to eating size on pasture in about 3 years. That time can be cut by at least a year in confinement. Thus saving the farmer/rancher money.
        Cattle on pasture also need antibiotics at times. Usually the same ones they would get in a confined unit, and since they have a year longer to catch some bug, they can get more antibiotics than in confinement.
        Don’t aim corn grain only at cattle. It’s a larger part of poultry diets than a cows diet. If you eat more chicken and turkey than beef you are most likely using the same amount of corn grain.
        I claim the potato as a more harmful to the waist line food than meat. Starches in breads and potatoes are readily converted to sugars. We eat too much sugar in this country, and we really don’t need that.

  3. Holy cow, you did an incredible job of summarizing this! It’s the same argument I always give people, but you’ve worded it wonderfully and backed it up with great evidence. Mind if I link back to this post on my blog? I think everyone should read this!

    Reply

    • I would love if you did, thanks!

      Reply

    • Gabriela – This is Kelly’s opinion, therefore cannot be stated as “backed by evidence”. I certainly believe everyone is entitled to their own opinion and that’s the great thing about blogging! But I think Michael did a great job above giving you some information and I’d like to share some more of my own from a food producer’s point of view. I was raised in agriculture on a family ranch and would be what you consider “big-ag” although we are just a BIG FAMILY operation. I currently raise cattle and work in the industry promoting commodities with the use of checkoff dollars (an investment in the farmers dollars to go towards the promotion, research and education of crop commodities).

      First, Kelly, I want to address subsidies. Subsidies were put in place to lower the cost of food. If it were not for subsidies, your food would be so expensive (because of the cost to produce it) that even middle class citizens would not be able to afford it. You may consider the food we produce now to be “cheap and unhealthy” but you as the consumer have the choice to purchase whatever you want! If you want to only buy organic or natural foods because you think it’s healthier…more power to ya! As you address, you’ll usually be paying more for it, but that’s why we have niche markets and some farmers produce this food. But it is not feasible to produce this type of food and feed the whole world. We support the exporting of grains and red meats to other countries like Japan, China, Russia, Korea…and more because we can send them a value-added protein source that they feasibly cannot grow over there, and we have ample supply to provide them with this nutrient.

      Second, I’ll address the corn industry. You say the film King Corn “helps to illustrate where our cheap food comes from, and what makes it so dangerous and necessary to avoid.” I’m not sure what you mean by “dangerous and necessary to avoid”? But I can tell you this film is two guys’ biased views of farming. This film can show people how one acre of corn is grown, but it isn’t a model of the entire corn industry. If you’re saying the corn is dangerous to consume, then there is one more blatant error. Corn is a natural crop and is grown and raised according to UDSA and FDA guidelines. Also, the corn grown by the guys in that film was either for livestock feed or ethanol production. The majority of corn grown in the corn belt is for these purposes, very little for human consumption. Farmers are truly being more green and environmentally friendly than ever. Today’s farmers produce 70% more corn per pound of fertilizer than they did in the 1970s, and have reduced total fertilizer use by 10% since 1980 (NCGA). They are being innovative and growing more crops on less land using less inputs (fertilizers, pesticides, etc.). According to the USDA, farmers save 3.5 gallons of fuel per acre by reducing tillage (which most are). This will save 3,500 gallons of diesel fuel per 1,000 acres of cropland each year and help end our dependence on foreign oil. Also according to the USDA, 1 acre of corn removes @ 8 tons of carbon dioxide from the air each growing season. This is enough oxygen to supply a year’s needs for 131 people. Over 20 years, greenhouse gas emissions have decreased by 30% per bushel of corn. Farmers have the greatest motivation for good stewardship of the land because it is both their home and livelihood.

      Focusing on HFCS, a sugar is a sugar, whether cane, corn or beet. Table sugar is made from sugar cane (a grass). Did you know corn is part of the grass family? Table sugar is made of glucose and fructose….the same as HFCS. They are nutritionally the same and fine in moderation (obviously, neither are “healthy” but they are important for preserving many food products that wouldn’t be on the store shelf year-round if it weren’t for this technology.) It is safe to eat (FDA) and is obviously a natural product as it’s from a GREEN plant! Same with sugar! They contain no artificial or synthetic ingredients or color additives and even the American Medical Association put out a statement on HFCS that it is the same as sugar and is unlikely to contribute more to obesity than table sugar.

      Kelly, you are justified to your opinion, but hopefully you can see food production from a farmer’s point of view. I would love to put you in contact with farmers or ranchers so you can see how and why they produce food they way they do. If you have an issue with the way government controls food production in the US, go straight to the source! Most importantly, if you ate today: Thank A Farmer!

      Reply

      • Kelsey – Thanks for finding my blog and providing this feedback. I certainly do appreciate the voice of real farmers and ranchers, this is a discussion that can’t be had in a bubble, separated from the real word. But here are, I suppose some more of my “opinions” in response to your commentary:

        As mentioned before, a hundred years ago, people spent 40% of their income on food. Now people spend about 10-15%. How is this possible? Well, a) food has gotten cheaper but most importantly b) quality food has taken a backseat to commercial goods that don’t matter as much. Where I live, I constantly see groups of ipod-toting, Dooney & Bourke bag-carrying metro-goers stumbling around with bags of McDonald’s in hand. It’s infuriating. It’s not that we can’t afford good food, it’s that people are shifting where they spend their money. If I filled my closet with designer bags, I too would have to live on Ramen noodles and fast food. I live a conservative lifestyle (and hate shopping) so I have money to spend on healthy, local, wholesome meals.

        But the important differentiation to make is that the reliance on cheap food was created by the cheap food itself, not by consumer need. The statement that “even middle class citizens would not be able to afford it” is totally untrue. What middle class citizens can’t afford is the extravagant lifestyles they have adopted (and I don’t even mean through designer products etc, but just in a lack of budgeting and personal finance managing.) But if the price of food were to normalize and reflect the quality of food, bought locally from smaller family farm operations (and through the process, provide farmers with a better living, one where they can receive about 90% of the profits of their labor as opposed to 10% which the average commodity farmer now receives), do you think people would starve themselves in order to continue buying new “things”? I don’t, I think they would re-evaluate their budgets. Sure, there would be people who would freak out in the short-term but that always happens in a revolutionary period in time. It doesn’t mean you should continue doing something the old way just because it won’t be easy to change. Also, see this article on smaller farms and job creation: http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2010/04/04-1.

        In regard to your statement: “This will save 3,500 gallons of diesel fuel per 1,000 acres of cropland each year and help end our dependence on foreign oil” totally neglects all of the externalities (fuel-related and otherwise) that come with this commodity crop production. Sure you may save some fuel in the short term, but you use more in the long term shipping all these products every which way to be assembled and processed into this “cheap food” she so highly is praising. In Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things, John Ryan and Alan During address this issue, saying that “the typical mouthful of American food travels 1,200 miles from farm to consumer.” According to this animal agriculture study, this corn that is being grown to feed livestock, supports an industry that puts excess methane emissions in to the atmosphere. Furthermore, the standard diet fed to beef cattle confined in feedlots contributes to manure with a “high methane producing capacity” In contrast, cattle raised on pasture, eating a more low-energy diet composed of grasses and other forages, produce manure with half of the potential to generate methane, the most crucial greenhouse gas we must work to minimize.

        “HFCS…is important for preserving many food products that wouldn’t be on the store shelf year-round if it weren’t for this technology.” Funny you should mention this. A little while back a story was published on a mother who kept a Happy Meal and how a year passed and the bun didn’t so much as start to get moldy. Interesting read. I will pass on those types of ingredients though. I prefer to eat food that has an expiration date. I think most would agree, if they even knew what was in their food. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/worldnews/article-1258913/Happy-1st-birthday-Mother-keeps-McDonalds-Happy-Meal-year–gone-off.html

        Thanks again and I would love to stay in touch about this. I plan to make it a part of my future career endeavors. Perhaps I will be able to serve in some capacity as a liaison between farmers and the government. I understand there are pro’s and con’s of everything and I agree there are niche markets but I just believe that the industrial food is largely the culprit of America’s health problems and I don’t see why that should always have to stay that way.

  4. i really want to see king corn! this was a great post, so informational 🙂

    Reply

  5. That was a great summary of the issue! While I do agree that the food industry has changed a lot post-green revolution, I find what Michael says poignant as well.

    I’m pleased that so much attention has come to an issue that’s so vitally important to our well-being, but I am somewhat skeptical of the packaging. I came out of Food Inc. disappointed with its cursory summary (though I see its value as an introduction for those unfamiliar), and think that Michael Pollan tends to gloss over, well, everything.

    It’s hard to say how I feel about the issue of food cost. Forty percent of my paycheck going toward food seems like an awful lot, but I wonder how much my consumption would improve/change in this case. I would be interested to know what has influenced this. Is food cost really all of it, or is it a cultural shift as well? It’s even more interesting to me that this percentage was so much higher during a time when people did very, very little eating out. Personally, I spend about $25 to $35 (roughly 10% of my income) a week on groceries that could probably sustain me if I so chose, but I also eat out a lot (with that, nearly 30%).

    I guess my biggest concern is: what percentage of one’s income is appropriate to spend on food? At what point on the graph does nutritional/ethical consumption coincide with the amount one is spending? And how does this percentage vary across the income scale?

    Reply

    • All really great points. I mean, I don’t think there are hard and fast rules when it comes to buying locally/organic. I just think you should do it as much as possible. And if as much as possible isn’t very often but you are still spending $25/wk on latte’s (I guess I am speaking to the wrong crowd since that’s basically your livelihood at the moment heheh 😉 )or buying new clothes you don’t need all the time or whatever, then I think you’d need to re-evaluate what you are considering important. Because you can’t spend money frivolously and then say “oh but I can’t afford good food.”

      I also just think people need to give buying food locally a CHANCE. People just assume all the time that it is ALWAYS more expensive, and often sure it is. but I am willing to bet that if I bought the equivalent foods at the market and then at the supermarket, I would sometimes pay the the same if not more at the supermarket. Example: The conventional gala apples at whole foods today were $1.79/lb…the organic gala apples were $1.69…and I paid $1.60 at the farmers market sat. for a pound of apples that without a doubt i am sure taste better than either of the other types from the whole foods.

      I think definitely the more money you make though the more likely you will be to spend less of that percentage on food, you will instead just transfer that extra money to other expenses that people on a stricter budget can’t afford. which is sort of problematic, I think. If I was making lots of money shiiiit I’d be buying all sorts of local food (like I don’t buy cheese at the farmers market or eggs, bc it’s just a little out of my price range and I don’t like cheese enough to spend that!)

      I know this is all my opinion and preference and that given the time and money I would literally buy every possible kitchen appliance and shop at farmers markets and play in my kitchen all day–but I think the same concept should apply to everyone–I just don’t think people are giving buying local enough of a chance, which sucks because there are so many people in the country that would probably LOVE to have access to local farmers but they just aren’t available.

      WOW ramble complete.

      Reply

    • Michael Pollan has admitted that a critical calculation early in Food Inc. is incorrect. But rather than correct his book in the second printing, he just left the information out. He went for sensation rather than factual. When the facts didn’t fit, he had to keep repeating the same old false information because the sensation had become too big.
      Unfortunately some of the things people believe many things that are not true today. Pollan’s work is in that not fact, just opinion.

      Reply

  6. Oh my goodness. I love your blog! I love the idea; I love everything! You’re such an inspiration to incorporate local food into day-to-day life!

    Reply

  7. […] ecosystems). Furthermore, this reliance on corn and soy translated into a dependence on more heavily processed food that utilizes ingredients like soybean oil and high-fructose corn syrup. I highly encourage you to […]

    Reply

  8. Posted by Meghan on October 5, 2010 at 8:30 AM

    I know I’m super late in commenting on this post, but I’m doing research for a paper for uni and I came across this. I love it and I love your blog!

    My paper is about how flawed domestic agriculture policies in the United States are furthering the American obesity epidemic as well as facilitating the spread of a “cheap food” culture and its ensuing health problems all over the world. So basically, I agree with everything you say here. 🙂 My research (much of the same as you have here) has provided such eye-opening information. I myself want to go into local food policy at some level, and I love reading about it. So I’ll be subscribing to your blog!

    P.S. I’m currently studying abroad in Australia. 😉 Where did you go?

    Reply

    • That is awesome! I hope you see this follow up comment–sorry it is so late. This blog died out bc I stopped updating 😦 But anyhow. I studied in Brisbane, where are you?

      all the best and thank you for the kind words 🙂

      Kelly

      Reply

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