“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.
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).
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’.)
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?