Less than a month ago, I wrote a series of posts about eating well for less and frugal grocery shopping. Now, I’m wondering if my goal really should be to spend less on food. I recently read In Defense of Food and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, both of which made me wonder if America has its priorities screwed up when it comes to food.

How Much We Spend on Food
Recent studies show that the average American family spends about 4% of their income on food for the home, and another 3-4% dining out (despite the NYT graph claiming we spend 15%, when all sources are combined.) My husband and I are right in line with those statistics.

When I wrote my series about groceries, I felt almost apologetic for spending a whopping $80-100 a week on food for the two of us. Like I was doing something wrong! Now I realize I was wrong to feel guilty for spending a little more on good food.

Pollan compares our average spending to that of the French, who spend 14% of their income on food. This despite the fact that countless books and studies have noted that they’re generally healthier and have fewer obese people.

Are Our Priorities Backwards?
What’s behind this American resistance to paying a decent price for food? Why do we feel that we have to get meat for less than $2 a pound, otherwise we’re wasting money? I think it’s related to the Great Depression, when everything had to be economized, followed by WWII, when food was rationed. We never learned to love food again. Instead we learned to turn food into product to be improved (made cheaper) through our industrial might.

True, it would be difficult for the average American to spend 14% of their income on food – our incomes tend to be higher, for one thing. They also eat better, lingering over meals for hours at a time. Meals are a part of their culture, not a fast energy fix as they are for us Americans.

Will Spending More Reverse Our Dire Trends?
Scientists recently announced the current generation of children is the first to have a shorter lifespan and greater obesity and illness than the previous one. Has our focus on cheap food, quick meals, and trusting food science over common sense produced a generation of sick kids?

I came up with this analogy for our attitude:

If you could spend $1.50 a gallon for a new kind of gas, but that gas would accelerate the build-up of gunk in the engine, decrease performance over time, and eventually cause your car to break down in the middle of street, would you buy it? Most people would say no. A car is expensive! You have to maintain it properly.

Why then don’t we treat our bodies the same way? You can buy another car. You don’t get another body. If you clog your arteries to the point that you drop dead of a heart attack, no repair can bring you back to life.

As we’ve introduced more additives to our diets, swapped out whole grains for refined flours, replaced sugar with high-fructose corn syrup, fed cows corn rather than grass so they’d marble better and grow faster (thereby removing the healthy fats from their system), destroyed the good bacteria in milk in the name of safety, and followed the dietary advice of every new food study any scientist came up with, we just keep getting fatter and sicker.

Try to Spend 10% of Your Income on Food
Farmer’s Market finds I’m with Michael Pollan: I’m going to eat Real Food. For the most part. I can’t part with potato chips, but I only eat 1/8 ounce a day, so I think that’s a fair compromise. And the occasional junk food treat is okay, but that should only be a small portion of my diet.

For the rest of it, I’m going to focus on eating as much food as possible in its evolved state, not its scientifically produced state. I shouldn’t be afraid to spend $4 on pastured eggs instead of $1.49 on mass-produced eggs, or $8 on a pastured chicken instead of $4 on a caged chicken. Note: Cage-free and free-range don’t mean pastured. In most cases, the chickens are still kept in giant, darkened pens with no or limited access to the outdoors so they stay docile.

If I did all of that, I could probably increase my household food spending to 10%, without buying junk food or eating more calories than I actually need. Spending more would be better for my health, better for my local farmers, and better for our culture.

Does that mean I won’t use coupons or try to find the lowest-cost options for dry goods? No. I still want to economize on packaged and canned goods, because that frees up more money for real food. I don’t foresee Cargill and Del Monte changing their current processing methods because a few people like me decided to eat real food.

What do you think? Is it worth spending a little more to treat your body as well as you treat your car?


Real Clear Politics
Agriculture and Rural Development


12 Responses to “Should I Spend More on Food?”

  1. Kelly from Almost Frugal on August 30th, 2008 2:11 am

    This post has been included in the 141st Festival of Frugality at Almost Frugal, going live September 2, 2008. Please make sure to link back to the Festival and or submit it to sites like Digg, Stumble Upon, PF Buzz etc. Thanks for participating!

  2. Mydailydollars on September 2nd, 2008 1:42 pm

    I love both Kingsolver and Pollan and am a devoted follower of their principles. I’ve actually CUT our food budget dramatically. By buying organic, free-range meat more sporadically and eating mostly local vegetables and whole grains, I can’t believe how well we eat on what I spend!

  3. Aryn on September 2nd, 2008 1:49 pm

    Interesting. I’m not sure our food costs would go down, because my gluten intolerance limits my options, but it’s good to know food costs won’t go up drastically. I’m still having trouble with letting myself spend more. I made pancakes with the pastured eggs I bought this weekend and I have to say they were definitely fluffier! That might be enough to keep me going on this track.

  4. Festival of Frugality — Almost Frugal on June 14th, 2010 2:49 pm

    [...] is still trying to decide whether to overhaul her food/money perspective. Should I Spend More on Food? posted at Sound Money [...]

  5. Jonas on July 10th, 2010 5:38 am

    Rubbish – Americans are obsessed with paying the lowest possible price for almost everything they buy. That’s why Wal-Mart, chocabloc with cheap goods from China (and everywhere else on the planet with low-wage workers) has effectively destroyed not only the local high-quality shops, but also millions of American jobs. And it’s not just wAL-mART – EVERYTHING seems these days to be made in China. Huge amounts of the food we buy is raised in foreign lands, and butchers, bakers of real bread instead of marshmallow loaves, greengrocers stocked with local fresh produce are all gone. Everything is pre-packaged, pre-weighed, full of lord knows what in terms of gasses and chemicals to keep the food apparently fresh, and so lacking in real flavour that one might as well be eating puffed rice.

  6. Gwen on July 10th, 2010 7:38 am

    Hi, great article. My husband and I are both 85 and don’t cook much anymore. So we figured out what we were spending on groceries and having to cook each week against having food delivered from various restaurants here in the valley and each meal lasting 2-3 days between us. We can order what we want, it is fresh, lots of veggies and salads and the final cost came out exactly the same as buying food at the store and cooking. $400.00 a month. We eat well, no paying for expensive drinks, high tips, no driving and using gas and a variety of meals to choose from. You just have to be careful what you order and from what restaurants. Don’t use the higher priced ones in your area. It is only $6.00 for delivery and a $5.00 tip for the driver.

    Thanks for your article. Gwen

  7. Deborah Stiles on July 10th, 2010 8:08 am

    I was happy to stumble on this column, and on the comments–it’s wonderful that more people are understanding that “cheap food” and the cheap food policy that has been the rule for the past 50-60 years (and stimulated the fortunes of large industrial agriculture) has in a lot of cases not helped people’s health–at all. It’s also not been good for farmers, or the animals involved, or the environment. I’m doing small scale farming but have a full time job, thankfully, to help support what I do on the farm. But what of the hardworking fulltime farmers? My heart aches for them. But hopefully, as more and more people realize that they need to pay more for their food–for REAL food–those farmers doing the real deal will receive a living from what they’re doing.

  8. Aryn on July 10th, 2010 3:00 pm

    Hi Gwen,

    I think at 85 you’ve earned the right to stop cooking! It’s great that you’ve found such an affordable solution that’s certainly healthier than a bunch of frozen meals.

  9. Rita Daro on September 5th, 2010 3:22 pm

    Oh if only. My husband and I retired and are living strictly on our social security. If I spend 4% of my monthly income on food, that would work out to $108 or a little over $25/week for two. Not gonna happen.

  10. Jesse on November 11th, 2010 5:32 am

    Hmm interesting but quite odd article for me.
    I make 1550e(about) a month, and spend 3% in total on food = 50e per MONTH, not week. Which I think is OK considering I am gluten intollerant(just means no pasta or bread, I never buy the ‘gluten free’ stuff). I also never eat out (last time perhaps 2yrs ago or thereabouts, spent like 10-15euro).

    I’d add that I eat well, homecooking only, never buy anything that is processed at all. So that’s mostly stews, or rice and meat, or potatoes and meat.

    - So I’d say there budgets are WAY off, they are not nearly frugal, and not even in the neighbourhood of frugal. I could still easily cut down my monthly spending to about 30e if I ate less meat. Right now I eat meat every day…

    And before anyone comments on food prices, I live in the Netherlands, and we have much higher costs than the US and most EU countries.

  11. TexasHealthNut on July 18th, 2011 9:15 am

    I honestly believe that as a single person, you can make it on $120 a month. $50-70$ in groceries and the rest eating out…and all that is healthy. I am living testimony it can be done and then of course, i don’t consume soft drinks, and/or desserts, but i do substitute healthier alternatives and pay for expensive brands such as central market and buy organic foods, but never organic veggies. When I go out to eat i get the cheapest item on the menu and try to consume at home what i can before i go out to eat with friends.

  12. Denise on July 24th, 2011 2:21 pm

    Great article! I share your view, couldn’t have said it better myself. I read Pollan’s and Kingsolver’s books a year ago and they have been pretty instrumental in helping me see the food industry in a new way. My husband and I are very budget-conscious and I used to feel guilty if I spent more than $300/month on groceries for our family of four. Now we spend twice that amount but we buy much more fresh produce, whole grains, fresh fish, meat without antibiotics, etc. We feel healthier and also feel it is worth the cost, especially in regards to our growing children.

    As a sidenote, just wanted to point out that I always knew that Americans spent more on housing than food, but when I learned that we (on average) even spend more on transportation, I realized that the priorities of our society are way out of whack. http://www.visualeconomics.com/how-the-average-us-consumer-spends-their-paycheck/

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