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
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?