On Food Costs

Many people among the foodie sect decry the ways in which our spending on food products has changed. In modern day America, people spend less money on food as a percentage of their total income than they have at any time previously in history. And we Americans spend even less on food proportionally than our counterparts in other developed countries.

This is a fact I’ve long been familiar with on account of my love for foodie nonfiction and I was recently re-exposed to these statistics via an Upworthy post featuring the famed Michael Pollan. Now I’m a fan of Pollan’s and I completely understand and agree with the basic premise of his argument – you get what you pay for and, if we decide as a society to pay so little for our food, the quality and nutritional value of it will suffer, resulting in increased medical costs and poorer health. But what irritates me about this little clip beyond compare is the argument Pollan brings up but swiftly glosses over without due consideration – that some people cannot afford to pay more for food. The food expert makes it sound as though a minor proportion of the population falls into this camp, and though I don’t have the statistics to back my contention to the contrary up, I highly doubt that it is as inconsiderable a number as Pollan would hope.

The issue goes beyond the mere price of food to encompass some much larger social issues – income inequality, rampant corporatization of the agricultural sector, increases in the cost of living. You can approach the alarmingly low percentage of our incomes spent on food in a few different ways. While I don’t believe that Pollan’s perspective is the product of an inaccurate assessment of the issue, he certainly omits pertinent information with which sociologists and inequality theorists would likely take issue. We devote less of our spending on food because of the increased cost of living in other areas – housing, transportation, insurance, education, technology (sometimes a luxury, but other times an absolute necessity for finding work). If we look at changes in the actual dollar amount that the average American has spent on food over time and in comparison to other nations, I wonder if Pollan’s argument would hold as valid or sound so alarming. Because the issue isn’t just that we spend less money on food and thus have lower quality diets, but also that food is supremely expensive, forcing many among us to eat the cheapest and poorest quality offerings.

In the 1960’s the absolute poverty threshold was developed and poverty levels were calculated relative to the cost of food. It was determined that households typically spent one third of their income on food. Therefore the poverty threshold was set at three times the cost of an average “thrifty” food budget for families of a given size. And that equation has not changed for the past fifty years. Although many people, both within and outside of the public policy realm, recognize that the barebones cost of living for a family in 2013 surpassed three times their total food budget years ago, the standards we use to track poverty and determine eligibility for social programs has not followed suit. A cost is still attached to the carefully calculated thrifty food plan, then multiplied by three in order to determine where the absolute poverty level falls. This level has created a significant gap between who is defined as poor and who is  living in impoverished conditions though not classified as poverty-stricken. Adhering to such an antiquated formula leaves millions of Americans unable to qualify for public assistance yet unable to cover their basic expenses. In turn, we clearly see how relative spending on food has not remained static over the years, but has actually fallen significantly in relation to the cost of other necessities. After all, Mr. Pollan himself claims that the average American only spends 10% of their total income on food these days, as opposed to the 18% during his childhood and the 33.3% from days of yore. While Pollan argues that this signals a decline in food quality, I’d argue that the most pressing and pertinent issue these statistic signify is a hefty rise in cost of living; the price of life’s basic necessities has increased such that even poor quality foods are unaffordable for many Americans.

While this post may sound like a rant against the stagnant poverty threshold formula (which I certainly can rant about without end), my argument here isn’t so much that we don’t know how to calculate poverty levels. Rather, my frustrations rest on the fact that we don’t recognize how our small proportion of food spending is completely unaffordable for a sizable proportion of our population. Sure, we should demand better quality from our agricultural suppliers, distributors, and storefronts, and yes, doing so may require that we spend more for these higher quality goods. But we can’t leave behind the millions of people who already struggle to afford low-quality foods, who can’t budget fresh produce into their weekly trips to the grocery store, who are unable to eat healthy, fresh, organic, or whatever other genre of high-quality food they would like because of the cost. Because the conclusion of Pollan’s argument is more universally sound – that healthcare costs have risen in correlation to decreasing food spending, that our poorer diets equate with poorer health outcomes.

And this issue of the cost of food doesn’t only effect those toeing the poverty line. I constitute one half of a duel-income-earner household, one with two working adults, a cat, a dog, and no children to feed. We rent for a generously low monthly rate and are fortunate enough to not be burdened by car payments, student loans, or any other considerable debts. But I’m aways looking for ways to cut corners when it comes to grocery shopping on our two modest incomes. After all, if we can save $100 a month on food, that’s more money we can put into savings for the down payment on a home – a dream that feels years away at this point given our meager financial outlook – or for that vacation we haven’t been able to afford for the past few years. My husband and I are by no means destitute, but we also can’t afford to do plenty of the things we’d like to do, let alone some of the things we need to do to get by. I believe in much of what Pollan preaches – that organics are the way to go, that we should buy local and consume as many whole foods as possible. If practicing these tenets is so difficult from my relatively comfortable vantage point (and I’d warrant a guess that our food spending already comes in over that average of 10% of total income), how can those with less income and higher expenses hope to afford improved eating patterns?

Something needs to change in the way we grow our food, the way we distribute it, the way we advertise it, the way we eat it. But these changes need to occur simultaneously with changes in other financial matters as well. We need to get realistic about the cost of living. If not, more people will find themselves unable to receive necessary benefits and unable to meet their basic needs without them. The ripple effect of such will not be insignificant – it will mean less money going back into local economies, more people living in unhealthy and unsafe conditions, children growing up impoverished, malnourished, and unable to reach their fullest potential. The repercussions, especially when we factor in the ways that an impoverished upbringing can significantly curtail possibilities for children in their adult lives, are seemingly endless.

Rethinking food economies is one step of the process. Sourcing food items locally allows for increased quality since they won’t be shipped for days before making it to your plate and the likelihood of eating things in season will increase. Increasing the viability of small-scale, local agricultural enterprises has the potential to help stimulate local economies, putting more money in the pockets of the American people and less in those of the corporate agribusiness giants. Community gardens are an efficient means of making high quality food more available to people, sometimes at lower costs. Driven by my passion for both food studies and inequality, I researched urban agriculture projects in Baltimore City last fall to evaluate their effectiveness in overcoming barriers to food insecurity. Though there are obstacles to these arrangements, from landownership issues to profit margins and labor costs, certain models have been highly successful in bringing healthy, low-cost food to those who typically can’t afford fresh produce. In particular, those farms that offset the discounts offered to their lower income customers by selling to high-end restaurants and upper middle class locavore consumers are largely sustainable.

Changing the equation by which poverty thresholds are calculated is also a necessity on the road to equality and an improved American diet. Nearly every day I see it as a Baltimore City social worker – low-income individuals and families don’t qualify for food stamps but can barely afford to stock their pantries with basic grocery staples. Their income and expenses are equations that never add up; I have trouble fathoming how social security checks and near-minimum-wage salaries can be expected to cover groceries after rent and mortgage payments, insurance, gas and electric bills, car payments or transportation costs, and cell phone bills. There is a growing and increasingly visible segment of the population that fails to qualify for public assistance but realistically has no hope of making ends meet. If we allow them to remain stranded without a safety net, Pollan’s dream of improving how we spend our money on food and the quality of what we buy will never become a reality because so many people will be unable to afford it on their own.

Though I’m certainly entertaining many possibilities, I don’t profess to have all (if any) of the solutions. But considering the problems from an inequality perspective is one of the first steps in the long, difficult, but ultimately necessary journey to increasing the health, quality, sustainability, and affordability of the American diet. Michael Pollan is certainly a compelling and commanding figure when it comes to food issues, whether you’re reading one of his best-selling books or watching him explain the connection between food costs and health. The crucial piece he fails to recognize, however, is the way in which current food prices are outrageous for many among us. We cannot demand better food at higher prices without overhauling the larger economic system that renders healthy food a privilege for the few.

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