Talk is Cheap, Food Cheaper

Let’s face it, food is cheap. It may not feel that way when you shop at Whole Foods, but it is when you compare today’s food prices to historical ones. How little we pay for food helps explain the lack of reluctance to waste it, i.e. that more than 40 percent of all food produced in the US is thrown away.  

Looking at the USDA’s food expenditures chart, the amount of disposable income (after taxes) we spend on food has steadily decreased. It now sits at 9.9 percent, after descending from 23.5 percent in 1947. My parents, avid antiquers, gave me a 1934 insurance company brochure called The Family Food Supply: a guide to what to buy and why. In it, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Compnay advises that “Most families need to spend from one-quarter to one-third of their income for food.” This seems to make sense, as the USDA numbers from 1933 list the average food expenditure as 25.2 percent.

So what’s going on? Food prices aren’t actually decreasing, they’re staying relatively stable. Meanwhile, incomes are increasing. This relationship between income and price is instructive. The amount of your income that an item costs seems like a better indication of its value than the price.

American food is also cheap compared to that in other countries. Looking abroad, My (new) friends at the USDA’s Economic Research Service have compared U.S. food spending to foreign nations. While this chart uses a different measure–percent of our household consumption budget used on food–the message is the same. The U.S. tops the international list for cheapness of food. The US spends just 6.5 percent of its household budget on food. The number of the second place nation, Great Britain, is 40 percent higher than America’s. Food in industrialized, Western nations seems to have less value (as it relates to income). Bringing up the rear, Azerbaijan clocks in at a staggering 76.8 percent.  

As I said, I think a food’s true cost affects how willing we are to throw it out. For example, if you’re trimming a $1 green pepper are you a little less cautious compared to the $4 red pepper? I know I am.  

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