I took a class last quarter on the topic of business and the environment. The format of the class was to read books on different environmental issues and discuss them as a group. Industrial food production was one of the main topics we explored. As we delved in to all of the health, environmental and animal welfare issues created by our food system, we could not deny that there must be a better way to produce our food. Fortunately, there ARE some amazing alternatives to industrialized agriculture. But, they are inherently smaller operations that do not benefit from the economies of scale our country’s main industrialized food suppliers take advantage of to drive down price. Therefore, the food they produce costs more to the consumer. One of our class discussions centered around the question, “Are You Willing to Pay?”
Americans pay less for their food, as a percentage of their income, than any other country. Here is an interesting article that compares the US to other countries and how we have gotten to this point through legislative moves intended to decrease our food prices that have had many unintended consequences. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, right? The above article puts American’s food expenditures at about 6% of income. Mint.com, put out a blog post last week stating Americans spend 7% on food. I have also seen numbers in the 10% range. This Gallup pole attempts to put a dollar amount to what Americans spend on food, stating the average American spends $151/week on their food.
My answer to the posed question, “Are you willing to pay?” is an emphatic, “Yes!” At least that’s my gut reaction. I wanted to look at the numbers to see if that really is true. Let’s use the conservative benchmark of 10% as the average of what Americans spend on food (including restaurants), so if I really am paying more it should be somewhere north of 10%.
Looking at the last twelve months in our expenditures we paid 13% of our income on food. This includes food related items, groceries, restaurants, coffee shops, etc. So, the numbers do seem to support my gut reaction. What was a little shocking to me was the amount we spent eating out. Of that 13%, almost 40% of that was on restaurants, coffee shops, etc. Now we are busy people; we both work full time, I go to school at night, and we are new parents. Often times, we both come home after dark, hungry, and get bit by the lazy bug. But we both agree this number is a little ridiculous.
As families begin to change their food consumption habits, there are other behavioral habits that begin to evolve as well, which makes this discussion of how much you have to pay to eat sustainably a little more complex. If we go back to the advice of Humble Roots Farmer, Dan Gannon, he says the first step you should take is to grow your own food. We have taken that step this year with my husband’s garden box endeavor. To quote Ron Finley, “Growing your own food is like printing your own money.” Taking this step will actually reduce your food expenditures. Dan’s other piece of advice is to prepare your food and enjoy it with friends and family. This means eating out less (a lot less in our case). Since the birth of our daughter, we have inherently started to stay home more. All of the sudden, trying to figure out what meal to make out of radishes, grapes, and a frozen pack of ground beef is a lot more appealing than packing an infant up for a trip to a restaurant. In this article, fellow blogger Beth H. argues that being environmentally friendly is directly correlated with being frugal. So in reality, while the sticker price of the food that we buy may be higher than industrial prices, the other changes in our behavior may offset those higher prices.
We had a good discussion with our readers in our post on Whole Foods about the power of voting with the almighty dollar. After visiting Coffee Pot Ranch, I really want to support them as I have seen with my own eyes the pleasant, healthy environment these animals have lived. Their prices are expensive and its painful for me to pay after spending significantly less on meat, even on organic, humanely raised alternatives for the past decade. After considering our budget, the behavioral changes we are making to our spending habits, and our garden initiatives, I think I am ready to make the step and pay even more for our meat.
So what do you say? Are you willing to pay to align your food purchases to your values? Do you have sticker shock on organic food? Have you had to make changes in your spending habits? We look forward to your comments.