Brown Bag Monday: Are You Willing to Pay?

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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.

Lolo’s Mom

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15 thoughts on “Brown Bag Monday: Are You Willing to Pay?

  1. We spend about $1600 to $2000 a month on food for the 5 of us. When we figured that out I felt defeated because I spend so much time and energy on food prep at home. We buy mostly organic produce, meats and nuts which are quite expensive. I would rather eat this way though then have a diet with a lot of inexpensive, processed ingredients. This posts inspires me to go one step further and get out to the Farmers Market more often! It’s definitely worth it to pay more and support our local farmers and ranchers!

    • Hi! I wonder what your food costs would be if you weren’t such a diligent cook. One thing I am sure you can be proud of is that your restaurant expenditure is likely much less than ours at 40%…a benefit to your family’s health and finances to which you deserve all of the credit. ;).

  2. I think for me, the honest answer is: Sometimes I am willing to, and sometimes I can’t. When the cost for good food is reasonable, I usually am willing to pay more.

    But here’s an example of when I sometimes can’t: Last November I went to buy cranberries for Thanksgiving at the co-op and they cost $13.99 a pound. I was making cranberry sauce for 2 large family events and needed at least 2 pounds. Had I bought the organic ones at the co-op, I would have been shelling out nearly $30 just on cranberries alone, not to mention the other foods I had been asked to bring. I just don’t have that kind of buying power at this stage of my life.

    Generally though, when it’s not the holidays and I’m not locked into “traditional, must-have” food purchases, I just try to chose whatever is the cheapest option, which usually tends to be what’s in season and plentiful at the moment. I also freeze a LOT of summer garden stuff to ease the monotony of winter.

    • Hi Stacy! Yes, sometimes the co-op kills me. It is very common for me to see $7.99/lb, and even higher for produce, which I will skip, thank you very much. I have wondered if they do it on purpose to try and get people’s attention to buy what’s in season. Their stance is, “We will sell this stuff because our customers demand similar variety to what is at Safeway, but we aren’t really that happy about it and neither will you be after seeing the prices.”

  3. An emphatic “yes!” to spending more on meat and eating much less of it! Grocery shopping is much cheaper that way for me, and I feel better in so many ways.

  4. Since going Paleo, I am buying a lot more meat and produce but, we are throwing away a lot less than before. So it’s all relative. I would much rather spend $50 on fresh veggies and meat than on candy, processed foods and eating out. I know my body appreciates the change in diet. I really enjoyed this post! I need to start visiting my local farmers markets!

  5. You’re so lucky to live in N. California, too, where you can grow food pretty much all year ’round!!! We left SoCal for NY right around the time that I was learning how to grow stuff and become a better cook. Oh well… But you’re absolutely right–growing/cooking/buying conscientiously is the best, tastiest way to go. May the forks be with you! 😉

    • We are so spoiled living in the Central Valley! In fact, Sacramento was named America’s Farm to Fork Capital last year. We are doing a post about it later this week. Stay tuned and stay warm!

  6. With the birth of my first child I got into the couponing craze. I had a budget and a surplus of toiletries. I went back to work 7 months later and stopped couponing because of the time but I stayed on my food budget. After the birth of my daughter almost a year later I paid a lot more attention to the food we were eating and spend more on eating clean. I stopped couponing but I do pay attention to price and ingredients. I haven’t run the numbers but I do think I could spend more on food. We do eat out maybe twice a week for dinner because cooking 3 meals a day every day can be tiring. A lot of work goes into meal prep and clean up!

    • Hi Christine! Two little ones will wear anyone out, even with the best intentions to make dinner at the end of the night! I have found that I have to make food earlier in the day, at least the majority of the prep because I am pretty useless after 7:00, which is when we have time to deal with dinner. On another note, you gave me an idea for a new business. Farmers Markets coupons. Why don’t these exist already? You can be one of the founders. 😉

      • I try to make food earlier too. lol. I just can’t seem to get it together! Eventually, I’m hoping as soon as Baby 2 gets her sleep straight at night. I think Farmers Market prices are lower than supermarkets so I love going to them. I like going during the week as I cook rather than having one option in the winter time. I think if there were coupons it would drive more of the coupon crazy crowd to the markets which woudn’t be a bad thing. There aren’t regular coupons for clean items.

  7. Great post. Mr. AE and I spend about $300 per month on groceries. We’re willing to spend in order to get fresh organic vegetables through our CSA, and humane meat, eggs, and dairy. It takes extra legwork to fit the rest of our grocery list into this budget, but I love eating this way. .

    Now I have reverse sticker shock when I go into a typical American supermarket.and see meat for $1.99/lb.

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