We’ve long been characterized as a nation of gluttons, and we have both a high obesity rate and a highly diverse gastronomy to prove it. With the amount of calories that the average American consumes – estimated at nearly 4,000, about double what is needed – it may be surprising to learn that we not only don’t spend all that much on food, but that we spend abnormally low for a nation of our wealth. Consider this articlefrom MoJo, written by Alyssa Battistoni:
On some level, this is pretty intuitive—food is a basic need, and there’s only so much you can eat, no matter how much money you have. But even among developed countries, our food spending is ultra-low: People in most European countries spend over 10 percent of their incomes on food. In fact, Americans spend less on food than people in any other country in the world. Even we Americans didn’t always expect our food to be so cheap, though: Back in 1963, when Molly Orshansky, an employee of the Social Security Administration, created the nation’s first poverty threshold, she simply tripled the cost of the FDA’s “thrifty” food plan, since at the time most families spent about a third of their incomes on food. So how’d we end up spending just a fraction of that four decades later?
Since most Americans aren’t facing starvation from day-to-day, there’s less focus on budgeting for food (at least if you’re not the 46 million Americans who rely on food stamps to get by). We pretty much take it for granted that we’ll always have some money left over to eat – after all, we never face chronic food shortages, price spikes, or famines with the same intensity and regularity of many poorer nations (including those in the chart).
Plus, we have other amenities to worry about: shelter, automobiles, tuition, utilities, and so on. For most people in the world, not only are basic needs like food the central concern, but they’re largely the only things you have access to anyway (if even that). But where does the US, with its famously diverse market of goods, fit into the picture? How and why have we bucked both historical and global trends?
To find the answer, we have to go back four decades to the 1970s, when rising food prices and technological developments led to a host of transformative changes in the US food system whose effects still determine the way many Americans eat. In response to rising food costs and growing demand amongst the expanding middle class, Nixon’s secretary of agriculture, Earl Butz, turned the country’s agricultural subsidy program—originally instituted to help stabilize food supply and farmers’ incomes after the volatility of the Great Depression—into a support mechanism for the industrial production of corn and soy. Butz’s policy of “get big or get out”—made possible by advancements in industrial food production, including technological developments and an abundance of cheap fossil fuels used to make fertilizer and pesticides—encouraged the consolidation of small farmers’ plots into gigantic holdings and led to the rise of agribusiness in place of the family farm.
The changes Butz wrought are visible in our food supply, too: The amount of corn produced each year in America has tripled since 1970, from 4 billion bushels then to more than 12 billion today. Faced with an abundance of cheap corn, the food industry figured out how to make it into cheap meat, milk, eggs, and sweets. Over time, the cost of things made from highly-subsidized crops like corn, wheat, and soy—things like cheeseburgers and soda—has declined drastically. While you can debate the merits of local, organic, and seasonal food, and question what it means to eat sustainably, the dominant food production policy in the US is oriented around just one metric: producing calories as cheaply as possible. We’ve gotten so good at producing calories efficiently, in fact, that our problem is no longer that we can’t afford enough food—it’s that the types of calories that are least expensive are the ones that are worst for us.
Indeed, I’m reminded of a study – which I unfortunately cannot find or recall in great detail – that found many obese Americans were as malnourished as an underweight person. We’re consuming raw calories that make us fat – and sick – but otherwise offer no vital nutrition. To make matters worse, the combination of abundance and cheapness has led to excessive consumption (recall the average calorie figure I mentioned in the beginning) and with it, mounting health problems.
Ironically, the effort to produce cheaper food for all Americans has only led to greater costs in the form of healthcare, lost productivity, and even fuel. More perversely, it’s also introduced chronic health problems for the poorest Americans, those who can least afford to address them. Such cheap food is often the only thing low-income families can pay for, even though it costs them dearly in the end.
There are other, far less visible expenses as well.
There are obvious reasons why spending less on food is a good thing—namely, that not having to worry about survival on a daily basis is a pretty basic development goal that we’ve nonetheless only recently managed to achieve. BUT there are also some less obvious reasons why it’s not so great. As Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, and others who study our food system have pointed out, food is as cheap as it is because the true costs have been externalized—that is, we pay for them in rising obesity rates, environmental degradation, lax safety measures, and disgraceful labor practices. And if you count the money taxpayers send Big Ag in subsidies—around $261.9 billion between 1995 and 2010—cheap food starts to seem like it might not be such a bargain after all.
It’s only cheap because the system has become so complex and opaque. The average person doesn’t really know from where they’re getting their food, or how it ended up at their grocer or restaurant. In fact, most people don’t even really think about it. Just as we’re not too concerned about our spending habits on food, so too do we miss the bigger picture about the food supply.
In our modern consumer society, we’re accustomed to getting what we want when we pay for it. We expect stuff to simply be available for us, provided by some company or another (and, to a lesser extent, the government). The market, though great in its ample provisions, is nonetheless opaque to most people, its outward simplicity belying the convolution and cost of its products and services.
It certainly doesn’t help that the overwhelming majority of people in the modern world are detached from the various products they enjoy. We no longer make much of what we use anymore, nor do most people grow their own food. Heck, most people live no where near farms, and we treat visiting them as a sort of field trip.
This psychological and physical disconnection can make it hard to notice, much less address, the mounting harm of our consumer market. But our modern society is also good at disseminating more information, and a greater number of people are becoming conscious about their food supply (among other goods) and working to change their habits.
Still, it’s not impossible to buy and prepare good food even on a tight budget. Seeking to bust the myth that fast food is cheaper than cooking, Mark Bittman has argued that making a meal of roast chicken, salad, and vegetables costs about half as much as buying a family of four dinner at McDonald’s, and while Tom Philpott points out that cooking at home requires unpaid labor, making a “fuss-free meal” one that’s hard to refuse, he notes that cooking can be enjoyable work once you know what you’re doing. (For more on how to eat well without going broke or burning out, see Kiera’s interview with the chef and author Tamar Adler.) And even eating out a lot isn’t necessarily a bad thing—spending money at locally-owned restaurants is a great way to put money back into your community. (Though of course it’s harder to find out where your food comes from when you go out to eat without turning into a Portlandia sketch.)
As in most instances, humans must place catch up with their own developments, be they technological innovations or entire economic systems. In this case, people will simply need to find their roots and go back to “traditional” ways of eating: less processed and pre-packaged stuff, and more fresh and homemade meals. Obviously, some junk won’t hurt, but moderation will certainly be crucial – though given the high bar we’ve set as to how much we eat, moderate consumption may be comparatively more extreme.
I see growing pushback against the food system, evidenced by the slew of documentaries exploring the industry, the proliferation of farmers markets and urban gardens, and the increasing discussion people around me are having about eating healthy. I’m confident things will change with time, albeit slowly. People are asking questions and becoming self-aware, especially in my generation. Since the recession a few years back, we’re much more willing to self-evaluate how we do things, how we live, and at what cost to ourselves and the planet.
It should be clear by now that whether we’re talking about iPhones, anthropomorphic stuffed bacon toys, or actual bacon, expecting to get more for less comes at a cost. I’m not suggesting we should take as our model the days when people spent fully a third of their incomes on food; making food more expensive makes it harder for poor—and middle class—people to afford. But I do think it’s worth reevaluating our spending priorities, and wondering why we’re so reluctant to pay a bit more for something so essential. The big question is how we can value food more without turning healthy food into a luxury item or making people who are already struggling to pay their bills worse off.
Another Green Revolution perhaps? Or a subsidy of healthy foods? Whatever the means, it’ll be sure to require considerable social and financial investment by the public – hopefully less costly and difficult than the consequences we’re dealing with from the status quo.