The numbers that track how much money the U.S. population spends on food are remarkable. Because most of us buy our food, we do put “money where our mouths are,” and we have a lot of options on how that money is spent.
The Economic Research Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, compiles summary statistics about food production, distribution and sales. One of its tables of data provides the Food Consumer Price Index and food expenditures over time for the United States.
In 1935, families and individuals spent 23.4 percent of their disposable income on food. In the years that followed, that percentage of income spent on food consistently dropped, averaging 16.5 percent in 1962, 12.6 percent in 1982 and 9.8 percent in 2002. During the past decade, these expenditures have leveled off, so Americans spent an average of 10 percent of disposable income on food in 2012.
Average numbers don’t tell the whole story, of course, and there are many families these days that have trouble making ends meet. These families need to spend a higher percentage of their income on food. There are other considerations about food supply, as well, such as distribution issues that affect the types of food available in specific locations, raising concerns about “food deserts” in some poorer inner-city places.
But think about what these numbers tell us: Our ability as a nation to produce and sell food efficiently has kept costs low as a percentage of average family income.
Many people complain about the increasing cost of food during the past several years. But compared with many places in the world, and compared with what we used to spend for food 80 years ago, we continue to be surrounded by inexpensive food choices.
So what do we do with that extra 10 percent to 13 percent of income that we do not spend on food? If you do a few simple calculations, you will find that many of the really cool things you buy — like a computer, a microwave or a better car — are affordable specifically because you are not spending that money on food.
Some people decide to invest in more expensive foods because they can. That could mean going to an upscale grocery store rather than the lowest-price store. But it also means buying food away from home, where it is typically more expensive. This, of course, is part of the reason why the fast-food and restaurant industries do so well in the United States.
The ERS data show this, too. In 1932, we spent 19.5 percent of disposable income on food at home and 3.5 percent on food away from home. In 2012, we spent 5.7 percent of income on food at home and 4.3 percent on food away. That means 40 percent of our expenditures are for food we do not cook at home. This adds to the options people have about where they spend their time and how they get their food.
Furthermore, in 1935, Americans produced 21 percent of their food at home, while in 2002 and 2012 only 1.6 percent of foods were produced at home. If you are not producing your own food, it means you are spending your time doing something else. Perhaps that time is spent well, perhaps poorly, but certainly most Americans today who spend time tilling the soil and gardening do so by choice and for enjoyment, not because they are obliged to do so to survive.
Perhaps as a nation we are emotionally, psychologically or spiritually poorer for being separated from food-production tasks. Despite the relative cost of food and generally well-organized delivery system, many people make poor food choices when eating at home or dining out. These choices may be deliberate or due to a lack of “nutritional” education.
In most cases, we have the luxury of being able to choose. We have the option to make informed and deliberate decisions about where we put our food dollars precisely because of the fact that as a nation, overall, we have plentiful and inexpensive food.