Guess What, Food is Too Cheap in America!

Cheap eats


The headline may come as a shock to many, but when we compare the price we pay for groceries today as a percentage of our income vs 30 years ago, it turns out we are paying less, 25 percent less. In 1982, we spent over 12% of our income on food. Now it is less than 9%. Did food become cheaper, or has our income grown?

The answer is that food has become much cheaper. Unfortunately it’s mostly unhealthy food. And a larger percentage of our food spend is on this cheap, processed food. In 1982, we spent only 11% of our grocery food dollar on processed foods and sweets. That figure has doubled to 22% today. See this chart (courtesy of NPR and the Bureau of Labor Statistics):

Food Spend Changes in the last 30 years

The percentage of spend has gone down substantially, but not because we eat less meat. Simply put, meat prices have dropped by 30% in the last few decades, mostly due to factory farming and economies of scale.

Comparing the US to Europe, our food is cheap as well. We spend less than 9% of our income on Food. Spaniards spend 13%. In France – 13%. Italy – 14%.

Despite these numbers, we all feel in our pocketbooks that food is too expensive. Especially for those of us who want to buy organic food, or spend more money of fresh fruits and vegetables.

How to reconcile what we are feeling and the stats above? The answer may lie in context and expectations. We have been conditioned to expect very low prices for groceries and thus allocate a small portion of our income for it. To allocate more means taking away from other expenditures – dining outside the home, home electronics, vacations, cars, and mortgage. Healthcare too.

Some people have framed the issue of healthy groceries as an investment in a healthy future for the family, and are fine with allocating substantially more for their groceries than the average American. But most of us are still not at that point.

What do you think? Would you be willing to spend more on food, assuming it really is healthier?

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  • Ken Leebow

    There’s no reason to pay more. It’s a myth that eating foods with health benefits are more expensive. But of course, it’s difficult to dispel myths that are generally accepted truths.

    • Jane

      I don’t understand how it is a myth that healthy food is more expensive? Could you expand on this?

      • Michele Hays

        The USDA’s ERS released this report:

        They also offer a publication on the cost of produce, if that’s your rubric for healthy food:

  • Michele Hays

    There’s more going on here than just income vs. food.  The Food Chain just released a study about food workers in America – who are largely the reason food is so cheap.

    Guess what? Not only do major food corporations keep food prices low, especially highly-processed foods – they are also major drivers of poverty in the US.  The people who most need cheap foods, because they can’t re-allocate their resources are the ones who are keeping food cheap.

  • Catherine

    I actually find it cheaper to buy healthier food.  I just went to the supermarket this last week with my daughter and we spent the bulk of our time in the produce section filling up the cart.  It was definitely a cheaper spend than when I spend more time in the aisles.  I also find we don’t need to eat as much if we are eating quality food.  But I would have no qualms about spending more if I had to for better quality groceries.  We like our food around here and cheap processed food just tastes bad.

  • School Bites

    Healthy food is a priority for me, so I am willing to spend more for it!  It is painful to fork over $1+ for an organic apple, though, as I did this morning. I’m constantly going over budget. I can see how it could be a big deterrent for people: $1+ for an organic apple versus $1 for a McDonald’s cheeseburger or two donuts. 

    • Heather

      Apples aren’t in season right now – shipped from New Zealand, any fruit ought to cost more than $1 each!  Spending your food dollar on organic, LOCAL produce from a nearby farmer’s market would be a smarter, healthier, lower carbon-footprint choice!

  • Gabet347

    I would rather spend twice as much money on real healthy food, of which i know whats in it and how it it was made rather than spend any amount of money on the processed garbage that fills the other 80 percent of grocery stores. Out of everything we buy, food is the only thing that we put directly into our bodies. It affects our health and how we are able to live. Nothing else does that. If you biy and eat shitty food you are essentially poisoning yourself and setting yourself up for future illness. Healthy food is worth the investment. Your health is worth the investment

    • vnilj

      I wonder how much of that is organic. (<5%)

  • Monisha Pasupathi

    How much more to pay is a hard question – we switched recently to buying locally produced eggs, meat (which we don’t eat alot of), and have a CSA. Where we are, eggs and pork are about twice as expensive (but much better tasting), beef about 1.5 times as expensive as CAFO produced meats, and chicken is insanely more expensive (more than twice for sure). We can do this because we have good and secure jobs and the ability to drive a long way to pick up the food. And, we can do it because we have meat on our table twice a week, not daily.

    Local and seasonal is great. But, local isn’t an option year-round where we live; farmer’s markets only go in the summer, and  while there are 3/4 year CSA options, this is a place that can’t produce enough food to feed it’s local population – not even if you go out to the more regional perspective. And local is actually more expensive here (in part b/c agriculture here really struggles).  (there is also the question of what shipped luxuries we can’t live without – and i live with banana addicts).

    I’m sure that what we’re doing is better, but i’m also pretty sure that it isn’t a solution that everyone can pursue and it’s not a tenable long-term solution; it’s also important to be cautious about assumptions of what is available where – local and seasonal works all the time in some places (i used to live in those! it was awesome!), but not elsewhere.

  • Philippe Boucher

    There is the political problem that “bad food” is much more subsidized than healthy food. Subsidies to grow corn in industrial farms but not fruit. Maybe you already addressed this in previous posts. Gas is cheaper than solar because it has been, still is, much more heavily subsidized with plenty of tax incentives, loopholes, etc. Plus all the negative costs are not “internalized”: the cost of soft drinks does not include their negative impact on the health of millions of consumers. It’s the classic privatization of the profits and externalization of the costs. If those costs were internalized, the price of food with negative impact would rise… If the price difference was the opposite, bad foods more expensive, there would be an economic incentive to favor healthy food.

    • Milburn Drysdale

       Gasoline is in no way “subsidized” — Unless you conveniently omit the fact that the oil and gas industry pays many billions of dollars in state and local taxes, payroll taxes, corporate taxes, royalties and licencing fees every year.

      While you’re at it, be sure not to mention the billions in excise taxes paid by end users.

      Sorry, you were saying …?

  • Philippe Boucher

    This article published in April explains the real cost of the food produced in the US

  • Nishablackuniversity89

    I’m from the Oklahoma metro and due to our unique economic “boom” (OK is often called a “recession-proof” state) we have had many more grocery stores open up that ISN’T a WalMart. Those places are much more expensive than WalMart. When I go in with my hubby we each have a two hand limit; we do not get carts. We still spend about $60, although we both try to get things that aren’t as expensive (like fruits/veggies out of season). We have a few local farmers markets, but with very limited hours or days of operation. I totally understand why most of my friends and family do not shop for food in similar ways–we spend $140 in groceries. Monthly we spend more on quality food than our rent. 

    • Nishablackuniversity89

      $140 a week

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  • Pat


    I suspect you need to define food first!  Food is not only a physical product but includes the love, thought, and wisdom of the ages.  tell me where you get that cheap in America!

    • Milburn Drysdale

      And, just like food, your “love, thought, and wisdom of the ages” ultimately gets turned into guano.

      In this case, a big steaming pile of it.

  • redc1c4

    i’m a firm believer in the four basic food groups:

    red meat, alcohol, caffeine and stress.

    my diet may kill me, but at least i will know what did it… unlike you all lying in the nursing home years from now, dying of decubitis ulcers, infected catheters, and general neglect.

    meanwhile, i’ll be over in the inorganic section, picking out my factory made eggs, meat, milk products, etc. and saving money so i can buy more booze.

    life is too short to eat healthy.

  • Hgbjn

    Ys i wud