How much do Americans actually spend on food? (And how much should we?)

Last week I was trying to figure out what portion of their incomes Americans spend on food. (Why is a long story.) A lot of numbers are bandied about, but usually by people trying to make one political point or another, and it was more difficult than I expected to nail down anything reliable. But I managed to find out not only what people at various income levels do spend on food, but also what they’d have to spend in order to eat a healthy diet. The answers were, respectively, more than I thought… and considerably more than that.

The claim I most often read is that American food is ludicriously cheap. By historical and global standards, it is — but how cheap? The Gates Foundation reported last year that only 6 percent of Americans’ household expenditures went to food, compared with more than 10 percent in most of Europe and 35% in India. Their point is that the world’s poor spend a great deal more of their money on food than we do, which is true, and they intend to fund agricultural research so that the rest of the world can have cheap food like we do. Mother Jones republished the Gates Foundation’s bar chart to make a different point, that Americans spend very little — probably too little — of our incomes on food, and that this cheap food is possible only because we subsidize large-scale agriculture through taxes and externalize costs to the environment, to animal welfare, to workers, and to our health. (Since 1995 we’ve given $277 billion in subsidies to just 38 percent of U.S. farms, including more than $100 billion just to produce cheap corn and soy, most of which goes into various processed foods, most of which are far more caloric than nutritious and are by nearly every standard a major reason so many Americans are overweight.) This is, I think, also true, and we’re paying for those cheap calories through our health care expenses.

But I question this 6 percent figure. It seems impossibly low, and the Gates Foundation’s chart is drawn so vividly that it makes me suspicious. (Why is the bar for India’s food expenditures several times taller than the bar for all its expenditures? Even if the numbers are wrong, the chart is exaggerated for visual effect.) So I dug a little deeper. Continue reading “How much do Americans actually spend on food? (And how much should we?)”