Thursday, March 25, 2010

Can you afford to eat good food?

Here is the big question for today's post:  Can a family on a low cost food budget afford to eat good food?  (For the current discussion let us agree that locally grown and fresh organic vegetables and fruits are good food.)  The short answer is YES and if you want to know the reason why,  keep reading.  I hope this doesn't get too wonky for you -- but it is a really important question and requires more than a 30 second sound bite to answer.

I have been thinking about the cost of food a lot lately, because I have been talking to people about cooking and eating more vegetables and signing up for a Featherstone Farm CSA share.  And of course one of the first things people ask about is price.  Especially in this economy.  Fair enough.  I have grocery shopped for decades and I too am very careful about cost per pound, cost per serving, value and my food budget. I am a smart shopper.  I will not spend $1.00 for one medium sized organic potato, which is what they cost the last time I checked at the Hy-Vee in Rochester. 

Do you have a food budget?  Do you know what you spend each week to feed the members of your household?  Do you know how much you are spending for food eaten at home vs. food eaten at restaurants?  If your answer is yes to even one of these questions,  then you are special.  I would bet a couple of homemade rhubarb pies that most people have no idea what they really spend on food - either at home or out.  But these same people have a general idea that they can't afford "expensive" food, whatever that means.

Fear not - if you have no food budget we can still figure this out, thanks to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)  These folks pay a lot of attention to what we eat and what we spend on food.

Here is your first take home message:  American food, in general,  is incredibly cheap.  In 2008 (the most recent year for which data is available) families and individuals as a group spent only 9.6% of their personal disposable income (that means AFTER taxes) for food.  5.6% was for eating at home and 4% was for eating out.  In 1950,  Americans spent 20.6% of their income for food - 17% of which was for eating at home and 3.6% for eating out.

So is cheap food a good thing?  It depends how you look at it.  Our food system does seem to have become very good at shoveling out lots of low cost calories.  But are they good calories?  Don't you think it is interesting that at the same time our food costs have been cut in half as a percent of our personal income, our health care costs have skyrocketed as a percent of our national GNP?   In 1950 we spent a little over 20% of our personal income for food.  Now we are spending less than 10% for food but are close to spending about 20% of our national economy for health care!  I don't know about you, but I am almost ready to conclude that our food costs WAY TOO MUCH if you are looking at the big picture.

This big picture macro stuff is all well and good - but what about the micro?  What is your family spending per week in real dollars?  That is the number that really matters to you.  Well, the USDA can help us again.  Every year the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion puts out a simple chart which shows the U.S. average for cost of food at home at four different levels - thrifty, low-cost, moderate and liberal.  The chart conveniently breaks down the numbers based on age and gender so you can get a pretty good estimate based on your own family characteristics.  See the whole chart here

Let's look at an example for a family of four with two adults and two kids, one between 6-8 and the other between 9-11.  The USDA says that if this family is on a "low cost" plan, they would be spending $176. a week,  assuming all meals are eaten or prepared at home.  If this family was eating out a lot or paying for school lunches, they would presumably be spending quite a bit more on food every week.
A Featherstone Farm 22 week summer Grande (large) share would cost this family $640 up front -- for a weekly cost of $29.   This is about 16.5% of a $176. a week low cost food budget. 

Now lets look at a two adult household and a Chica (small)  summer share, which costs $490, or just about $23 a week.  The low cost food budget number for a family of two adults between ages 19 and 50 would be $103. a week.   So for this household, their weekly CSA box cost of $23 would represent only 22.3% of their weekly food budget.  

So look at the numbers and you decide.  Considering how important fresh organic fruits and vegetables are to a healthy diet,  I think a CSA share seems like a really good deal --  even if you are on a tight food budget. 

For more details on what is in a summer share, go to  Notice that there are options if you are not able to pay the whole cost in advance.


  1. This is so useful! I hadn't done the math this way, but I knew already from my experience last year that my Featherstone Farm Grande share saved me money (and I still have some tomatoes I roasted in the freezer). That's not counting the actual value of the flavor, or knowing my money is supporting a local operation.

  2. I am glad you found this useful. I am also convinced that this is a case where spending money leads to saving money -- for lots of different reasons. I just found a great article in the NY Times about low cost recipes. I will add the link to my latest blog post.