Consumer Spending and Experience with Food

As society prospered over the past 100 years, we have increased our level of education, enjoyed better health care, earned higher incomes, lived in a more diverse and tolerant society, taken advantage of technological breakthroughs in communications and transportation, and been presented with abundant food choices that are both better and worse, but generally much safer.  Today may be the golden age of food.

In 1918, food cost 41.1% of the average family’s income. Today food costs 12% of the average family income.  The budget burden of food for a family has reduced substantially, and it is both more attractive and cleaner.  We have access to a wide variety of food, seemingly always in season, and appealing to appetites from across the world.

Fruits and vegetables arrive fresher and with fewer bruises due to better hybrids and packaging and faster transport.  Fresh meats and seafood are cleaner and safer thanks to Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration inspections and other monitoring.  Those who doubt the improvement in meat packing conditions should reread The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.

Food in the 1918 era was mainly an in-home and backyard-garden experience.  There were a few outside the home restaurants or galleys in trains, steamships, hotels and institutions. Reliance on those kitchens was rare.  In 1970, 26% of food was consumed outside the home, but in 2014 that portion had risen to nearly 40%.  For the highest income decile of homes, the portion has topped 51%.

Despite being better, much cheaper and more nutritious, today’s food supply is the target of criticism by a loud gaggle of narrow agenda pundits.  As Irina Dumitrescu observed in the Atlantic, those pundits demand “ethically sourced, organic, raw, gluten-free, meat-free, dairy-free, protein-rich, low-fat, low in sodium, carbon neutral, dirt-encrusted, pre-soaked, and fair trade” foods.  If they were ever forced to listen to themselves, they would tone it down.  Even government agencies have posted conflicting advice on today’s pariahs such as bleached flour, trans fats and cigarettes.  Today GMOs are considered safe, but political pressure could overpower the “science.”

Food prepared and consumed outside the home is a problem solver for two-earner families who toil a full workday, then have to produce something nutritious and attractive for the other one, two or three hungry family members after work and school.  Without the second income, many families would find dining out or take-out food to be a budget buster.  We can see that in the variance in percentage of the food budget spent outside the home.  The bottom quintile spends 31.7 percent.  The top quintile spends 51 percent.  The allure of fast food is evident to SNAP beneficiaries in the lower income deciles.  EBT cards can be used even in some fast food and coffee bar restaurants.

It is no surprise that education is positively correlated with spending on food.  The correlation could be related to wiser food choices that might be learned via more sophisticated science curricula in college.  But there does not seem to be a compelling correlation between income and the purchase of fresh fruit and vegetables, so the more likely explanation comes from the higher income made possible through higher education.  Higher income families can exercise more choices and have expensive cuts of meat rather than hamburger.

There is no law that safeguards the affordability, quality and access to food variety.  As fisheries stocks slowly deplete and as the “carbon footprint” of meat animals is found to be unsustainable, we may be relegated to textured vegetable concoctions that pass as protein alternatives.  We need to resist the food pundits who want food rid of interesting textures, flavors, and nutrients.  At their hands, the meanings of food may evolve into something far more utilitarian, something over which we no longer fantasize.

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