Tuesday, February 19, 2013

America Spends Less on Food Than Any Other Country

www.motherjones.com - February 19th, 2013

Of course, this kind of logic is completely insane to most people in the world, for the simple and obvious fact that food is the most important thing to budget for. It's only because I live in a rich country where having enough to eat isn't really an issue that I can be so clueless about my food spending habits; as demonstrated by the chart below, the higher a country's average income, the smaller the percentage of income spent on food. 

Like Kiera—and, I'm sure, many of the readers of her article—I was a bit shocked when I calculated how much I spend on food. I like to think I'm thrifty in my food spending habits—I cook a lot and usually eat out only on the weekends—but I don't usually add up my food costs and rarely make serious estimates for food spending when I make a budget, instead assuming that I'll manage to make do with whatever's left after I cut a check for rent, buy a bus pass, and pay my utility bills.

On some level, this is pretty intuitive—food is a basic need, and there's only so much you can eat, no matter how much money you have. But even among developed countries, our food spending is ultra-low:People in most European countries spend over 10 percent of their incomes on food. In fact, Americans spend less on food than people in any other country in the world. Even we Americans didn't always expect our food to be so cheap, though: Back in 1963, when Molly Orshansky, an employee of the Social Security Administration, created the nation's first poverty threshold, she simply tripled the cost of the FDA's "thrifty" food plan, since at the time most families spent about a third of their incomes on food. So how'd we end up spending just a fraction of that four decades later?

To find the answer, we have to go back four decades to the 1970s, when rising food prices and technological developments led to a host of transformative changes in the US food system whose effects still determine the way many Americans eat. In response to rising food costs and growing demand amongst the expanding middle class, Nixon's secretary of agriculture, Earl Butz, turned the country's agricultural subsidy program—originally instituted to help stabilize food supply and farmers' incomes after the volatility of the Great Depression—into a support mechanism for the industrial production of corn and soy. Butz's policy of "get big or get out"—made possible by advancements in industrial food production, including technological developments and an abundance of cheap fossil fuels used to make fertilizer and pesticides—encouraged the consolidation of small farmers' plots into gigantic holdings and led to the rise of agribusiness in place of the family farm.

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