Healthy Eating

Do Americans Spend Enough on Wholesome Food?

shopping hunger trapWhich do you spend more on each month: wholesome food or cable TV?

For some people I know, it’s the latter… which is alarming.

It’s not that I don’t think you can feed a family healthfully on $125 a month—but I think it would take serious effort (time) or cheap access to wholesome food. Most time-strapped urban and suburban families have neither.

What is “wholesome food”? Nutrition experts agree that it’s fresh, whole foods—including fruits, vegetables, legumes and lean meats—which are produced without chemicals or genetic enhancements as much as possible. What’s not quality? Convenience foods: packaged and processed foods full of salt, sugar, fillers and preservatives; and fast-food full of – I have no idea.

Without a doubt, there are financial barriers to eating quality food… and many American families tend to eat a fair amount of lower-quality food “because it’s cheaper.”

The question is: how much is wholesome food worth to us? And should it be worth more?

The Cost of Healthy Food

Some economists and journalists say food prices are rising, while others say food is getting cheaper. According to the Atlantic article, Americans spend less on food than we did 30 years ago (11% of our income today, versus 17% in the past). That spending drop could mean overall food prices are declining; or it could mean we’re buying more convenience food and it’s cheaper.

In cities, it can certainly cost more to get quality produce and meats when they’re shipped in from elsewhere. Sometimes, a few bucks will go further on chips and frozen dinners than ingredients for a fresh, quality meal—which has led to concern over food stamps being used to buy junk food.

It’s not just a lower-income conundrum. Many budget-conscious families must choose between non-organic or organic; caged/hormone-grown or grass-fed/free-range; genetically modified (GMO)/preservative-filled or 100% pure ingredients. It’s definitely cheaper to buy the mass-produced option than the quality one—sometimes by more than half.

[Related: Is Your Family Eating Healthy?]

American Food Spending Compared with Other Countries

A lot of Americans do buy quality food. But I know, for many middle-income families, they’re on the fence about whether it’s worth it. According to the Atlantic article above, America spends less on food than most other countries.

Again, is it because food is cheaper in the U.S., or because we choose cheaper (and cheaper quality) options? America has one of the worst nutrition reputations in the world, so it’s worth looking into. We spend half of what French households spend on food.

Cash is tight, but many Americans could afford higher quality food if we cut back elsewhere. We’ve been conditioned as a society to put food cost-efficiency over quality. Remember when the internet went wild over the kid who got through college without student debt by eating ramen every day? Praise his thriftiness all you want—I’ll take the debt and the nutrition!

And those “value” menus at fast-food restaurants have us fooled, too. Haven’t we all, at some point, gazed up and balked at the $7 healthy salad, and chosen a few options from the $1 menu instead? It’s not until you consider that you’re paying $3 for something with zero benefit, versus $7 for something with benefit, that you realize the real waste was the $3 “value meal.”

Food for Thought

Not only have Americans been conditioned to look for cheap food, but we’re also told stories every day about the “essentials” of life—electronics, entertainment and material comforts.

If we put a little more thought into our food and where the real “value” is, do you think we would start to change our spending priorities? Would pesticide-free apples and spinach start to become more exalted than iPads?

By Chelsea Bush

Chelsea Bush on Google+


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Chelsea Ratcliff

Chelsea Ratcliff

Writer and expert

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