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Earth Eats: Real Food, Green Living

Americans Spend Less On Food Than Most Countries

Americans spend less on groceries, and tend to have poorer diets.

A frozen TV dinner made from cheap ingredients

Photo: Robert S. Donovan (flickr)

Americans spend less than any other country on their food budgets, according to the USDA. Analysts say it's partly due to the availability of cheap, processed food.

Cheap Eats

On average, Americans only spend 6.6 percent of their household income on food at home. Even if you add restaurant meals, total spending on food only amounts to 11 percent. That’s lower by a longshot than countries like Cameroon, where people spend 45.9 percent of their income on food overall. Some of that disparity has to do with wealth, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

The U.S. shells out 2 to 3 percent less on groceries than the United Kingdom or Canada, and half that of countries like France and Italy.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture collects information on food-related spending habits around the world. Those figures, neatly compiled and visualized on Vox.com, illustrate some key differences in the food system.

A high percentage of spending on food means less resources for things like medicine and education for children, and correlates with malnutrition and scarcity. Fluctuations in food prices also hit these regions much harder. Droughts or crop-damaging floods can cause crushing spikes in the price of staples like rice or wheat, leading to hunger crises like the one in South Sudan.

The Cost of Cheap

Food spending isn’t a perfect predictor of wealth, though. People in wealthier countries have higher average budgets, of course, while the amount they spend on food flattens out.

Government subsidies and industrial agriculture drive food prices down, and some wealthy countries spend more than similar neighbors simply because they have more expensive tastes.

In the U.S., the availability of cheap, processed food made of subsidized ingredients, like corn syrup and meat raised on subsidized feed, pushes food prices down.

But researchers say those same factors are responsible for low-nutrition diets, and the sugar-fed obesity epidemic. New research has shown access to low-cost food is more likely to cause obesity than other factors like sedentary jobs and urbanization.

The price of sugars, fats, vegetable oils and meat have all declined over the years in America, while vegetable prices have risen. The increasing demand for organic food and local produce also means people are paying more, and passing more profits to farmers.

TV Dinner Nation

There are signs those spending trends could be changing. According to a recent industry report, nearly all of American households consume frozen “TV” dinners on a regular basis.

Those sales are slipping, particularly among the younger set. Frozen meal sales fell 3 to 5 percent just in 2013. In industry polls, adults under 45 identify “freshness” as a critical quality in food choices, and 40 percent of adults overall say “TV” dinners lack nutritional value.

As food industry analysts scramble to understand the appetites of millennials, some point to the explosion of farmer’s markets and health-touting celebrity chefs, and project that “specialty, ethnic, organic, natural and fresh products” will supplant those Swanson trays of Salisbury Steak and apple pie.

Read More:

  • Map: Here’s how much each country spends on food (Vox.com)
  • There’s Now a Map of How Much Each Country Spends on Food (Jezebel)
  • Obesity And Economic Environments (PubMed)
Chad Bouchard

Chad Bouchard is a veteran reporter and WFIU alum who has covered wild and wooly beats from Indonesia to Capitol Hill. His radio work has aired on NPR, PRI and Voice of America, and his writing has appeared in The Sunday Telegraph and Scientific American’s health magazine, Lives. He has also spent a lifetime gardening, foraging and eating weird stuff.

View all posts by this author »

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