“I’m sorry, but we can’t afford that.”

I imagine that most parents have said that to their children at one time or another, maybe when asked about a shiny new toy or a fun vacation. But how many have to say it when grocery shopping? 15 percent of them, according to the USDA. Over 17 million families in the United States had trouble coming up with enough money to buy groceries at some point in 2009. Yet at the same time, nearly 6 million families earned over $180,000, and in 2008, the IRS reported over 13,000 households filing tax returns with income in excess of $10 million. It seems safe to assume that none of them had trouble putting food on the table. Clearly, the definition of “affordable” is a movable target.

Speaking of which, I ran across this essay on ‘Grist’ a little while ago. It spoke, from a producer’s point of view, to an issue that is at the heart of this project: what does “affordable” mean; how is it decided; and who is included or excluded from obtaining affordable food?

Yes, the modern industrial food system has succeeded in delivering a broader, cheaper, and more widely dispersed array of goods to the consumer than at anytime in history. One might conclude that prices have been flattened as well, and that there’s relatively little price fluctuation across the country. However, my own experience belies that assumption. I found a significant difference in the overall cost of a typical selection of groceries between two low-price stores, never mind between a discounter and a full-price retailer. Is my experience typical, though? I’ll have to dig for data.

Of course there are other factors involved, besides the raw cost of groceries, in what families spend on feeding themselves: transportation to and from the grocery store; energy cost to store, prepare, and cook food; and time to do all these things. Since we know that time is money and energy costs money, it can arguably be broken down into dollars and cents; “the bottom line is the bottom line.” But how much difference is there in percentage of income spent on food between families at opposite ends of the economic spectrum, and how does this disparity play out in what these families buy and eat, and how they look at food itself?

The difference turns out to be rather large. According to the 2007 Consumer Expenditure Survey published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, grocery expense as a percentage of income decreases quite sharply as income rises, from an average of 25 percent for the bottom quintile (20 percent bracket) to just under 4 percent for the top tier. Graphing this line, one sees a startling but familiar pattern: exponential decay. How low does it go? I don’t know. Someone making $1 million per year could spend $10,000 on groceries, and that would be 1% of their income.

The national average of 6 percent seems enticingly low, but it sits in a statistically curious position. More than 3 out of every 5 households make less income than the $62,857 for which that 6 percent grocery expense is average. The numbers are further skewed by the relatively small number of households at the very peak of the top quintile and the disproportionate amount of wealth they possess. The top 10 percent of U.S households brought in 49.7 percent of all income in 2007, according to research by Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saens.

Where do we fit into this picture? I’m going to look at that next.


About poorlocavore

Welcome to one family's journey towards a smaller food-mile footprint on a small food budget. How do our choices affect the environment, and what influences our choices? Read on and find out what I'm learning.
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3 Responses to “I’m sorry, but we can’t afford that.”

  1. Easy Listener says:

    A while back you mentioned “packaging” as a legitimate concern in analyzing food costs. Have you done any research on that? I am asking in particular about bioplastics as a replacement for petroleum-based plastics, in food packages, grocery bags for carrying it home, and of course the cost and availability of petrol vs wheat, corn, and other agri-products.

    • poorlocavore says:

      That’s an interesting angle, but I haven’t had a chance to analyze it-I haven’t had much “school time” lately. One concern with bio-packaging is the diversion of food resources to a non-food product (i.e.corn for ethanol), which could push food prices up; but I think demand would have to be fairly large to show that effect. Complicated!

  2. Pingback: “We’re doing pretty well, for poor people” | The Poor Locavore

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