Anyone can afford good food

From John E. Ikerd
Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics
University of Missouri Columbia
College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources

“Perhaps people who have money can eat like that, but what about poor people?” I hear comments such as this in nearly every discussion of the growing opportunities for people to eat more locally grown, sustainably produced foods. My typical response is that just about anyone anywhere can find good locally grown food these days and just about anyone can afford it.

Locally grown foods, particularly meat, milk, and eggs, are probably going to cost a good bit more than comparable items in the supermarkets. But most people, even those with modest incomes, can afford to buy good local foods, simply by spending a bit less on other things that add less to their health and happiness. As I have written before, costs of good local foods tend to be higher because local sustainable producers pay the full cost of production; they don’t pollute the environment or exploit other people in the production process. Once people understand the differences between typical industrially produced foods and local sustainably produced foods – in terms of freshness, flavor, wholesomeness, and nutrition, as well as social and ethical integrity – good local food acquires a priority that makes it seem easily affordable.

The average American family spends only about a dime out of each dollar of disposable income for food. So, spending ten or even twenty percent more for good food only requires spending one or two percent more of the typical family’s income for food, rather than for some other discretionary budget item. In some cases, good food may not require actually giving up anything else. For example, the average American family today spends about fifteen percent of their income for health care, and as we learn more about the linkages of diet with health, it’s becoming evident that spending a bit more for good food could result in spending a lot less for healthcare.

“People living in poverty don’t have discretionary income,” is the typical response I get when I talk about being willing to pay the full costs of good food. “They can’t afford either good food or healthcare.” Admittedly, for people living in poverty, choosing good food is more of a challenge. Some poor people may spend up to half of their income for food. For these people, spending another ten to twenty percent for food would require five to ten percent more income, since they can’t take it from anywhere else in their budget. But, the challenge can be met.

First, from each dime the average American consumer spends for food, about eight cents goes to pay for the processing, transportation, storage, and packaging that makes food more convenient, and for the advertising that persuades people that convenience is more important than food. So the average consumer actually spends only about two cents from each dollar of their income for food – for what they actually eat. This means lower income consumers spending half of their income for food may easily spend forty percent of their income for convenience, rather than food.

Lower income consumers often buy food in smaller quantities, buy more highly processed foods, and buy more pre-prepared, take-out, or fast foods. Many don’t have the money to buy in bulk, don’t have freezers for storage, and don’t have time to prepare food, because they are working long hours or two jobs. As a result, the poor may actually spend proportionally more for convenience and less for food than does the average consumer.

Obviously, a poor person can’t afford to buy as much of everything as a wealthy person can. So, poor people may not be able to afford both good food and the level of convenience that many Americans have come to expect with their food. But, they can choose between good food and convenience, even if they can’t afford both. If a person spending fifty percent of their income on food was able to buy all of their food from local producers in its raw or unprocessed form, they could theoretically save the equivalent of forty percent of their income simply by buying food locally and preparing their own food. They would avoid all of the eighty percent of total food costs accounted for by processing, transportation, storage, packaging, and advertising.

Realistically, no one can actually save this entire amount, as it would require slaughtering animals for meat, milling grain for bread, etc. In addition, some raw food items, such as raw milk, are not sold direct from farmers to consumers in all locations. But, it is realistic to believe that most consumers could save half or more of the cost they currently pay for convenience by buying locally and preparing their own food. Practically all vegetables and many fruits and berries are readily available to consumers from local farmers during their normal local growing seasons. Meat, milk, and eggs are often available locally in minimally processed forms. Flour for bread and grains for cereal are often available, if not locally, at least direct from a miller. Some retail food stores also offer raw and minimally processed items bought from local growers.

Every individual situation will be a bit different, but realistically, a person spending half of their income for food might save the equivalent of a twenty to thirty percent of their income by preparing their own food from raw or minimally processed local food items. Hours spent preparing meals can be as economically beneficial as hours spent working for pay. Costs of transportation, childcare, or special clothing may dramatically reduce the net income from additional work. A person working long hours, or even two jobs, may actually be better off financially after cutting back to a normal workweek and preparing their own food. Thus, the economic obstacles to good eating are surmountable. The obstacles of being unable to buy in bulk, unable to store food, and lack of time, also can be overcome, with a bit of education and some common sense.

The costs of additional equipment for food preparation or transportation for local shopping will probably be more than offset by avoiding the expenses of a second job. Buying food in larger quantities when the weekly paycheck comes in is as easy as setting aside a few dollars for savings. Bulk buying actually is an investment that will be paid back with interest with each meal. The money saved on food during times when many local foods are in-season can quickly pay off an investment in canning equipment or a second-hand freezer. Anyone with normal intelligence and an able body can afford to eat good food.

To demonstrate the practically of eating good local food on a “food stamp budget,” Robert Waldrop, president of the Oklahoma food alliance, tried it for a week. He combined (1) frugal supermarket shopping, (2) preparing meals from basic ingredients, (3) buying local foods, (4) gardening, (5) food storage, and (6) home preservation of food to create a healthy, affordable, practical, and environmentally sustainable meal plan. And, he said, “the food had to be satisfying and taste good too, otherwise, what’s the point?”

The bottom line, he was able to provide a healthy diet for two people, with seventy-three percent local foods, for a cost of just over $60, which is a bit less that the current food stamp allowance for two people. His basic point is, even poor people can afford good, local food.

A commitment to eating good food represents far more than a change in shopping habits. It is a commitment to a new lifestyle for everyone who makes it, but is even more so for people with low incomes. First, a person with less income is not likely to have the nutrition education necessary to choose a low-cost, healthy diet from the smaller seasonal variety of locally available foods. Second, they may also lack the necessary skills for food preparation, processing, and storage. However, most people probably realize they can overcome these deficiencies, if they had a good reason to do so. Publicly supported educational programs are available for anyone who is interested in learning to select and prepare their own food. But, self-education requires a personal commitment.

The lack of time for food preparation may seem more difficult. However, families that are willing to make a commitment to good food may find they actually have more time for the things that they now find important in life. First, some local foods, such as fresh vegetables, fruits, and cheese, require little preparation. In addition, children of all ages, and both genders, can be productive participants in food preparation and processing. Families can rediscover the true meaning to quality time preparing good food and enjoying it together. Time devoted to preparing and eating good food can be time for learning, for creative expression, and for sharing of values and culture among family and friends, not time wasted. Time spent preparing food also leaves less time to be filled with unproductive, counterproductive, and often costly distractions.

Even families with limited income may find that they can actually live better by spending more time and money for good local food and less of both on other things that are no longer necessities in a family that shares an appreciation for good food. People, rich and poor, need only find the courage to reject the bombardment of advertising that tells them food is nothing but fuel to be purchased as cheaply as possible, prepared easily as possible, and consumed as quickly as possible. The enjoyment of preparing and eating good, sustainably produced, local food is well worth the extra time, effort, and money.
Reprinted with Permission from the Author

See also John’s Small Farms in the year 2050

… and Living off a dollar menu may save you money now, but you’ll pay for it in the long run at Newsweek→


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