Food costs have long been the subject of many national debates. Americans may not be aware that food has come to occupy an ever smaller part of their budget. As recently as the 1960’s, Americans spent about seventeen percent of their income on food. This was down from more than 40 percent at the turn of the century.
Today, the average American household spends about ten percent of their income on food. This is a relative pittance compared to some other countries. The French and Japanese spend a lot more than we do.
Food is everywhere in the United States and it is often far less expensive than our forebears might have dared imagine. For many contemporary Americans, the question is not the cost of the food we eat. It is the quality of the food on our tables.
Americans, we are told, eat too much and eat food that is of poor quality. If we just planned our food budgets better, we could all allegedly spend less money and get better quality food at the same time.
One recent meme posted on a popular website takes direct aim at American food spending habits.
The top half of the meme has a fried chicken fast food meal. In this scenario, the buyer gets eight pieces of chicken, four biscuits, two small side dishes and that’s about it, all for twenty bucks. In the second half of the meme, the buyer has the same twenty bucks to spend. Only this time, the buyer gets a lot more for the money.
Gone are the fried chicken and side dishes. Instead, the buyer gets all kinds of healthy food. This buyer, we are told, will have two pounds of chicken, ten pounds of potatoes, eight ears of fresh corn, a gallon of skim milk, a pound of lean ground beef, eighteen ounces of oats, two pounds of frozen peas and a pound of dried kidney beans. For dessert, they get a pound of peaches and two pounds of yogurt.
On the surface, this would seem to illustrate the problems with American food consumption in a vivid and accurate way. Most people believe this meme demonstrates just how much Americans need to change their food buying and eating habits. After all, isn’t healthy, cheap food vastly preferable to unhealthy, expensive food? Shouldn’t we all think twice about how better to spend our food dollars and get even more food for less money?
One intrepid Chicago parent saw this meme and was inspired to find out the truth behind the pictures. Was it really possible to buy five or more single, healthy, nutritious meals for the cost of a single takeout meal? Could she buy all this food at her local area supermarket, all for a mere twenty dollars?
Nicole White is a working mother of two with a passion for health care and nutrition. As a nurse in a poverty-stricken neighborhood, she sees clients who struggle with funds for food each day during the course of her practice.
Her Community Nursing project was on obesity in the low-income Black community on the South side of Chicago, giving her a firsthand look at the problems that often result from the food that our poorest citizens consume.
She knows that perhaps her patients could use their food budget in ways that might make their food dollars go further. Yet, she was upset at the prospect of people blithely chiding others for failing to use their food dollars well.
With that end in mind, she looked carefully at the bottom half of the meme and headed to two places. Her first stop was to a Walmart in the same low-income neighborhood where she works. This particular Walmart, unlike full sized Walmarts that are denied permits, was allowed to open specifically because it is in the midst of a food desert. In short, it is no suburban gathering place but rather the store where the powers that be expect poor people to do their grocery shopping.
Her second stop was to the local outlet of her fast food chicken chain.
The net result of her little excursion?
At Walmart the two pounds of chicken ran her over thirteen dollars not the two bucks in the meme. Ten pounds of potatoes was nearly four bucks, not less than three, as was quoted in the meme.
While some items will be more expensive at this time of the year as it is not summer (three nectarines cost her over four dollars while eight ears of corn were about eight bucks) others are in season all year round and still far more expensive than stated in the meme. A pound of lean ground beef was more than five dollars, not the three asserted by the meme.
She also headed to her local fried chicken place where she bought a standard meal including a chicken and three large side items along with four biscuits.
The fried chicken cost? $22.10. The final tally for the food in the bottom half of the meme? A whopping $47.40. While you might think that perhaps costs food costs are higher than other parts of America, this is not true. Many food items like rice, tomatoes, and oranges come in below national averages. Moreover, again this is a Walmart specifically intended to serve the needs of the poor with good, nutritious, cheap food.
Similar food costs can be found all over the country.
Let’s be honest. No one is advocating eating junk food all the time or even more than a few times a month if that. Fried chicken and coleslaw are once in a while items and that’s it. Many Americans could well afford to revamp their food budgets and use them better. Even at about fifty bucks, the second food bill is still a far better use of money. Oatmeal, fruit, chicken, peas, fresh corn, potatoes, and yogurt are all more nutritious than a fast food dinner.
But that’s not why this meme was put out there. It wasn’t put out to remind us all we could choose to use our food dollars better. It was put up to shame people. It was put up to imply that some people spend their food dollars well and others don’t. And that is why, like so many other such assertions, it fails miserably.