At first glance, food doesn’t even need to be in this series of posts. For most of human history, getting enough food was the primary preoccupation of human beings. In 1909, food accounted for 27.3% of the spending of the average U.S. household, according to Consumer Expenditure Survey data cited here.
The figure was 43.0% for “normal families” in 1901. Today, food only accounts for 12.7% of the spending of the average American household. That share has been going down, and the share of total spending on housing, transportation, and health care has been going up, as food has become cheaper and cheaper. And 5.2% of total spending is for food away from home, which is money spent not so much on food as on people who cook it, serve it, clean up and provide a place to eat it. Even the 7.5% of spending on food at home has a substantial non-food component, in partial or full meal preparation and packaging. Increasingly, American’s rely on food that is ready to eat, or heat and serve even at home. But for those who make cheaper and healthier choices, the variety of foods in a typical supermarket – compared with 40 years ago – is tremendous. Everything from a variety of whole grain breads to yogurt to 1% and 2% milk, none of which were widely available in the 1960s.
Despite the abundance, if not overabundance, of low cost food, however, “food issues” continue to be raised in the national dialogue. Blame has been cast on “industrial food” and on “food deserts,” places where full service grocery stores are in short supply. But is there really a problem? And if so what is it?
The food aid industry continues to assert that many Americans are going hungry, despite a “food stamp” program that is an absolute entitlement and would seem to make this unlikely. In 2009, according to a survey cited by the now-cancelled Statistical Abstract of the United States, 14.7% of U.S. households were “food insecure,” up from 11.0% in 2005. At the same time, the U.S. is suffering from a soaring rate of obesity, a malady that is spreading throughout the world as the U.S. way of life is copied. Total calories in the U.S. food marketplace went from 3,200 calories per day in the 1970s to 3,900 in 2005, although much of this is wasted.
The abundance and relatively low cost of food in the United States has been matched by astonishing progress in the rest of the world, and considering that the percentage of income spent on food in the rest of the world is far higher, the impact of this is far greater. Yes people still starve, others are malnourished, and there are still famines – generally in Africa, usually associated with civil wars. But I am old enough to remember the late 1960s and early 1970s, when millions upon millions starved to death in places that are today considered “emerging markets.”
Most of those on Room Eight know me as someone discouraged by many aspects of the direction of the U.S. and New York State in recent decades. But my greatest concern has always been with the real poor in the majority of countries, and there the story is happier. Economic progress in Asia, with a decrease in starvation, increase in the middle class, and rising life expectancy. Political progress in Latin America, with near universal democracy rather than near universal dictatorship. Social progress in large parts of the world, with rising literacy and a gradually stabilizing population, in contrast with 1970s fears of a population explosion to be followed by a death-driven collapse. Heck, these days when a dictator slaughters a mere few thousand people, as in Syria, the world reacts as if this is a big deal! That’s a good thing.
Growing up with famine in the headlines, and during a period of rapid food inflation, I ended up choosing a diet that people have recently called “flexitarian.” Nearly all of our meals have been made from scratch at home, with meat used sparingly for flavor, if at all, on most days. A typical dinner involves a starch for calories; beans, nuts, cheese or eggs for protein; and vegetables for vitamins, all mixed together in one quickly prepared dish. Pasta, beans and greens sautéed in olive oil and garlic for example. A bunch of vegetables and a can of beans over rice with some spices. Baked potatoes topped with baked beans or guacamole. Bread machine bread with an omelet of zucchini, onions and eggs. Or bread machine pizza dough topped with homemade sauce, mozzarella and some vegetables. Aside from a little sausage or ham mixed in (or at least it used to be mixed in before my daughter decided she was a vegetarian), meat was strictly a weekend thing, generally prepared by my wife. She would then use the bones to make soup stock for use later.
As much or more than cost, the low meat lifestyle was driven by my wife’s general preference for non-meat meals, and my semi-agreement with three arguments made by vegetarians. They argue meat is unhealthy, but I believe too much meat is unhealthy, but some meat is healthy. The “Food First” argument is that since it takes the grains that could have fed many people to produce the grain-fed meat that feeds one person, meat consumption by some people leads to other people’s starvation. But there is substantial land that is unsuited to crops but suitable for pasture — enough to produce some meat, if not enough to support the amount of meat most Americans eat. And many believe that it is cruel for humans to use animals for food. But humans are also animals, with rights as such, and lots of other animals eat animals too. The factory farming that makes meat cheap, however, may be fairly described as cruel.
As for the preference for home-cooked meals, that is as much a matter of taste as a matter of cheapness. Simply put, I have always had food cooked from fresh ingredients, and that is my expectation, because it tastes better. Some believe I am a snob because I am unwilling to use store bought tomato sauce, preferring instead to make my own at home and freeze it in one-meal portions. But the store-bought stuff – in addition to preservatives – often contains sugar. And in my family, you don’t put sugar in the tomato sauce.
Many years ago, I read in the newspaper one of the periodic claims that it is not possible to feed oneself and one’s family on the food stamp allowance. That allowance is based on the “thrifty food budget” as analyzed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
At the time, I was tracking our budget much more closely that I do today, and I found that the food stamp allowance was pretty close to what we were spending on food. While I’m not sure I could make the same claim today, and the rest of my family isn’t curious enough to find out if we could live on food stamps as an experiment, I can say that the most recent politician to attempt it, and claim it was impossible, was doing it all wrong. I’d like to see a serious, well thought out attempt, by someone who knew what they were doing, to live on the thrifty food budget, or as close to it as they could. Such an attempt would not involve pre-fab food.
To me the most important reason many Americans can’t afford food is that they no longer know how to cook, buy, prepare and store food. The claim has been made that poorer people eat fast food and junk food because it is cheaper, but that claim has been debunked by those who study the issue more closely that I do, notably by Mark Bittman of the New York Times. “In general, despite extensive government subsidies, hyperprocessed food remains more expensive than food cooked at home. You can serve a roasted chicken with vegetables along with a simple salad and milk for about $14, and feed four or even six people. If that’s too much money, substitute a meal of rice and canned beans with bacon, green peppers and onions; it’s easily enough for four people and costs about $9. (Omitting the bacon, using dried beans, which are also lower in sodium, or substituting carrots for the peppers reduces the price further, of course.)”
Bittman continues: “the alternative to fast food is not necessarily organic food, any more than the alternative to soda is Bordeaux.” In fact, for us drinking has become much cheaper. Rather than soda, we used to buy seltzer and add ice, some lemon juice, lime juice, cranberry juice, or orange juice. Now, thanks to one of the few business innovations I’ve been willing to accept as an increase in the quality of life, we can use SodaClub gas canisters and tap water to make the seltzer at home. This saves the cost of all the plastic containers, and the effort of hauling water cases of seltzer, rather than having it arrive in a pipe. We also have one of those filter pitchers in the frig for plain water, to let the chlorine leach out before we drink it.
Americans are relying on fast food and what used to be called TV dinners not because it is cheap, but because it is easy. Easier than learning to cook, and doing it. Like driving rather than walking or using a bicycle to get around. In part, like the second car now owned by most households, this can be tied to the large-scale entry of women into the out-of-home workforce, but one can create a home-cooked meal in half an hour with the right equipment if one knows how to do it. The real problem is that the food industry and family breakdown have broken off the passing down of food preparation and budgeting skills over the generations, and substituted out-of-home preparation of pre-fab food in its place. With move value added in the food business, but lower quality ingredients.
In our case, however, my wife had done much of the cooking for her family as a teenager. I had worked as a cook, and been schooled by my Italian-American mother and Korean, Latino and Indian college and graduate school roommates, to eat the way most people have eaten for most of human history. That’s how I learned to use a rice maker and to make a meal out of rice with something on it, and learned how to make guacamole. I learned to cook, my siblings mostly didn’t; one of my children has picked it up, the other generally hasn’t been interested thus far. (True when I wrote this: she later started cooking on her own and started a food blog). A one-generation break within families, and then it’s over, because home economics in schools isn’t what it used to be.
New Yorkers are less likely than other Americans to be obese, and several reasons have been mentioned. One reason that has not yet been mentioned, however, may be among the most important: immigration. The immigrants have not yet been de-skilled by American pre-fab food culture. At the food pantry where I serve up coffee once a month, the Spanish speakers and an old Italian or two pick up staples they use to cook at home, or so I am told. Typical of the type of food favored by the rest, according to those who hand it out? Chef Boyardee. I’ve heard the argument that Afro Americans are more likely to be fat because of “Soul Food.” Does that mean real soul food, cooked at home, including greens? It struck me as a kid that whenever they showed someone over 100 years old on TV, they were generally Black.
The number of books and documentaries criticizing “big food” and fast food has exploded in recent years, and I don’t need to add my uniformed views to the pile. Except for one thing that hasn’t been mentioned as prominently: the shift to continuous grazing. More Americans are unable or unwilling to cook three meals per day from scratch. But no one has the time to cook six meals per day.
In my house, the one difference between weeks when I do the shopping and someone else does the shopping is that when I do it, “we have no food in the house.” No food? No food that can be readily consumed without work. That’s the difference. Want a snack? Well, we’ve got flour, eggs, milk, sugar, etc – so make one, and you can have it in an hour. And that’s mostly how we have snacks, aside from crackers with peanut butter or cheese, and fruit. Even the child that has been less interested in cooking was motivated enough to learn how to bake. But that only happens once every week or two. Without pre-fab food, there would be much less eating between meals. Without eating between meals, there would be much less pre-fab food.
Since I’m Mr. Cheapskate, and suspicious of most of the lifestyle upsizing that has taken place since the 1960s, you might think that I’m absolutely opposed to the huge increase in eating out. Yes and no. Eating out and bringing in prepared meals just as a way to get food is certainly far more expensive, and not as healthy, as preparing meals at home, particularly if one does it all the time. And eating out was far less common when I was growing up. My parents went out without the kids a couple of times per year, and the kids never went out at all. The equivalent was showing up in my grandmother’s kitchen upstairs, which various relatives and friends of the family did randomly all the time, for coffee and cake.
But eating out occasionally is also a social experience and that has value, particularly for those who are not primarily socializing within their own family. Moreover, gathering at a restaurant that serves custom cooked meals (as opposed to pre-fab food) has lots of local value added – a relative large share of the bill goes to the wages of those who live nearby. So while we almost never go to a fast food or chain restaurant, I wouldn’t suggest that future generations avoid going out to eat.
In fact, I sense a business opportunity based on the trend of restaurants with kitchens visible from the front of the house. A food service/sale establishment could offer a limited menu that changes each day, with three prices. One price to stay and receive table service. One price to have to food prepared for takeout. And one price to have the ingredients measured and placed in reusable containers to take home. The visible kitchen could provide an opportunity to reverse the de-skilling with regard to home-cooked meals, with the cooks providing instruction to people seated across the counter to observe.
So there you have it. I recommend that people cook their own food, and not eat much meat. Eat like an immigrant, in other words. And don’t eat out regularly in places that make pre-fab food. Eat out occasionally as a social experience places that prepare food from scratch. That, and the general decrease in the cost of actual food (as opposed to preparation and packaging) over a century ought to take eating off the list of financial challenges.
In the other posts in this series, the outline has been the choices I/we have made, the ways things have changed to make repeating these choices more difficult, and what the future options might be. In the case of food, however, things are changing in ways that will make it difficult for me to carry on as before. I’m about to have trouble following my own advice.
For one thing, we are about to transition from cooking for a family of four to having just two people at home, with both our children away at school. And that will require everything to be re-thought, especially with one of us working later and later.
There are economies of scale to cooking, with it taking no more time to do so for four than for two. I find that the rice machine works better for larger quantities of rice, and back when I used to use a pot, the amount of rice suitable for two people used to end up burned at the bottom. Our pizza dough recipe is for four people, and a full pizza ordered from the pizzeria is for four-plus people. A can of Goya beans is enough for four or more, and dried beans cook up better in larger batches. Leftovers beans don’t last; when we used to leave them behind as we left town for the weekend, we used to call them “welcome home beans.”
Then there is the motivation factor. Even today, we will occasionally order in when fewer than three of us will be eating, or rely on sandwiches and the like when we will all be eating at different times. While I always had homed cooked meals growing up, they became less common for my parents once my siblings and I had left. We’re facing that same transition now.
Update: In reality I was able to make adjustments and work around all of this, and downsize to portions for two easier than I expected. I went back to dried beans from canned to reduce the amount made, although that requires even more planning in advance. Cheap good food just requires thinking, and concerning oneself with tomorrow today. It isn’t that hard if one is in the habit of doing it.
Meanwhile, the loss of the Key Food on Prospect Avenue in Windsor Terrace has left us in a “food desert,” just when we had planned to retire the old car Upstate with the kids next September. We also purchase some items at Costco, at the greenmarkets, and in small stores on Prospect Park West, but once we learned to adjust to their “high-low” strategy, Key Food beat all comers for staples like milk, bread, pasta, rice, beans, flour, sugar, canned tomatoes, onions, bananas, and orange juice. And Key Food was also best for fruits and vegetables when local farmer’s market produce was out of season.
Generally Prospect Park West, the very small retail street near where I live, features either premium products or pay for convenience pricing. Last winter I was charged $4.00 for a cabbage at a greengrocer there. A quick check on staples shows a price increase of 50% compared with Key Food, or double if one compares with buying in bulk at the sale price. Other options are beyond granny cart distance, at least on foot.
So while I can offer my advice on how to eat cheap based on my past experience, I myself will have to come up with a whole new game plan over the next three months.
Update: we were able to get by without the Key Food by using linked trips. Groceries bought after stopping off between work and home, for example. I either pack it in a pannier on my bike, or get off the subway, buy some food, and take a bus home with a free transfer. And a transit ride from work to Costco, followed by a car service ride home, worked fine. Moreover, some of the stores on Prospect Park West raised their game.
The only problem is shopping now requires planning, with two lists on the refrigerator door to check off needs since opportunities are not to be missed. However, thanks to community protest a downsized Key Food may open in part of the location of the old one, which will be useful in case we forget something.