The Cost of Supper


This year I’m participating in my community’s Chamber of Commerce leadership program. We recently spent a full day getting up to speed on various needs in our neighborhoods as well as the social service agencies set up to address those needs. As part of our education, we broke up into teams and were given $3 each to purchase food for a day – breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For some, it was the first time they’d ever grocery shopped with a calculator. I consider myself to be pretty thrifty, but it was still a challenge to buy healthy food on that small amount of money.

Try Eating on $3 a Day – Day After Day

The amount we had to spend was based on the food stamp calculation. According to the USDA, the average monthly food stamp benefit (as of 2004) was about $86 per person, capping out around $200 per household. That’s the average, but even if you qualify for the maximum amount benefit, you’d get only $408 per month (as of 2007) for a household of three people. I understand that’s not meant to cover all food, but just to supplement. So how much does the average American spend on food, and how are those in the tightest financial constraints managing?

The nutritionist consulting our group made several observations about the choices we were forced into due to the limited amount we were given to spend. What may be okay for a week or a month could have drastic health consequences over time.

How Much Do We Spend at the Grocery Store?

When I tried to find some numbers online, they were all over the board. The best stats I could get were from the USDA, which tracks the estimated cost of food. Using my family as an example, as of July 2008, they estimate my food costs should run between $598 (thrifty plan) and $1,167 (liberal plan). That’s actually pretty well in line with what I spend. Compare with two years ago: as of July 2006 I’d have spent $520 (thrifty) and $1,003 (liberal). That’s right around a 15% increase. Is it just me or does it seem like it’s gone up more? And it seems like it’s the basics – milk, bread, eggs – that are climbing higher and higher. Fresh produce is out of control.

In a January 2008 press release the USDA stated:

Families could spend less and eat a healthier diet. This is supported by a comparison of the foods in the Low-Cost Food Plan to what people are actually eating. The Low-Cost Food Plan contains more fruits, vegetables, and milk products than people are currently eating and less sweets and sugars. “Eating healthier does not have to cost more and can even cost some families less,” says CNPP Executive Director Dr. Brian Wansink. The United States continues to have the safest, most abundant, healthiest, and least expensive food in the world.

While that may be true, it’s certainly not easy. Preparing food from scratch takes time and planning. I work from home and have a desire to plant my own ‘victory’ garden, but still can’t seem to fit it in. We’ve gotten so far away from ‘grandma’s kitchen’ that the next generation may not even know that you can cook beans from dried rather than buy them in a can. And grow your own vegetables? You can do that?

Will food supply will be the next big sustainability issue?