By Shawn Dell Joyce
We Americans complain bitterly about the rising cost of food. Most Americans don’t realize just how good we really have it in the land of plenty. In other countries where people make much less money, they spend a much higher percentage of their income on food.
Wealthier industrialized nations spend a small percentage of their weekly budgets on food. According to the Economic Research Service, part of the U.S.D.A., we spend only 5.7 percent of our total household budget on food. In the U.K. and Denmark, people spend between up to 10 percent compared to people in less developed nations who spend from 40 to 50 percent. Azerbaijan tops the chart at 50.4 percent.
In their delicious book, Hungry Planet: What the World Eats, photographer Peter Menzel and writer Faith D’Aluisio document the weekly food budgets of twenty-four international families in full-color photos. A family of eight in Guatemala spends 573 Quetzales (equivalent of $75.70) in groceries each week. The average yearly income is around $4,000, making groceries the highest expense for most families. Most families grow a good portion of what they eat, and barter with the excess.
Meanwhile, back in the states, a family of five can spend a whopping $242.48 per week on groceries out of an average income of $35K per person. While the cost sounds much greater, compared to income and other expenses, Americans eat the cheapest food in the world, and lots of it.
We humans need about 2,000 calories per day to survive. We’ve moved from an average of 2,358 kcal available per person in 1965, to 2,803 kcal in 1999, to a projected of 2,940 in 2015, according to the World Health Organization. But not everyone has equal access to the “all you can eat” buffet. In developing countries; only 2,681 kcals were available per day, while industrialized countries had 3,380 kcals available per day in 1999.
Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health writes; “Here we have the great irony of modern nutrition: at a time when hundreds of millions of people do not have enough to eat, hundreds of millions more are eating too much and are overweight or obese. Today…more people are overweight than underweight.”
In the U.S. 72 percent of men, and 70 percent of women are overweight. Cheaper food does not translate into healthier food. In fact, our current agricultural policy is to subsidize corn to the point where it is ridiculously cheap and ubiquitous in our food system. So cheap that we even burn it as fuel for our automobiles, a crime against humanity when you consider all starving people that could be fed.
Corn is one of the cheapest food additives, and the single-most highly subsidized crop in the world. This mountain of cheap corn is primarily used in processed foods. Corn and corn syrup products as sweeteners can be found in almost every product on supermarket shelves, and are primary ingredients in most fast foods. That makes processed foods much cheaper than whole, natural and nutritious foods. Plus, they don’t spoil as quickly as fresh produce, and taste better to humans already evolutionarily inclined toward sweet and fatty flavors.
Looking back at our Guatemalan family cited above, their weekly diet consisted mainly of potatoes, rice and beans, and vegetables from their garden. Meat was added to a meal less than once a week. While the American family ate mostly processed foods like canned soups, frozen meals, packaged cookies, cakes, and crackers, and lots of meat. Another major difference is cooking. The Guatemalans eat every meal at home and one person spends most of her time cooking, preparing, and purchasing ingredients for meals. Americans eat one out of three meals at home.
How can we curb our national eating disorder?
–Eat local! When we eat what is grown in our own region we eat healthier, and at the peak of freshness. This is better four our health and the environment, as well as boosting the local economy.
–Grow your own food! Victory gardens helped our grandparents survive the wars and Great Depression. Save money at the grocery store by skipping the imported produce and processed food.
–Eat lower on the food chain! Meat is a threat to our health and environment. Treat it as a condiment and purchase locally-raised meats from farms you trust. www.EatWild.org or www.localharvest.org.