Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The affordable food undertow...

As farmers loudly proclaim the "affordability" of food (hoping to imply cheap), we have suddenly come face to face with the logical consequence of this statistic.

First off, we use "affordable" because it allows us to breeze past the actual cost of food and talk instead about how much of the consumer's disposable income gets spent on food.

Consider these questions:
  1. How much of their incomes do Americans spend on food?
  2. How much is that in actual dollars?
While all farmers can answer question (1), none can answer (2)* - at least, I have not met one. Here's the poop.

While it's true we spend less of our income than almost any other economy, it's because our incomes are so high.
Families spent just 9.9 percent of their 2005 disposable personal income on food—As disposable personal income continues to climb, the share spent on food declines. [And this is the USDA, folks - our PR agency.]
If you compare people with similar incomes, we spend more than some and less than some.

There are good reasons geezers retire to Mexico, for example. Cheap margaritas is one, but cheaper food is another. According to a friend of mine, tourists in places like Cabo San Lucas are happy campers, eating very well for $15 at a restaurant.

But "affordability" also creates another option for consumers - discretion. We can afford to choose our food based on any whim or conviction that appeals to us. This is why the upper-end market is moving past affordable food to ethical food.
That is beginning to change. Over the past several years, as America’s obesity epidemic has become a growing concern, a number of investigative journalists have turned their attention to the industrial food system and its alternatives in an attempt to make sense of what we eat and whether it’s good for us. Eric Schlosser jump-started the genre in 2001 with Fast Food Nation, a portrait of drive-through cuisine and culture that shocked and repulsed readers much as Upton Sinclair’s meatpackingindustry exposé The Jungle did at the turn of the previous century. Michael Pollan’s pieces for The New York Times Magazine and his newly published book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, push in a slightly different direction, often probing the way government policy influences our diets. Corn subsidies, for example, are so massive that the crop sells for less than it costs to produce, and unhealthy corn derivatives often find their way into inexpensive but not very nutritious processed foods. In a twist of economic irony, the artificially cheap calories in these foods are particularly attractive to poor consumers— who, not coincidentally, have higher rates of diabetes and obesity-related diseases than their wealthier compatriots. [More]
In one sense, our food industry should be nervous about the seemingly bullet-proof American economy. As we create more wealthy people, we create more finicky eaters.

* About $3500 per head.

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