Friday, April 15, 2011

What Your Grocery Bill Says About You

Tuesday I attended the Museum of Natural History’s “Spring Environmental Lecture and Luncheon”. Each year there is a different theme and a panel of experts assembled. I couldn’t have been more excited that this year’s topic was food. Lynn Sherr moderated and we heard about vertical farming (in skyscrapers), programs educating New York City school children about the environment and healthy eating (43% of city public school children are overweight) and my favorite fact of the day- that the museum’s giant dinosaur’s consumed around 100,000 calories a day.
After the presentation the floor was opened up for questions. An audience member stood and introduced herself as a local farmer. She asked “why is it that people will pay $4 for a latte but not the same for a few pounds of organic carrots? Nevin Cohen, an expert in urban food policy, explained that each of us “votes” three times a day. With these votes we can support smaller-scale farms or whatever it is we deem important when it comes to food.
The day before this lecture I posted about a new drinkable probiotic from Siggi’s yogurt. Some people chimed in that they loved Siggi’s, a couple that they didn’t particularly enjoy it. These divergent opinions were expected. What surprised me was that a couple of commenters, authors of fantastic nutrition blogs, said that they hadn’t tried Siggi’s yet because of its price tag. It was “too expensive.” While I’m all for being mindful of what you spend (with the exception of shoes) I believe we have to “vote” for our local farmers and for small companies producing quality products. We have to vote for them and buy them or they will not be there.
In 1949, Americans spent 22% of their income on food. In 2009 that figure decreased to 10%.
While it seems like saving money is always a good thing, this isn't anything to cheer about. Cheap food is often the product of factory farming and industrial agriculture. With jumbo size products being sold for cheaper, Americans may be gaining more for their dollar, but they're also gaining more weight, losing their health, spending more on their healthcare and supporting environmentally unsustainable practices.
 The comments above and this poignant, must-watch video clip are from a Huffington Post piece “How Much do Americans Spend on Food". 

Now I’m in no way saying that everyone needs to eat organic carrots or Siggis yogurt. The nutrition bloggers I referenced earlier are definitely not in favor of the processed food harming NYC children and children around the country. I just think we have to reconsider what “value” is when it comes to food and what we deem “too expensive”.  The domination of our food supply by factory farms and food conglomerates has been alarmingly costly in other ways. And just in case Starbucks takes offense to the Natural History mention, I have nothing against a latte (make with organic milk) either.
Are you budget-conscious when it comes to food? What do you feel your food splurges are? Would you rather spend $4 on a latte or organic carrots?


  1. As you know, I too attended the lunch, and also found it interesting and very inspiring. I think it is fascinating how much how we spend our money says about our values. What, ultimately, does it mean that we are more willing to spend money on a caffeinated concoction than a bunch of nutritious carrots? I think this does say something about where our priorities lie, but I also think that sometimes we are willing to spend more on "treats" than we are on virtuous items. There is indeed something indulgent and comforting about sipping a big fat latte from Starbucks to begin a busy day... Not quite the same effect when we toss a bag of organic veggies into the depth of our fridge. Maybe we should recalibrate what we consider to be a "treat"...

    Anyway, very very interesting topic. I do think that the issue here, the debate about what to spend our money on, is really circumscribed to those of us who can afford to spend money at all... Many of those families in the public school system that the panelist described are probably not going to debate Starbucks vs. carrots vs. Siggis, you know?

    Thanks for making me think, for toning my mommy mental muscles once more :)

  2. Aidan, yes I cannot assume everyone can afford siggis (nor would I) but you'd be surprised. I have given talks to high schoolers in Queens and moms in the bronx in lower income areas. I have received emails saying "I went to a farmers market for the first time" or "I saved money cooking dinner from real ingredients" and it makes me things even what we can afford is a flexible concept.
    As for the carrots, I am such a weirdo. Fresh, wholesome vegetables always excite me and feel like a treat.
    I was a little underwhelmed by the panel at AMNH, you?

  3. Hi Lauren! No, I don't hate you at all! I always enjoy reading your posts. I agree with you about buying for quality. People are amazed when they find out that besides bills (rent, internet -- but no cell phone) and gas, my husband and I pretty much only spend money on food. No lattes, no take out, only fresh food. We believe in buying for quality -- I buy most of my food locally when possible from organic growers, and yes, it excites me too! It is a treat, for my body, it's also my health insurance plan. Yes, it does get expensive -- and thus the little ways of saving money like buying spices or grains in bulk from organic distributors. I go through spices a lot! As for medicinal uses for spices, ginger and turmeric are what I use the most. For stomach aches I take ginger with honey (I've gotten to the point where I can fill up 1/2 a teaspoon with ginger and just a drop of (local) honey) and when I feel a cold coming on, I do the same with turmeric. It's definitely an acquired taste. Sometimes I mix the turmeric/ginger with yogurt or milk. You can have too much ginger, though, so don't over do it! If you have more questions about it you can email me at cathedralanatomy at gmail dot com.

    I read somewhere that in most countries, the proportion of what people spend on actual food is a lot higher than here in America. I think I don't spend my money like the typical american -- I also don't have the income to. When I tell people what the shopping bill is for my husband and myself, and then what we make, they're usually shocked. Yes, quality over quantity, please! Organic over high fructose corn syrup and additives!

    My biggest thing is -- I don't buy things in packages or that are processed, if I can help it. I'm not religious about it, but I'd rather buy fresh vegetables and grains and legumes than an organic kashi freezer meal.

    Thanks for your post on my post! And see? I didn't slam you -- I agree!

  4. OK so that was a dream comment. I love that someone who posts how we can save and someone posting on spending more are really saying the same thing. We can save and buy quality. We can save by buying quality.
    Favorite quote of all "it's my health insurance".
    OK off to take a spoonful of turmeric before my run.

  5. It’s very difficult to understand monetary value in the eyes of others. To some people buying organic is expensive, while they easily rationalize spending large sums on fancy cable subscriptions and expensive sneakers.

    But the sad truth is that many families just can’t afford good food – fruits and veggies are relatively expensive compared to junk.

    What we need to understand is that cheap food of the highly processed kind is very expensive! The price of the diseases that arise from poor nutrition and obesity is enormous –in suffering and $.

    It is astounding that highly processed junk cost less than raw ingredients, and we need to fight to change that.

  6. I constantly hear from people that healthy food is expensive, but I don't think it is always the case. You can get 7 bananas for $1 at the fruit stand on the street, which makes for a much cheaper snack than hitting the vending machine. If you budget your money and plan your meals, you can eat healthy and not have to spend a lot. I think we need to shift our thinking from quantity to quality. Instead of eating chicken every night, buy organic chicken and eat it 3 times per week and opt for vegetarian meals in between, which will benefit your health and your wallet. I see spending money on healthy food as an investment in my future and my health. I'd rather cut back on spending in other areas so I can buy the food I want. It's all about priorities.

  7. We've done it again, Lauren... Check out the last part of my post today. :)

    Great post today, as always!

  8. I am definitely a budget-conscious girl when it comes to food. That said, I would much rather buy good, healthy food then cheap fast food. So many of my friends eat out all the time and don't cook meals at home. They spend way more money on poor quality food. I've learned to shop smarter by buying things in bulk and figuring out how much my family will eat.

    P.S. I'm also with you on the shoes thing. Some things you can't give on.

  9. Yes, I definitely spend a lot of money on my groceries, but I think those costs get high more so from the gluten free flours, etc, than from the organic fruits and veggies. I find that my local naturals foods shop, while higher priced for many items, offers much better deals ( and MUCH better selection) on organic fruits and veggies, than my local "chain" grocery store. I'm thinking it might be fun to have a blogger challenge to see who can come up with healthy meals plans for a minimal cost. Who's up to the challenge???

  10. Only a couple years ago did I realize what I was doing to myself by eating what I was eating. I now shop at farmers markets, health food stores, and buy organic when it's the best idea. I have always had the same question the local farmer raised at the event on Tuesday, but really it's just personal preference. As technology has advanced over the decades, our values, as a society have changed. There are so many distractions now and unfortunately, healthy foods are no longer a priority for a lot of people. I also strongly agree with the statement that food is my health insurance!

    This is my first time visiting your blog and I will be back often! Such a fantastic and interesting conversation happening here! Have a great weekend!

    EA The Spicy RD - I love your challenge idea!

  11. Lauren - Hi. At the risk of offending anyone or veering the debate
    away from your intention -- I'll just say - great debate! And then
    just for the record, as the Mom of a public schooler in Harlem - I can
    tell you we have fantastic farmer's market choices (and CSA's) in our
    neighborhood and on our school premises. We have an active parent pta
    - maybe that's why.

    We have choices everywhere and our Parents have the same debates about
    nutritional values, costs and how to stretch our recipes across the
    week! (did you see the press about Obama giving us $1.5milliom dollars
    against nutrition/fitness??) Despite the pre-conceived notion that
    somehow the "poor" (income and uneducated) public school families that
    the "not in the know" think only have access to processed foods - are
    very wrong. In fact, I'd say I've experienced more processed foods,
    ready to eat, crappy meal offerings from the wealthier side of our

    While I'll admit to purchasing both a starbuck's (crappy coffee) and a
    bag of organic carrots - I've learned from cooking our families meals
    that the carrots go a long way!!

    Thanks for always raising the conversation. I'm always surprised, ok
    naive about how others see things. :)

  12. he he we spent way too much on groceries in our house but feel healthy

  13. This post reminded me of another blog I found earlier this week via NYT's Motherlode ( Corbyn Hightower, after losing her job, had to dramatically change the way her family spent money. They lost their house, then lost the nice apartment, and now live in a rundown rental house. She recently posted about getting groceries out of a dumpster because people are so inclined to toss out good produce. She mentions getting dirty looks for "wasting" food stamps on organic veggies. And she writes about how she refuses to succumb to cheap calories, instead feeds her family healthy food that is also affordable (dried beans, etc.), and has lost 30 pounds since losing her job.

    I really sympathize with poor people who are overweight because our economy is abundant with unhealthy cheap food. But reading about Ms. Hightower's approach makes me realize that people can in fact eat healthy food on a shoestring budget. It's just that most of them have no idea how. It seems that (as is so often the case) education is the key.

    I wonder if there are ever educational programs in these underprivileged schools to teach the kids and parents how to get more for their dollar at the market, instead of just buying cheap, prepackaged crap?

  14. I am very budget conscious. I have to be. I buy organic when I can. I would rather spend my money on something that is going to make my family healthier.

    I do think it's better, if you can't afford organic, to at least buy non-organic fruits and veggies instead of the processed foods.

  15. I totally agree that everything we buy daily is a VOTE. I choose to vote for greek yogurts and organic produce and kombucha teas BUT i do not vote for lattes and pedicures in order to afford the foods i love. I dont buy expensive shoes or jeans or pay to get my hair done/dyed/etc... but I will DROP lots of money on products I love and believe in instead. its a toss up. america needs to reconsider their votes =)

    Jenn @ Peas & Crayons

  16. I thought you may find this interesting. Spending on groceries around the world. (via

  17. For my community nutrition class I recently had to do a project where I ate within the constraints of the budget for food stamps for a week -- $46.50 for the week, or $6.65 for an entire day. It wasn’t until shopping within these constraints that I realized how much I spend on food, and how little I look at prices for things that I eat almost every day like greek yogurts and organic blackberries. With that said, it was really saddening to see how difficult it is to eat healthfully within the constraints of food stamps, and it is no wonder that many people turn to inexpensive processed foods versus more expensive produce. With that said, I do think that no matter what your budget may or may not be, it is important to find ways to include your favorite foods (especially the ones that happen to be good for you!) into your diet. I agree that it is very important to support companies that are producing quality products for a premium price if you are able to afford it, otherwise, farmers markets are another great option for inexpensive delicious produce.

    p.s. the picture choice is classic

  18. A great thought provoking post . It's so important how we fuel our body. I am noticing more of my friends buying organic and even though they complain about the price tag , they say that it's worth it. It is interesting why no one thinks twice about spending the money at Starbucks and yet they complain about the price of organic vegetables .

  19. I LOVE this post. So true and so thought-provoking! People easily drop money on coffee, drinks or clothing. I absolutely believe that the higher cost of local, organic food is more than offset by its effects on your body. What we pay for food - the food produced by the giant agribusiness corporations - doesn't actually reflect the true cost of the food. The government subsidies on meat, dairy and other food are shocking. No one is subsidizing locally grown organic carrots harvested by people paid a living wage.

  20. $4 on a latte or organic carrots....neither nor. Although I do buy organic food, 4 dollars for organic carrots seem a bit too much.
    However I do understand people who would spend 4 dollars on a latte, rather than carrots as you don't drink latte every day (or do you?), but you/your family might eat carrots very often (I do....almost daily). Who could spend $4 just for carrots?

  21. $4 for a few pounds of organic carrots (not per bunch) agreed though, depends how often various expenses are/how much you use things.

  22. I am budget-conscious when it comes to food... more so in the winter months when I do most of my shopping at a Whole Foods store. I buy the less expensive organic variety of a lot of things like nut milks, or I'll get whatever bean or grain is on sale in the bulk aisle or whatever. During growing season, however, we easily spend $100 a week at the farmer's market buying enough fresh food to eat that week and freeze for the dead of winter. For two people, I try to spend no more than $150 a week (usually it's less). Food is our biggest expense. I am very thrifty, and could probably have us eat on as little as $30 a week... but we don't WANT to. Besides, if I spend my money on carrots, I'm less likely to blow it on a latte ;)

    I will not buy some things that are just ridiculously priced (such as $10 gallons of orange juice of $8 dozens of eggs). I understand that good food is more expensive, but a part of me deep down inside thinks it shouldn't have to be that way. WHY is something with 28374 ingredients more expensive than something that grew right out of the ground?

    I've recently been spending $3-4 on carrots per shopping trip... that buys 2-3 pounds of organic ones at Whole Foods. I can eat a lot of carrots.

  23. " WHY is something with 28374 ingredients more expensive than something that grew right out of the ground? "
    - meant to say less expensive :)

  24. Cassie:
    Thanks for commenting/reading. It sounds as though you are striking a good balance between thrift and quality. Love that.

  25. Great topic! I can't imagine trying to eat the way I do if I were on a strict(er) budget. I spend a ton of $ on food. I feel like what goes IN my body should be top notch. That, hair cuts, skin products and shoes. All else can be crap. Haha. I also realize I am blessed to be able to afford organic, whole foods. However, I do think that there is a lack in education on how to prepare healthy food on a budget. Rice and beans are inexpensive as are frozen veggies. I think people just go for what tastes good and is cheap because that's what they know.

  26. This is a great post! I definitely like to pay more for good quality foods. I will not buy all organic, but will try to buy those on the dirty dozen list for example.
    I have no problems paying for more expensive products if I like them but at the same time, where I shop, sometimes those items are not even sold. Me going into a whole foods is a mistake waiting to happen. Love that store but know I probably would have a hard time sticking to a budget. :)
    I ultimately try to go off the motto, if it grows from the ground, its good!

  27. I think this is really interesting because I am in Paris right now and I can honestly say that I think people spend 75% of their income on food I here. I am not joking! $10 Perrier and $7 Evians? $18 tomato salads and $14 omelettes. It's pretty nuts. But 99% of people here are fit and thin...The only obese person I've seen yet was an American.

  28. Ameena, totally agree when we were in Paris this last time the only heavy people were from the US, UK or Germany. I may spend 75% of my income on food.

  29. Totally late the party on this one, but it's a topic I think about a lot. We spend more on food that the average family of four, and it's just the 2 of us. But we're really choosy about what we buy -- organic whenever possible, grass-fed and humanely raised meats, wild-caught fish. I view the foods we eat as a part of preventative health care, particularly since I lost my dad to preventative disease and my inlaws both have diabetes and heart disease.

    all that said, we can make the choice to spend our money this way because our choice is easier than for most families. We don't have kids, we don't have debt, we do well financially, we live in a region w/ tons of food choices. It's really sad that so many have to make difficult choices, or impossible choices, to feed their families in a healthy way.

    Kind of related, I did learn recently that the Dallas area food bank does provide organic foods for their clients.