The Cost of Eating

Food is expensive. Yes, I know we are all supposed to be griping about the cost of gasoline right now and I agree it’s a drain on our finances but food still tops the list.  According to the USDA’s very recent (January 2012) statistics on the cost of food at home[i], a family of four on a thrifty food budget spends $629.10 a month.  Families with money to spend can part with twice that much money for a month of food.   For a family of five one would add 20% (or on the thrifty plan, another $126 bringing the monthly total to $755).  That means food is more expensive than the cost of our current rent plus electricity.  Now of course we don’t actually spend quite as much as the thrifty plan because we are on the extremely frugal plan ourselves and the point isn’t how much we (I) spend on food but that in general food costs are a very big part of every family’s budget.  Incidentally the same food plan in 2006 cost about $100 less per month for the thrifty plan and $200 less for the liberal plan.

Why is food so expensive?  Well those soaring gas prices mentioned above have something to do with it, as does, believe it or not, global warming.  Droughts and heat waves (Texas, anyone?), hurricanes and cold waves (yes, cold waves can be caused by global warming – as glacier ice melts polar air currents can be redirected) can have a severe effect on crops and livestock, and of course if you have fewer crops brought to market the ones that make it there command a higher price.  And then there are the commodity speculators who bet on food prices; “contributing to increasing volatility and record food prices, exacerbating global hunger and poverty” according to a letter signed by 461 economists on World Food day 2011.

These are all very big issues, and they are pretty much out of the hands of the average consumer.  Yes, we can all do our part to help fight global warming but as individuals there’s not much we can do to guard against increasing food prices.  Except, of course, grow more of our own food.  And according to an article in the New York Times (one of many similar articles I found on the subject), that’s just what Americans are doing.  “…sales of vegetable and herb seeds and plants are up by 40 percent over last year, double the annual growth for the last five years…” says George C. Ball Jr., owner of the W. Atlee Burpee Company and it’s due to the huge spike in food costs.

Remember the victory gardens of World War II?  According to the Canadian blog Survival Series, people in both the U.S. and Canada, feeling vulnerable due to job loss or lowered wages are relating to those days of hardship and scarcity and responding by growing their own victory gardens – a small victory over the overwhelmingly large interests that control food and food prices.

Is it really cheaper to grow your own food?  Can you really make a dent in your food budget by doing so?  Well, yes and no.  It depends on the variables you take into consideration.  The cost of a packet of cucumber or lettuce or tomato seeds (or plants if you are too impatient to start from scratch) is much less than the cost of even a few of these vegetables at the supermarket.  Cucumber seeds – 60 seeds for $1.25.  Cucumber at Safeway – 1 cucumber for $1.00.  There’s no comparison!  Even considering the cost of labor and water (at the least – and maybe fertilizer or pesticides depending on your gardening strategy) it seems to me that growing your own food is cheaper.  The more labor intensive gardens – the larger ones with more tilling, planting, weeding, pest removal, harvesting – pay off by dividing the labor costs over a greater amount of produce – some of which you may be able to sell or trade.  Learning to can, pickle or freeze your produce will help cut down on food costs in the winter.

It’s not just the folks in the country who are getting into growing their own food. Books, magazines and advice columns on urban gardening abound (see for example: Urban Garden Magazine and American Community Garden Association); providing information on community gardens, rooftop and patio gardens, container gardening and even how to keep chickens in your backyard.  Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) allows city-dwellers to purchase fresh produce from local small growers.  You pay a subscription fee (that helps support the grower) and every month (or week, or whatever timing is set up with the CSA) you receive your share of the freshly harvested produce.

Nor is it just a matter of growing your own food.  According to the report, “A Growing Trade,” on urban community gardens in the U.K., the rising demand for local and organic produce has increased the number of community garden projects that are selling their product to local high-end shops and restaurants.

Keeping urban chickens is a subculture all of its own with a very passionate following and many communities have relaxed the restrictions on keeping farm animals in response to this growing movement.  Naturally raising livestock of any kind, chickens, rabbits, goats, tends to be more expensive and labor intensive than growing vegetables (giving vegetarians an advantage in keeping food costs low).  The cost of keeping a flock of chickens will depend on how handy you are (build your own coop), how accessible chicks and feed/supplements are (mail order will be more expensive than the local feed store), the breed of chicken you buy and whether or not you lose any to predators (even in urban environments raccoon, opossums, and stray dogs can be a threat).  If you keep enough birds and raise them for both eggs and meat, and let them supplement their feed by picking bugs off the plants in the garden it can be a way to lower your supermarket budget and provide you with healthier and better tasting poultry.  

The Backyard Homestead: Guide to raising farm animals, can provide some good information on raising chickens (or turkeys, ducks, sheep, goats, rabbits…)!

Where we currently live, we are surrounded by asphalt, and the only things we are allowed to have outside our trailer are: a grill, a patio-style table and chairs, and bikes.  No gardens.  That hasn’t stopped our enterprising neighbors, a family of five who saw opportunity in the small empty lot next to the strip mall that borders the rear of our trailer parking spaces.  It was fenced in and filled with weeds and manner of trash – old tires, broken bottles, miscellaneous pieces of wood and brick.  They approached the strip mall owner and received permission to clean out the lot and transform it into a garden.  It was a tremendous amount of work but they had a pretty good crop of various plants last year and this year, working with several other families in the park, they are hoeing and tilling and preparing to plant even more.

[i] BTW – if you are interested in statistics or nutrition you can follow the links to the actual food plans (thrifty, low-cost, moderate and liberal) for information on what foods are included and how they meet nutritional standards.  It confirmed my feeling that my kids were eating more each year – they do indeed need more calories as they grow!

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6 Responses to The Cost of Eating

  1. Becky Riv says:

    I spend about $300 a month on food for 1 adult and 2 kids. That is all we have. It is very tight and so hard to eat healthy.
    Last year I spent about $100 buying seeds and then plants when my seeds didn’t grow for my garden. All organic. I got about 10 tomatoes and peppers, and maybe 1 eggplant. My carrots, radishes, beets, lettuce, and a few other things all didn’t survive or give me anything. I want so desperataly to have a garden and my own produce but it is a waste of money if almost everything dies.
    I looked into gardening classes in my area but they all cost money I don’t have and are on Saturdays (I work 6 days a week.)
    It is such a fine balance between wanting to feed my family real food and rising costs of such food.

    • boxcarkids says:

      Sorry your garden didn’t work out! Do you think it was a matter of not enough sun, poor soil…? If it’s too small of a space I saw a neat idea for turning a shoe bag (one of those over the door shoe pocket canvas bags) into a herb garden, or affixing gutters to a fence and growing plants in them!

  2. Martin says:

    The US Fed with its money printing contributes also. Basically more money chasing the same goods drives the prices higher naturally, over time.
    Imagine there are always $10 in a buying pool, to buy 10 carrots at a dollar each. But suddenly extra $1 is printed and added to the pool so u have $11 chasing the 10 carrots, thus an increase of 10% on the $1.10 u now have to pay to buy the carrot.
    Simplistic example, and complex to explain why inflation is not heading higher faster atm.

    There is a lot to be said about the ‘fruits of your labour’ when it comes to growing. Adds value and taste, sense of pride and accomplishment. Getting them fingers dirty also allows a quiet time of contemplation and reflection, which might be quite therapeutic.

  3. Theresa says:

    This year I will plant my 4th vegetable garden. I grow tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, and zucchini on my suburban NJ yard. I have two strips of dirt for planting, and also use some pots.

    There are a few expenses, such as the seeds and bags of garden soil every year. What I do to make it more affordable is to break down my purchases well before planting time so I don’t have to put out a lot of money at once. I bought the seeds when they were on sale buy 1 get 1 free.

    I don’t know if we save a lot of money by growing our own, but I do enjoy the almost free vegetables all summer. I think it helps us eat healthier because we tend to eat the vegetables just because they are there. I’ll eat more salad because I don’t want everything to go to waste.

    It’s also nice to share with neighbors.

    I enjoy gardening, and feel I’ve accomplished as I’m plucking the vegetables from the garden. I enjoy sharing the bounty. I think my garden is worth my approximately $25 yearly investment.

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