Money Spent on Food: Lower in U.S. Than Any Other Country

Compared with other nations, consumers in the United States spend the smallest percentage of their budget on groceries. Should we be spending more for higher-quality food?

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The most inexpensive items in supermarkets tend to be highly processed, packaged foods, and data suggests U.S. consumers are putting more of these cheap items in our carts than shoppers in other countries.

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U.S. consumers allocate a lower percentage of their annual expenditures to groceries than people in any of the other countries for which this data is tracked, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. So how exactly does the United States stack up? In this chart of Food Spending Around the Globe, compare what percentage of the average person’s annual expenditures goes toward food consumed at home in 20 different countries around the world.

The average person in the United States spends just 6.7 percent of his or her budget on food consumed at home (not including eating out). This percentage has steadily decreased over time: In 1980, it was about 10 percent for food eaten at home, and in 1960, it was about 15 percent.

Why do people in the United States shell out so little for their groceries today? As with most things, the answer is complex. Affordable food may appear to be a positive development, but it has a dark side. Thanks to taxpayer subsidies put in place by Big Ag lobbyists, as well as the chemical tricks of the food industry, our food system is flooded with cheap, poor-quality junk, and it’s pushed at us with billions of dollars in advertising. The main objective of many industrial food producers — in other words, the way to maximize their profits — is to produce lots of empty calories as inexpensively as possible.

Our wealth plays a part, too. In general, the more affluent a nation is, the more its people can spend their money on other needs and luxuries — from health care to entertainment — which ultimately drives down the percentage spent on food. Part of valuing something means investing in it, though, and many people in the United States tend to forgo a significant investment in high-quality fare. Keep in mind that fresh produce is more costly than pre-made, packaged goods. Culturally — and paradoxically — we seem to value cheap food, and the main goal of grocery shopping for many of us is to pinch pennies and buy bargain food, even when we could make space in our budgets to fork over more.

Compare us with Norway, for example: Average Norwegians spend about twice the percentage we do on food eaten at home, even though Norway’s wealth per capita is similar to ours. True, grocery costs are slightly higher in Norway, but that alone isn’t enough to account for us spending so much less overall. The current average cost of a cartful of select food staples — including milk, bread, rice, chicken, eggs and produce — in Norway is 50 U.S. dollars. If U.S. shoppers came home with the same stock of unprocessed staples, we would have spent only slightly less, at $42. Because shoppers here tend to buy more processed food, however, in reality we’re spending only about $26 to every $50 a Norwegian spends. We seem to be skimping on the staples and putting more cheap items in our carts, whether by choice or necessity, depending on income level and food access.

What would our food system look like if we spent more on our groceries and cooked more fresh-ingredient meals at home? Prioritizing spending the money for better-quality food, whenever possible, may well help curb the growing problems of foodborne illnesses, obesity, and environmentally damaging industrial farming practices. The more income families are able to budget for humanely raised chicken, drug-free beef, and fresh foods produced without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, the more they’ll be investing in their health. This paradigm shift will also benefit local, smaller-scale farmers and create a more secure and resilient food system for us all.

Shelley Stonebrook is MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine’s main gardening editor. She’s passionate about growing healthy, sustainable food and also runs Stonegrass Farms Soap Co. in her spare time. Follow her on Twitter and Pinterest.