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.
    Photo by Fotolia/dragonstock

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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.

6/15/2015 5:19:08 PM

An interesting article - but the author glosses over (or deliberately ignores) the reality of the cost of food relative to income. A McDonalds worker in Norway earns between $16 and $24 an hour ..... in the US this is $7.00 to $9.00. Likewise for most drudgery type jobs and rural work the wages are in the order of $12 to $15 an hour. With this, unemployment is very low at 4% - but this is gauged as those on the ubiquitous and generous benefit schemes ... that are far more generous than those of the US (5% to 6%). It is likely then that these unemployment figures are accurate as opposed to those of the US where many people are not entitled or simply do not bother to register. So the "underclass" is much greater in the US - with the BoE estimating this at 40% of the population earning less than $23,000 annually. This equates to a weekly earning of about $400 ... and with many rents being $250 to $300 a week in the urban areas, this leaves very little for the purchase of utilities and fresh food. The second issue is that food in the US is cheaper now than it has ever been in history. This is in part a world-wide phenomenon - but is also because of the very high level of food subsidy and fuel subsidy. For most people east of the Mississippi, the fruit and vegetables are transported from California. It would be too expensive to grow it locally as the cheap fuels, refrigeration and highly developed distribution systems allow California to be more competitive. If California continues to experience severe droughts this may well change. Fresh, healthy food will be even less likely on US dinner tables - moving up the earning ladder. Then CAFOs really are more efficient at producing chicken, pork and beef than grass-fed produce. More efficient in the distribution chain but also that very heavy subsidy on the maize feed. I think it is time to recognize that the taxes paid that subsidize the farmers and producer chains also subsidize employers by allowing them to pay minimum wages. In Norway, these taxes don't subsidize the producing chain but are still paid out in the various benefits - indeed taxes there are substantially higher - yet the wealthy seem to accept this as a means to an end ... that of an equitable society.



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