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Check out the upside and downside of cheap food

February 14, 2006|by Jeff Semler

In February we celebrate Black History Month, Valentine's Day and Presidents Day, but, last Monday, Feb. 6, another milestone passed with little fanfare. It was "Food Check-Out Day." What is Food Check-Out Day? It is the day on which the average American has earned enough income to cover their family's annual food budget.

The latest statistics, compiled by the United States Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, indicate American families and individuals currently spend, on average, just 9.5 percent of their disposable personal income for food.

Applying the current statistic to the calendar year, it means the average household will have earned enough disposable income - that portion of income available for spending or saving - to pay for its annual food supply in just five weeks.

Not only is our food supply the world's safest, but it's also the most affordable. The percent of disposable personal income spent for food has declined over the last 34 years. According to USDA, food is more affordable today due to a widening gap between growth in per-capita incomes and the amount of money spent for food.

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What's even more interesting is that the percentage of disposable personal income spent for food in the United States has declined over the last 35 years, due to increased standards of living. The last time Americans used 12 percent or more of their disposable income to purchase food was in 1983. In 1984, the average dropped to slightly less than 12 percent, and it has steadily declined since then. For the past 9 years, Americans have spent an average of less than 10 percent of their disposable income on food.

Can you think of another area of your household budget that has not kept pace with the increases in per capita income? Certainly not the cost of automobiles or gasoline - I have nearly given up trying to keep track of the price at the pump! I can honestly say a roller coaster has less peaks and drops than the price of gas.

There is a downside to our never-ending quest for cheap food: First, at the farm level, cheap food is the root cause of the transformation of American Agriculture from a system of small, diversified, independently operated, family farms into a system of large-scale, industrialized, agribusinesses. The production technologies that supported specialization, mechanization and, ultimately, large-scale, contract production, were all developed to make agriculture more efficient - to make food cheaper for consumers. Millions of American farmers have left the land; those remaining are sacrificing their independence, and thousands of small farming communities have withered and died - all for the sake of cheap food.

These are the consequences of progress, so we are told. The experts have boasted that ever fewer farmers have been able to feed a growing nation, with an ever-decreasing share of consumer income spent for food. The increases in economic efficiency have been impressive, but what about the human costs? Economists have totaled up tremendous savings for consumers from lower food costs, but they have never attempted to place a value on the lives of farm families that have been changed by the loss of their farms, their way of life, and their heritage. They have failed to consider the value of the lives of rural people - with roots in rural schools, churches and businesses - who have left their communities, as farm families have moved off the land. The human costs of cheap food have been significant, but since they couldn't be measured in dollars and cents, they have gone uncounted.

This is a difficult situation and not unlike many circumstances that are part of life. As a matter of fact, physics tells us that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The cost of food is no exception. So you have to make the call for yourself - cheap food produced in other places, locally produced food that may or may not be more expensive, or a mix of the two choices.

Either way, we are fortunate to live in a nation that produces an abundant supply of safe food. For that we should be thankful.

(Thanks to the USDA and the American Farm Bureau for the information used in this article.)

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