Americans have good deal with food

February 17, 2009|By JEFF SEMLER

This month we celebrate Black History Month, Valentine's Day and Presidents Day but on Tuesday, Feb. 10, 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 U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service indicate American families and individuals spend, on average, a little less than 10 percent of their disposable personal income on 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 one day shy of six 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 35 years. According to the 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.

This overall decrease is made more notable by the fact that trends indicate Americans are buying more expensive convenience food items for preparation at home, as well as more food away from home.

What's even more interesting is that the percentage of disposable personal income spent for food in the U.S. 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 10 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.

And despite the current problems with the salmonella in peanut products, America has the safest domestic food supply, bar none. Even if you say what about the grapes or the tomatoes? Those foods were imported. Could we do a better job of food safety inspection? Of course, there is always room for improvement, especially when it comes to imported foods.

Unbeknown to many Americans, we import food from countries that use pesticides banned by our country. While I am not trying to disparage other nations, the truth is other countries allow the use of pesticides that our farmers are prohibited to use. This again adds to the safety of domestic food production.

With warmer weather just around the corner, let's gear up to plant your own garden, or plan to buy from a farmers market or local farm stand. What could be fresher and safer than buying food while looking the grower in the eye and building a relationship?

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at

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