Sunday, September 26, 2010

We are what we eat.

The book, Hungry Planet: What the World Eats, describes different food lifestyles and expenditures of families all over the world along with terrific photos of the families with all of the food they eat in a week. You can check it out on Google Books or just look at the photos (with credits). I thought this was a really intriguing idea so this week, after finishing up our grocery shopping, my husband took a picture of me with all the food we bought for the week. We expect this food to provide us with two servings each of seven breakfasts, five (or six) lunches, and six dinners. On the dinner menu for this week is Garden salad and homemade baked beans with wild boar bacon and a side of fresh-baked corn bread (Sun/Mon), Baked salmon with green beans and baked sweet potato (Wed/Thurs), and Portabella mushroom sliders with grilled corn on the cob (Fri/Sat).

How much for how much?

For all the food you see in the picture, we spent $82.97 total. Organic food grown within four miles of our house cost us $8.97 (front row, right); food from our garden we counted as zero cost. The rest of our organic products cost $39.51 (front row, left), and we spent $39.55 on non-organic foods including our wild boar bacon and wild-caught salmon (back row). The U.S. Census Bureau reports estimates of the amount spent weekly by a family of two, aged 19 – 50, for four different diet plans determined by income. The diets, called thrifty, low-cost, moderate-cost, and liberal, are determined by the USDA based on a combination of the types of foods that people in different income ranges report eating and federal guidelines for a nutritious diet. The U.S. Census reported that, in December 2008, the “Weekly Food Cost of a Nutritious Diet” for the thrifty diet was $83 whereas the low-cost plan was $105.60. For August 2010, the most recent report available from the USDA, the “Cost of food at home” for the thrifty diet was $80 and low-cost was $101.90. That means our food expenditure, despite including many organic products, is right around the thrifty estimate. That makes it seem like our diet would be considered affordable to the people for whom the USDA designed the thrifty plan. However, buying organic is usually considered a luxury that low-income families simply cannot afford. Perhaps the thrifty diet calculations are off, or maybe the people reporting what they eat make very different choices that turn out to be about as expensive as ours. Or maybe it's an issue of access?

How typical is this number?

This week, we ate a little less meat than normal. The meat products we will eat in upcoming weeks are more expensive by $4 - $18. That would put us in between the thrifty and low-cost plans. We also did not include foods we already had in our house, such as olive oil, even if we plan use them in meals this week. We assume the cost will balance out since we also don’t expect to finish every product we purchased by the end of this week. Coffee is the only product we purchased for which we adjusted the price; we generally drink a canister of coffee in two weeks, so the cost was cut in half.

The Census and USDA numbers are calculated with the assumption that all food consumed during the week is eaten at home. For us, this is true for all but one dinner and one or two lunches. Thus, while our total food expenditure for the week will be a little higher than our grocery purchases for this week, it’s still a valid comparison given that most people don’t eat all their food at home either.

What this picture says to me.

My husband and I have changed our diets a lot over the last five years, and it is quite evident in this photo! People used to refer to me as the girl with the Dr. Pepper because I was seemingly never without a can or bottle of the stuff. I haven’t regularly consumed soda in over a year now so you won’t find any of it in this picture! I also see a lot more fresh fruits and vegetables than I would have a few years back, and all of it is organically grown and pesticide-free. Our animal product purchases have greatly decreased. I’m lactose-intolerant so no cheese, butter, or milk makes it into our house. We only buy eggs from ethical farms and are currently out. And of course, we only use a small amount of meat, none of it conventional! Along with our dietary changes, there have been significant physical changes. Since adopting a diet low in animal products and processed foods but high in whole, fresh fruits and vegetables, I have run a half-marathon, completed a sprint triathlon, and dropped two dress sizes. I would say the sacrifice is worthwhile, but I don’t actually feel like I’ve sacrificed anything. I enjoy my food more now and really love my active, healthy life.

How do you compare?

I would be very curious to see how my family’s expenditures really measure up. That’s where you come in. Just like the book, I’d like to put together a collection of photos of people with a week’s worth of their groceries and the cost of that food. I’m curious to see what types of food choices lead to lower food costs. Given restrictions on photo uploading within comments, I’ll ask anyone interested in participating to please upload their photo and cost estimate to my companion page on Facebook (use the FB widget in the sidebar to access it or search for An Omnivore’s Decision from within Facebook). You will have to “like” the page to contribute, but then you will also get to see all of the shorter tidbits I post there and connect with other people interested in these issues. If you have trouble accessing or posting to the FB page (or if you’d rather send me your info via email), please leave me a comment.


  1. OMG i was writing a comment and then my firefox crashed... doh! anyway, the gist of my comment was that I am too lazy to take a picture of all my food, but I can tell you that it's still mostly mac & cheese. :)

  2. This is a bit lopsided between us because I probably eat 70% of our food budget (and volume of food), but I've compiled a reasonably representative list across the two of us:

    Breakfast (for the week)
    2 loaves of bread = $9 [local store, from local bakery]
    1 lb of swiss cheese = $5 [costco]
    1 dz eggs = $2 [costco]
    some fraction of a jar of jam = $1 [most recent from farmer's market]
    tea, milk and water = $2 [big box costco tea, organic milk, tap]
    Total = $19

    Lunches (6 each, meats showing weekly amount if that's all we ate)
    Most lunches are with rice, which is about 4 cups for the week = $1 [costco]
    Most lunches are with some green veggie (green beans, broccoli, brussels .. ), about 2 lb each = $4 [costco]
    Meat 1: salmon (tray of wild sockeye, ~3-3.5 lb) = $24-28 [costco]
    Meat 2: chicken breast (8 of them, 3-3.5lb) = $8-9 [costco]
    Meat 3: chicken drumsticks (30 of them) = $8 [costco]
    Meat 4: tray of pork (~4lb) plus 1.5lb box of mushrooms = $13 + $4 [costco]
    Total = $5 + average of meats = $5 + $15 = $20

    Dinner is a combination of lunch foods (we cook in bulk) and sandwiches
    Sandwich = bread from breakfast bin (there would be enough) + 2 oz turkey/salami/etc + 1-2 oz cheese = $1.50
    Doing half lunches and half sandwiches = $19

    Core sum = $19 + 20 + 19 = $58

    We also usually have another bag or two of veggies (carrots, peas, etc) around, so $4-8 per week
    Marisa buys fancy lattes roughly every day, which runs about $25 a week
    I'll throw in 10-15 dollars for little things I can't think of (a watermelon, or snack, or ice cream, or ... )

    Final sum = $58 + $[39 to 48] = $97 to 106 a week.

    Addendum on cost
    This could be squeezed down (for the thrifty case):
    Clearly, there would be no fancy lattes in the mix, the salmon could be swapped out for chicken or pork and we could buy cheaper bread. These changes alone could knock the cost down to around $70 a week, so I think the thrifty estimate is decent, but a little high.

  3. As an exercise and because I'm curious, can you estimate the "cost" of growing your own produce (including time spent tending to it, the prorated cost of pots/planters/soil, ...)?