Should Americans be spending more on food?

Michael Pollan echoes a popular foodie talking point:

For the majority of Americans, spending more for better food is less a matter of ability than priority. We spend a smaller percentage of our income on food than any other industrialized society; surely if we decided that the quality of our food mattered, we could afford to spend a few more dollars on it a week–and eat a little less of it. (187)

This amounts to a textbook case of statistical abuse. When Pollan refers to the small percentage of income Americans spend on food, that doesn’t say anything about the majority of Americans at all. It is, instead, a statement about our collective income (as compared to the incomes of other societies).

To understand this distinction, consider somebody who makes a million dollars a year. To spend 9.9% of that income (a figure Pollan cites in the next paragraph), this person would need to buy $99,000 worth of food in a year. Even assuming this person supports a large family and buys the kind of food that Michael Pollan says we should be eating, that’s a huge amount of food! Thus, people with large incomes will tend to spend a small percentage of their income on food. Moreover, because these people make so much money, their spending patterns are weighted more heavily in the figure than a comparable number of people at the lower end of the income scale*. The point here is that when we look at the percentage of income spent on food, that number is pushed downward by income inequality. Since the United States has a relatively high level of income inequality, this distortion is particularly pronounced in our case.

To look much deeper into the statistics, it would be helpful to be able to look at some actual data. Unfortunately, Pollan doesn’t give a citation on this claim, but when foodies compare food spending among countries, if a source is provided, it’s the USDA’s data on “Expenditures on food and alcoholic beverages that were consumed at home, by selected countries.” This looks at food spending as a percentage of household final consumption expenditures (which is certainly not the same as income). I don’t know for sure that this is Pollan’s source, but since he’s given his endorsement to a similar use of that data before, I’ll say a few things about it here. One weakness of the data shows up right in the title: it’s referring only to meals eaten at home. That means it’s not even clear that it includes the same number of meals in different countries. Looking at the data for 2006, for instance, if (and this is strictly hypothetical because I haven’t seen any data on the number of meals eaten at home) Americans devoted 6.6% of their spending to 14 meals eaten at home per week at home and the British devoted 8.6% of their spending to 18 meals per week, the British and the Americans would actually be putting about the same percentage of their spending toward each meal. Again, this is hypothetical, but if foodies are right when they say that Americans eat too many meals in restaurants or at their desks at work, this could be important.

Another problem with the data lies with the way that household final consumption expenditures are defined. Americans tend to have lower taxes than Europeans and pay for some things out of their pockets that are paid for with taxpayer money in Europe. For example, things like health care, education, and transportation are more heavily subsidized by taxes in Europe than in the United States. This means that those expenses are largely included in household final consumption expenditures for the US, but less so for the European countries. This, in turn, serves to decrease the percentage of household final consumption expenditures which Americans spend on food.

None of this is to say that Americans are spending the ideal amount on food. Nor do I mean to defend everything on which Americans spend money. My point is simply that the comparison of the US to other countries doesn’t support Pollan’s argument very well because the data reflect many differences among the various countries. I don’t doubt that there are significant externalities in the production of food or that food would cost more if these were reflected in the price. However, I don’t see much to be gained by throwing around misleading statistics to overstate the extent to which people are able to pay those costs.

*To see why, consider a fictitious country with only two people, one making $10,000 and spending $3,500 on food and the other making $150,000 and spending $9,000 on food (these are approximately at the averages of the top and bottom income quintiles for the United States for recent years). One person is spending 35% of income on food and the other is spending 6% of income on food. The population as a whole spends $12,500 of its $159,000 income on food. That’s only 7.9%, much closer to the wealthier resident’s figure.

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9 Comments »

  1. Joseph Dowd said

    Adam, is there any possibility that you could get this piece published in, say, The Berkeley Science Review? If Pollan is making straightforward statistical errors like this, it seems that people ought to know.

    • Adam Merberg said

      Thanks for the suggestion, Joseph. I’d definitely like to get this to a wider audience since I see these data thrown around like that all the time. That said, I’m not sure that BSR is the right place. It’s not a particularly science-y point aside from the fact of it involving some numbers. I actually pitched a piece like this as a response to a blog posts that I linked above, but they weren’t interested. But as I said, it’s a very common error, so if I pitch somewhere every time I see the mistake, maybe eventually I’ll get somewhere.

  2. Sam Vance said

    Also, we don’t spend less because the food is worse for us, we spend less(as part of a longer historical trend) because that is what happens as economies grow. It’s economic development 101. As people moved away from farms and made more money, food made up less of their total expenditures. So the percentage we spend on food is a function of economic status and NOT a function of the nutritive value of that food.

  3. Lisa said

    This is a really great post on something that is nonintuitive to most people. Thank you for shedding some light.

    • Adam Merberg said

      Thanks so much for letting me know! It’s kind of a technical post, and I wasn’t sure how well I had expressed the ideas, so it’s great to have your feedback.

  4. The key question then remains whether our ecosystem can support everyone eating Polyface products – food will take up a higher percentage of our budget, but is it even possible to produce non factory slaughtered animals for the whole population?

  5. […] Should Americans be spending more on food? […]

  6. chefsnausy said

    I’m enjoying your posts and appreciate your passion for getting the numbers right, but I wonder if Pollan isn’t merely pointing out that “pre-industrial food” Americans spent a higher percentage of their incomes on food than we do today. If one uses pure logic, it would look a little like “if no industrial (cheap) food, then higher percentage of income going to food expeditures, therefore eating organics require a higher expenditure of income on food.” Just a thought. It seems to me that Pollan is pointing the finger at big food and profits taking the place of healthier food and more sustainable, polyculture farming? Your mathematical points above are well-noted, however. Thanks again for your most excellent observations!

    • Adam Merberg said

      I think it’s clear that he isn’t making that point, actually. In the passage I quoted, he’s comparing current food spending in the US to food spending in other countries (not to past food spending). And he specifically uses this to claim that most Americans can afford to spend more on food. What I’m saying is that the data he refers to is irrelevant.

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