Thursday, January 10, 2008

Hey, Big Spender!

I love food!

I know, that comes as no surprise to any of my Dear Readers. How could it? But because I love food so much and am committed to eating the best food I can (for the most part; I have my cheap and easy indulgences from time to time, I admit), I'm willing to spend what I need to spend to keep myself well fed.

I know all too well that that attitude and ability automatically puts me into an elite category. I may not make a huge salary, but I have the luxury of being able to feed myself without worrying too much about the cost, and there are many, many people who can't say that.

But having read recently that the average American family spends only 10% of their disposable income on food, I determined to see what my situation really was in comparison.

I've kept detailed account pages for a few years now, so I was able to total my monthly grocery expenditures and monthly expenses for eating out and then figure them as percentages of my income. And here are the totals for 2007:

MonthTotalGroceriesEating Out

Looks pretty extravagant, doesn't it? I don't claim to be a statistical analyst, but let me break it down a little bit for you.

First of all, I don't eat meat. You might think that could account for higher expenditures, but it doesn't. And I don't eat much in the way of highly processed food, especially snack foods and sodas, which are cheap to begin with but add up quickly. No, the reasons go deeper.

Take the "Eating Out" column, for example. My expenditures in that column generally fall into two categories: going out for a coffee or something like it when I write, and going out with friends as a social occasion. The biggest months for that category are August, when I took my family out to the Bistro for a celebration dinner, and October, when I was traveling for vacation and a conference (the conference meals were reimbursed, but I didn't fully include that in my calculations). And while I'm learning to curb my coffee/tea breaks a little bit (note how the figures dropped toward the end of the year), I also don't want to give up eating or drinking out completely because of the social aspect –- a very important part of why we eat anyway!

As for the groceries, do you see the curve in the figures? The months when the farmers' market is open, my expenditures are consistently above 10% and even 15% of my income. It's not because the farmers' market is expensive: my research has regularly shown that my local farmers charge comparable and often lower prices than what I find at the grocery store. No, it's because summer is when I'm buying far more than I will use immediately with the intention of preserving as much of the harvest as possible. I can afford to see my grocery bills go up then because a large part of my free time is spent in food preservation, and thus little of my money is going toward entertainment or other non-essential expenses.

Okay, I know the daunting part of that is that I do spend so much of my free time in the summer canning, drying, freezing, and otherwise preserving the harvest. Yes, it's hard work, and yes, it does limit other possibilities for my time. That's my choice, and it may not be yours. That's fine.

But look at the winter grocery expenditures. They drop considerably -– because aside from perishable items (like dairy and added produce), I'm cooking and eating from the food I've preserved. So all that money and time invested in the summer and fall pays off come winter and into spring.

Yes, I spend a good fifth of my income on food, and that's more than twice the current U.S. average. But I can do that because I'm not spending money on things like automobile maintenance (and gasoline), television and movies, regular live entertainment of any sort (save through the college, and that's free), and a lot of consumer goods. I make do on a lot of other things that aren't as important to me because cooking, writing about food, and sharing food with others has become a vital, joyful part of my life.

I don't bring all this up to prove some simple-minded superiority -– to claim that by spending more on food, I eat better and therefore am better (so laughable!) –- but because I thought it was an interesting exercise for myself personally. I knew that I spent more than most people on food, but I had never really broken it down before or charted the cycle of spending over the year.

Could I spend less on food? Of course! I don't really need to, given how I've structured my life and expenditures aside from food, and I don't really want to, given the happiness I find in breaking bread with friends. I feel like after nearly forty years, I've finally understood what my proper relationship to food should be, and I feel neither deprived nor over-indulged... just grateful.

Maybe that's the real bottom line for our food expenses overall. Sure, we can get cheap food and spend so little of our incomes on our daily allowance of calories. But what does it mean to us overall? Do we actually feel nourished and healthy? Do we feel we can do any better? Or is truly good food out of our reach financially? Part of it depends on our personal choices and how we decide to prioritize our spending, but part of it also depends on how we've structured our food system in the U.S. to deliver cheap food but not as much nutrition as we truly need.

So what are our priorities going to be where food is concerned, both as individuals and as a country?

I guess we'll have to spend plenty more time thinking through that one.


At 1/12/2008 4:16 PM, Blogger valereee said...

Hey, Baklava Queen! I think I probably spend a little more on food than the average American, too. For instance, I'm making chili tonight. 4 pounds of whole-cow ground beef @ $4.00/pound. But is it TASTY beef, and the cows were raised humanely and sustainably, and that counts a lot for me.

At 1/14/2008 7:05 AM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

Hey, Valereee! That does count for a lot, and I would guess that if you're like me, if you spend more on something like that, you're more likely to stretch it out so you can enjoy it longer... or come up with something really incredible that will make it all seem very worth it! :-)

And thanks for your initial article... I'd been meaning to write about this for a while, but seeing your post (linked in mine) really encouraged me.

At 1/15/2008 1:59 PM, Blogger Monkey said...


I just have to say that I absolutely love your blog, and you inspire me to get off my a$$ and cook/bake more often. Thank you soooo much! >.<

On another note, I was wondering if you might be able to find the time to compile a list of freezable/storable food items that we can purchase in the summer and use in the winter.

My fiance and I are new (8 months) to the green/organic movement; and being chefs, obviously food is very important to us. (I can't believe we didn't start sooner!)

I have never canned or stored food for long periods of time, though I know people here who can help me out.

I would appreciate any help you can offer in this particular request, thank you very much for your time and for posting all those yummy pictures! ^_^

~ja ne

At 1/15/2008 3:53 PM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

Monkey (ja ne), I think it depends on what fruits and vegetables you like to have on hand the most as well as what's available. Here's a quick run-down on what I usually put away for winter:

Freezing: berries, green beans, corn, peas, a few carrots, spinach, broccoli, asparagus, shredded zucchini (mostly good for baking), squash (only if it won't last in cold storage) -- and with everything except berries and shredded zucchini, you will need to blanch the vegetables before freezing.

I also freeze pesto, purees of tomato and cilantro (for Indian cooking), spaghetti sauce, and other sauces, if I have room!

Canning: tomatoes and tomato sauce, pickles, jams, salsa, grape juice

Drying: cabbage, carrots, red peppers, cherry tomatoes, cherries, grapes/raisins, some berries -- and I may try more this year. I can also get dried mushrooms at my farmers' market.

Cold storage: onions, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, apples -- and for me, "cold" storage generally means in a cool, dark closet with air circulation

My absolute go-to guide for home preservation is Stocking Up, which I actually found at a used book store but I think is still in print. Putting Food By is apparently another classic, though I've not used it. Either one can give you new ideas for years and years, so start small to get yourself motivated, and see what you can add on each year. You don't have to do it all at once!

Hope that helps! :-)

At 1/16/2008 4:07 PM, Blogger Bri said...

Jennifer, this is such a terrific post! I so appreciate knowing the hard facts of how you prioritize food in your life financially, but also from a time standpoint. That you also include your relationship to food on an annual basis, preparing in summer, for the winter is such a wonderful perspective. Living in California, I have the luxury of wonderful winter produce, but it would be great to have some of the wild blackberries in August around for a January pie. Some of these commonsense practices, go away for a generation or two, and all heck breaks loose. Thanks again for a great post!

At 1/17/2008 7:26 AM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

Thanks, Bri! It took a while to sort through the thinking since so much of it is on an unconscious level... I'm so used to preserving in the summer and spending more then! But how then does that look for someone on a fixed income? Not so great, I imagine.

I suspect my ancestors would say we're "spoiled" for having any kind of food available at any time of year. It's an amazing luxury, and it will take some folks a good bit of deep thinking to get used to eating in season or preserving food for special treats during the "dark days"!

Of course, now that you mention blackberries, I think I may have to bake something this weekend that incorporates some of my frozen blueberries or raspberries! Oh, darn! :-)


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