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July 2007, Volume 13, Number 3

How we Eat: 2005

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistic's Consumer Expenditure Survey for 2005, there were 117 million "consumer units," each with an average of 2.5 persons, 1.3 earners and two vehicles; 67 percent were homeowners, and the average age of the reference person was 49. Average consumer unit income before taxes was $58,700 and expenditures averaged $46,400.

These household expenditures included $5,900 for food (13 percent). Food spending was split 56-44 percent, including $3,300 for food eaten at home ($63 a week) and $2,600 for food bought away from home. To put food spending in perspective, other significant expenditures were for housing and utilities, $15,200; transportation, $8,300; health care, $2,700; apparel, $1,900; entertainment, $2,400; cash contributions, $1,700; and tobacco products, $320.

The largest food-at-home expenditures were for meat and poultry, $765, and nonalcoholic beverages, $610; milk was another $145. Expenditures on fresh fruits ($182) and fresh vegetables ($175) totaled $357, or $6.85 a week (processed fruits were an additional $106 and processed vegetables $89). The average household spent more on alcoholic beverages, $426, than on fresh fruits and vegetables, $357.

Even though strawberries are picked directly into the containers in which they are sold, and iceberg lettuce gets its film wrapper in the field. In 2000, farmers received an average 16 percent of the retail price of fresh fruits and 19 percent of the retail price of fresh vegetables, so $370 from the consumer means $65 to the farmer (0.16 x 187 = $30 + 0.19 x 175 = $35). Farm labor costs are typically a third of farmer revenue for fresh fruits and vegetables, meaning that farm worker wages and benefits represent about $22 per household a year. Consumers who pay $1 for a pound of apples, or $1 for a head of lettuce, are giving 16 to 19 cents to the farmer and five to six cents to the farm worker.

What would happen if the influx of immigrant workers were slowed, farm wages rose, and the increase in farm labor costs were passed through to consumers? In 1966, the fledgling United Farm Workers union won a 40 percent wage increase for table grape harvesters, largely because Bracero workers were not available. Average farm-worker earnings were $9.15 an hour for US field and livestock workers in 2006, according to a USDA survey of farm employers. A 40 percent increase would raise them to $12.80 an hour. If this wage increase were passed fully to consumers, the five to six cent farm labor cost of a pound of apples or a head of lettuce would rise to seven to nine cents, and the retail price would rise by two to three cents.

For a typical household, a 40 percent increase in farm labor costs translates into a two to three percent increase in retail prices (0.175 x 0.33 = 6 percent, farm labor costs rise 40 percent, and 0.4 x 6 = 2.4 percent), so total spending on fruits and vegetables would rise by $8, from $357 a year to $366 a year. However, for a typical seasonal farm worker, earnings could rise from $8,800 for 1,000 hours of work to $12,800, or from below the federal poverty line for an individual to above it.

Food retailing is becoming more concentrated among four major chains. Walmart had US grocery sales of $120 billion in 2006, about 21 percent of the $570 billion total. Kroger is second, with sales of $60 billion, followed by Supervalu and Safeway, about $30 billion each.

Beef prices rose from an average $0.83 a pound for steers in April 2006 to almost $1 a pound in April 2007. Because of high feed costs, many feedlots are selling cattle after 90 days in the lot, rather than the more typical 120 to 140 days. One result is higher prices as well as lower quality. About two percent of beef is usually graded prime, but that may have dropped below one percent as cattle have less time on feed.

Cornell psychologist Brian Wansink has conducted numerous experiments that demonstrate that people eat more if they are served larger portions of food or snacks. Wansink says that the 19th century was the Century of Hygiene, the 20th the Century of Medicine, and the 21st will be the Century of Behavior Change. Behavioral economics combines psychology and economics to induce changes in behavior.

Mauritania has long has a fat is beautiful culture. A government survey found that 20 percent of the women between 15 and 49 had been deliberately overfed, and that 40 percent of women were overweight. The practice of force feeding women is known as gavage, after the French technique of force-feeding geese to obtain foie gras. It often involved forcing girls to drink fat-rich camel's or cow's milk until they developed silvery stretch marks on their upper arms.