- Deseret News - Thursday, March 5, 2015

The cost of food is lower today, as a proportion of income, than it was in 1960, according to recent data published by the USDA. But digging into the numbers reveals that affording healthy food is still a challenge for low-income families.

“Between 1960 and 2007, the share of disposable personal income spent on total food by Americans fell from 17.5 to 9.6 percent,” the USDA reported. Since 2007, the percentage of the typical family’s budget devoted to food has remained about the same.

“We are purchasing more food for less money, and we are purchasing our food for less of our income,” USDA agricultural economist Annette Clauson told NPR.

Cost declines were greatest for food prepared at home, which dropped from 14 percent of a family’s budget in 1960 to 5.6 percent in 2013. On average, families spend about 4 percent of their budgets on food prepared away from home, and that rate has been steady for the past 55 years.

Families are spending more of their food budget, but not more of their total income, on restaurant food.

Poorer families spend less money, but a higher proportion of their budgets, on food, the study reported. Households in the lowest one-fifth of the income distribution spend a little more than $300 per month on food, but that spending represents 36.2 percent of their income.

Households in the highest one-fifth of the income distribution spend about $1,000 per month, but only 8 percent of their income, on food.

Despite the fact that the total share of income devoted to food has dropped over the long term, the price of food has increased faster than overall inflation for the past five years. In the past year especially, some of the healthiest foods have become more expensive, while less healthy foods have become cheaper.

Beef, pork, eggs and fresh fruit have each increased in price by more than 6 percent since 2013, while cereals, bakery items, nonalcoholic beverages, fats and oils have decreased in price.

The USDA offers an online brochure with advice for preparing healthy, thrifty meals. Some useful tips include basing meals on whole grains and vegetables with smaller amounts of meat and eggs, buying frozen vegetables in large bags that are generally cheaper per serving, and occasionally substituting beans or lentils for meat, poultry or fish.

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