Rita Howell’s Column

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 8, 2008

Groceries check out cheaper in U.S.

Wednesday was a red-letter day. It’s the day Rupert and I –– average Americans that we are –– had earned enough money to pay our grocery bill for the entire year.

This is according to the American Farm Bureau Federation, which sponsors Food Check-out Week as a celebration of the bounty from American’s farms and ranches and how that bounty is shared with American consumers.

People who crunch numbers have determined that on average each American spends $2,400 on food each year. And the average worker would have earned that amount in 37 days. That was February 6.

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Farm Bureau figures indicate that Americans spend about ten percent of their disposable income on food. That’s the best grocery value in the world, Farm Bureau says.

In Finland, folks spend 16 percent; in England, 22 percent; in Mexico, 33 percent; and in India, it costs 51 percent. Imagine spending half your income on food.

And Farm Bureau says that our food is getting cheaper…relatively speaking. In 1980, it took 50 days for the average American to earn enough to buy their year’s food supply. The amazing thing is that more Americans are regularly buying the more expensive restaurant, carry-out food, and convenience food, yet the percentage of income spent on food has actually decreased. It’s down from 11 percent in 1988 and a peak of 25.2 percent during the Great Depression, the USDA says.

American farmers, says the USDA, are the world’s most productive. A U.S. farmer produces food and fiber for 143 people, it’s estimated.

There are 2.13 million farms in America’s rural areas, according to the Farm Bureau, with 98 percent of U.S. farms operated by individuals, family partnerships or family corporations.

In Panola county 725 farms were listed in the 2002 Census of Agriculture.

At the risk of appearing to bite the hand that’s feeding me, I’m wondering if we shouldn’t factor in the $25 billion in annual federal farm subsidies when contemplating how relatively cheap our food is.

Wisconsin Farm Bureau’s Tom Theiding says while it’s true that tax money goes to farmers, those longstanding federal policies are a big part of why we continue to pay relatively little at the supermarket.

Still, consider this: it will take me another 77 days to earn enough to pay my income taxes for this year.

Here’s a bit of circular reasoning: if farm subsidies were cut back — farmers are better off economically now, my research indicates — my tax bill should go down, too. But without those subsidies, farmers would pass on their increased production costs to consumers in the form of higher prices for the food we buy. So I might be working 37 days to pay my taxes and 77 days to buy my food.

What I’m trying to say is that in this land of free and plenty and home of the obese, nothing is really free, or cheap.

Now pass the biscuits and gravy and save me a piece of pie.