Holiday food: A look at costs and food systems behind the scenes

The percentage of disposable income utilized for food varies with income level. Also, consideration should be given to the pay food workers receive and the hazardous nature that their jobs entail.

During this holiday season, it struck me that our food system today operates on the same principle as my shared housing did in college. At Ellsworth Cooperative House, one of the more pleasurable experiences was the hot evening meal that was ready when I returned from class. All 30 residents had responsibilities: cooking, cleaning, procuring the larder or maintaining the facilities and equipment. This mutual benefit was possible because of shared responsibilities. Enjoying food during the holidays also requires many hands to lighten the load from farm to table. Before we dive into our food this holiday season, lets take a step back and look at how Americans spend their food money and how much we pay those who bring it to us.

The U. S. Bureau of Labor statistics indicates that 83 percent of US citizens take part in an activity that includes eating at home. Grocery shopping is carried out by 13 percent of us, dedicating on an average of about 50 minutes per day. The remaining 70 percent are people outside of the home who are involved in providing the food system between the farm and our table. This food system comes with both capital and human costs.

Annual food expenditures are a significant portion of household budgets. Although on average all income groups spend more on buying food to prepare at home, the top 20 percent of America’s income earners (above $93,784) nearly split their food dollars between buying groceries and buying prepared food away from home as a percentage of income. The top 20 percent spend more than the bottom 60 percent group combined on food away from home. The lowest 20 percent, however, spends 70 percent of their food dollars on buying food to prepare at home. This would indicate that the lower income groups are more involved in at home food preparation. Fifty seven percent of Americans spend time preparing food (and cleaning up), averaging 1.1 hours per day.

Regardless of where the food is prepared, the 28,000 US food manufacturing establishments in 2009 represented only .3 percent of total business establishments. These businesses bottle, butcher, manufacture, cook, can, freeze and conduct all other related activities to produce our food supply. As important as this work is to our continued existence, earnings in food related occupations are typically lower than average for all occupations, with the exception of chefs and food managers. Six of eight work groups in food system occupations fall below the average for other occupations by more than $10,000. These low wages create a big turnover by young and part-time workers, but generate substantial replacement needs.

Retail grocery store workers number 3 million and have an average pay of $12.46 per hour. Restaurant and food service businesses are staffed by some 10 million workers and 7 out of 10 are the lowest paid jobs in America. Food distribution, transporting from farm to manufacturing to wholesaler, represents 1.7 million workers, including many temporary workers, who only earn $10,067 per year. Meat, poultry and food processing has 1.3 million workers and is considered one of the most dangerous jobs a worker can have. Three quarters of the farm workers, which is 1.4 to 43 million seasonably-depending, endure living below the poverty line (Source Food Chain Workers Alliance).

Numerous people are helping to bring food to the table for us this holiday season. These people represent the largest employment sector in United States, yet earn only a median income of $18,889 as a whole. This alone should give us reason to be thankful.

Michigan State University Extension educators are involved in helping to define and enhance the food system and partner with the MSU Product Center to assist food manufacturers in growing their business.

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