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How Americans Spend at the Grocery Store

meat market, american spending habits

Yep, that’s about right.

All those TV shows and cable networks dedicated to good cooking. All that Michael Pollen and the home-gardening and the CSAs. Better school lunches, more nutrition. Panic about childhood obesity. It’s had an impact on what Americans eat, right? Less meat, more whole grains? Fresh over processed?

No, not happening. According to a graph put together by NPR’s Planet Money team, based on bureau of labor statistics information, what Americans are picking up at the supermarket is worse now than in the early 1980s, when we were doubling down on meat and potatoes and still serving mushy vegetables from a can.

Check it out:

grocery store spending, food prices

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics. Credit: Lam Thuy Vo / NPR

What the above graph and another chart over at NPR show is that though spending on meat has gone down, our consumption of it has gone up. Industrial meat production has made that possible. The windfall from such a substantial savings on meat, even at the much lower prices, was shifted into processed foods and snacks, , according to Mother Jones’ Tom Philpott.

I am a big avoider of pre-packaged and processed food, and while that may come off as smugly virtuous, I’ll admit my initial motivation in avoiding these purchases was economical. Processed food — even bought in bulk at warehouse stores like Costco — is kind of expensive (as this graph bears out). I’d rather spend that money on eating in a restaurant if I’m avoiding time in the kitchen.

Since having kids, I have become a pretty dedicated label reader and so when when I’m feeling like a splurge, a look at the labels is what typically keeps me away from the processed stuff. I’ve also noticed that once kids taste the super-kitchen-tested, chemically altered to trigger their little addiction mechanisms, it’s hard to go back. My kids won’t touch homemade macaroni and cheese. If it doesn’t come out of a box — any box, so long as the end product is super salty/fake-cheesy — they’re not eating it.

What about you? Do you rely on package, processed foods to get you through the week or do you avoid them?

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