As I've detailed my spending on this site over the years, I've sometimes gotten a little flak from people about my food expenses. For quite a few years, the amount hovered in the vicinity of $8,000 a year, covering all my food and drinking, groceries cooked at home and meals bought at restaurants. That works out to around $150 a week, which is about $21 a day.
Here's an excerpt that pretty much says it all:
Every generation of young New Yorker finds its own way to squander its meager earnings, and this one seems content to spend the money it makes on expensive, curated food with little sense that it is really squandering anything at all.
There is vast cultural support for this exercise, of course. We have long since moved past the vague idea that the personal is political to the notion that the epicurean is essential — for ethical cleanliness, environmental sensitivity and all the rest. Pleasure is mingled with obligation. “I don’t think about what anything costs,” Emily Gerard, a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and a publishing assistant making the requisite salary, told me recently. “I’ll drop $60 once a week at the Greenmarket, which I would never do at a grocery store; I like supporting local farmers.”
We talk a lot about exquisite food but we rarely talk about a corollary to our fixation with it — the financial toll it takes on people who do not in any real sense have the income to afford it. Last week Yaffa Fredrick, who is 23 and a production assistant at MTV, broke down the finances of her passion for me. After taxes, she makes about $30,000 a year, a little over half of which goes to rent. In an especially frenetic dining week before the holidays, she went to Morimoto in the meatpacking district one night, Fig & Olive the next and Spice Market a few nights later, with a drinks evening sandwiched in between at Experimental Cocktail Club on the Lower East Side.
Typically, she told me, she spends about $250 a week eating in good restaurants, which amounts to about $13,000 annually, and this does not include the additional $50 to $100 a week she spends on cooking classes, wine tastings and cheese pairings. Because about half of her salary is given over to food, she works an additional 10 to 15 hours a week tutoring and baby-sitting to supplement it.
It surely comforts modern parents who have spent fortunes educating their children to know that these children are spending money on pork belly and not, for instance, cocaine. But what solace can it offer to realize that $300 a week put into an S. & P. 500 Index fund over the past five years would have provided an annual rate of return of 10.34 percent and grown to $100,354 today? Even saving $300 a week at a 6 percent rate of return would have yielded about $91,000, Mark X. Chemtob, a financial adviser at Ameriprise, said, adding that in both cases, the sums would qualify for a down payment on a starter apartment in New York.I see these sorts of people in action all the time, yet it still blew my mind to actually read those numbers. These young women are making maybe a quarter or a third of what I make, and they are eating their way into debt! But it's cloaked in this mantle of supporting small local businesses and saving the planet. It's not that I don't believe those are good things to support, but where do you draw the line on how you support yourself first? And of course the fancy restaurants and cooking classes are purely hedonistic, without any real altruistic justification even if they do locally and organically source all their ingredients.
Of course this article focuses on a very thin slice of the world, a certain type of upper middle class New Yorker. There are many more people out there who don't eat this way because they can't afford to or have no interest in doing so. Yet there is a huge amount of mass-cultural attention paid to food right now, on TV, in books, and at least in my world, in store shelves. I keep asking myself if we are in some sort of food bubble, similar to the housing bubble a few years ago, because it somehow feels wrong and unsustainable in a way I can't put my finger on, just as the real estate market did back then.
And not directly related, but here's a book well worth reading on the topic of food, what it costs, and why:
The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table