Monday, January 14, 2013

Food: Local, Organic and Unsustainable?

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.

To most people, that would seem like a lot. If you're careful, you could easily feed a family of 4 on that amount, so it may seem crazy and indulgent that one woman can spend that much on herself. If I wanted to, I could easily spend way less-- but in the context of my financial circumstances and lifestyle, I choose not to. I have always justified this as spending money not just on the necessary calories to survive, but on convenience and pleasure. It costs more to buy a coffee and a bagel at a deli before going to work than to make coffee at home and eat bagels purchased in bulk at a supermarket, but the extra expense is not all that much, and worth it in terms of saved time. The same can be said for buying a sandwich or a salad for lunch vs. making them at home. Dinner in a restaurant is a little harder to justify because it's quite a bit more expensive and it's not in the middle of my busy work day-- but the fact of the matter is that my level of spending actually doesn't include that many restaurant dinners. I might get cheap take out one or two nights a week, and cook my own meals from scratch other nights, eating in a restaurant less than one night a week on average.

I should also point out that I buy pretty average groceries in normal supermarkets most of the time. I occasionally buy something at an upscale shop or greenmarket,  but I generally don't go out of my way to buy organic items or fancy prepared foods. But in the last few years, I have been amazed at the increasing variety of expensive artisanal food items available all over Manhattan and Brooklyn. Most recently, I went to a market called Brooklyn Fare-- it's a pretty full-service supermarket, with an emphasis on upscale, products, but what really blew me away was the selection of chocolate bars as you approach the cash registers. There must have been 100 different chocolate bars, maybe more. At prices like $6 per bar, maybe more. Chocolate is just one tiny part of the food universe, but it got me thinking about how these sorts of products have proliferated of late: cupcakes, chocolate, artisanal pickles and other such un-necessaries. Who on earth has enough money to sustain this business?

With all that in mind, I was gratified to read this article in yesterday's New York Times:

The Unaffordable Luxury of Food

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


Celshader said...

Regarding your question as to the price of chocolate...we're running out of cacao farmers willing to work for insufficient pay. Younger farmers are moving into more profitable crops like rubber.

At this rate, chocolate will be a rare, exotic and expensive treat twenty years from now, like caviar.

frugal zeitgeist said...

I saw that article and had a similar reaction. When I was a broke-ass grad student, I ate a lot of rice and beans that I cooked at home (and the beans were dry ones that I soaked overnight). I still do a lot of that, actually. Organic didn't even factor into my thought processes then, and I always drank wine at home with friends and ordered seltzer out because it was cheaper.

I'm pickier about meat than I used to be because factory farming really bothers me, and I do like to go out for drinks (and that adds up quickly!). I love good food and cook with a cooking club once a month, but I do believe there's an upper limit. It seems that if food costs are jeopardizing someone's future, something's badly out of whack.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. On paper I'm supposed to make twice as this MTV lady makes. I'm 10 years her senior and with student and consumer debt which has never allowed me to go a NYC restaurant and dump 50$ on a plate of chicken and potatoes cooked in some sort of fancy way. I wholeheartedly agree with you Mde. X. I spend less than 100 on food and take out and I live in some obscure neighbourhood of Queens, commute over 1.5hrs to Manhattan, and live with 3 other people. I don't understand how this young lady does it. Morimoto? You're kidding me? And I sure think we will experience a food bubble. Same with clothes. I'm all for paying fair to a nice shirt or pants, but 180$ on something made by an "artist" living in a loft in Brooklyn? Nope, not happening.

Elizabeth said...

As a native New Yorker who spends between 800-900 dollars a month on food, dining, and bars, I have a couple of points to make on this topic:

1) ALL grocery stores with maybe the exception of Trader Joe's are expensive in NYC. In my neighborhood I have:
-Gristedes and Associated: Both are expensive, and the produce is downright disgusting sometimes. ie, droopy broccoli. HUGE stalks of asparagus.
-Whole Foods: prices surprisingly on par with Gristedes and Associated, good produce
-Gracefully (boutique high-end grocery store): Great produce, similar prices as above stores. Nonperishable items are way over priced (ie, 3.99 for a can of organic diced tomatoes)
-Trader Joe's: Cheap! But you can also wait a cool 20 minutes to check out. Not to mention, it's not actually THAT close to my place.
Anyway, my point is...there simply AREN'T a lot of great options in the city. I don't want to eat produce that is drooping and decaying before my eyes. And surprisingly things like a container of Fage yogurt run around the same price at Gristedes as at Whole Foods (1.60/1.70). At Gracefully it's a tad more, like $2.

2) New Yorkers live in such small apartments that they do not socialize at home and instead go out to eat. I long ago accepted that it's either eating super healthy and saving some money, or it's having a social life. Even cooking for myself in my impossibly small galley kitchen that has maybe 12 square inches of counter space is not really all that enjoyable.

Granted, when I made 42k a year I was NOT spending 800-900 a month on food and dining. I was spending a lot, but that number increased as I earned more over the years. Nowadays yes, I would love to spend a bit less on food, but I don't feel like it is worth the sacrifices above that I would have to make. I figure that once I am married and live in the suburbs I'll cook all the time and spend much less on food.

beth said...

Unsustainable is exactly the right word for this. I make plenty of money (more than the interviewee, less than you) and can't begin to justify eating out every day. It'll be interesting to see what happens - I don't see it as a bubble but if nothing else there has to be a plateau.

I guess at least these big spenders can use bankruptcy to get out of the debt, if it comes down to it, but their retirement isn't going to be fun.

Crystal said...

Hubby and I live in Houston, TX, which is not nearly as expensive as New York, but now I feel way better about the $500-$700 a month we spend on food. :-)

I couldn't imagine anybody with a regular salary of any sort spending about half of it on food. Even when we first started out, we spent $4800 a year on food but were only bringing in about $25,000 after taxes...and I thought that was splurging...

Jenny said...

I LOVE dining and drinking out, it's worth it to pay for the experience of the atmosphere, the service. I try to offset it by brown bagging it if possible.

Sounds like you are right on track and you'll still be able to SAVE and enjoy from time to time as well.

I'm glad I'm not the only one who drops a ton on groceries!

The girl in the article was a little bit annoying, since she seems to not have "paid her dues" to be constantly having luxury food.

Connecticut Blogger said...

If someone wants to spend their money in a given way, why judge them? Good food may not be overly important to you, but it may be a huge interest to someone else. It said in the article that she is working extra hours to pay for all the nice meals, so what's the problem? We all have to make choices about how we spend our money, after paying for the essentials. If she wants to shop at farmer's markets to support local farmers, I see nothing wrong with that. I didn't see any mention of these women going into debt due to their dining habits. If you're young and living in NYC, eating out could be one of the more affordable entertainment options available to you.

Financial Independence said...

On the contrary I think you are very modest with your food expenses.
$21 a day - some fruits, berries, a fish and glass of wine...

You can feed more people on it elsewhere, even eating out, but I think it is not very healthy and quality of food will definetly be worse.

In mean time, treating your body like a temple you are saving on health expenses, increasing your productivity and longevity.

I do not spend money of pre-cooked meals or fancy foods, instead steaking with good quality or organic fruits, berries, yougurts and fish /meat makes big difference.

I would rather eat good at home, than spend the same amount of money eating out. Quality of ingredients are better, if you do it yourself.

I spend even more on groceries but it at home.