Cavemen Ate $12 Burgers: A Historical Perspective on Food Prices

Eggs Prices Over TimeWhile I maintain that eating according to the Primal Blueprint doesn’t have to be expensive, it is generally true that with food – as with most other things in life – you get what you pay for. We’re one week into the 21-Day Challenge, and I imagine the cost of healthy food may be on some of your minds. So when our friend David Maren of Tendergrass Farms offered this guest article, I took him up on it.

As a percentage of your income, how does your grocery bill compare to the grocery bills of people in different countries and eras? Are ever-lowering food costs always a good thing, or do they tend to come with trade-offs? Enter David…

One of the greatest challenges facing small grass-based family farmers today is the American expectation of low priced food. As a culture, we’re now accustomed to spending only about 6.8 percent of our income on daily nourishment1 the lowest figure in human history. At the same time, health problems and obesity rise every year. These two realities create a striking correlation between wellness and food investment. Studying U.S. trend lines over the past century shows a direct link between cheap food and poor health.

While historical meal price comparisons can be tricky due to changing exchange rates, inflation, or even currency availability, finding a consistent unit of value can help our understanding. For the sake of discussion, let’s use the value of work as that unit. We’ll measure the value of food in hours worked and real prices – prices adjusted for inflation. While this comparison may not be perfect, it can help us understand historical food prices in today’s context.

For example, if workers today earn about $15.59 per hour (Census Bureau’s average per capita annual income statistic of $27,915 divided by the OECD’s average annual hours worked per US worker of 1,790) and spend an average of $1.75 on each meal (based on the fact that Americans now spend only 6.8% of their income on food according to a report by Washington State University), we could say they spend about 7 minutes working for each meal.

About That $12 Burger

Before we get down to the real analysis of food prices over the last century I thought it would be fun to take a playful look at hunter-gatherer Grok to see how much he “spent” on food. Bear with me if this seems a little bit silly. It’s just my creative attempt at a way to show how hard Grok had to work for his food.

The numbers would vary but it’s safe to assume that Grok hunted and gathered at least 3 hours per day for a bare minimum of 5 days a week.2 That’s an extremely conservative estimate of 15 hours of work for his 21 weekly meals. This translates to almost 45 minutes spent working for each meal instead of the 7 minutes mentioned above. If we convert those 45 minutes that Grok spent “on the job” hunting and gathering food for each meal into modern day wages of $15.59/hour we could say that Grok spent about $11.69 on his primal burger and fries instead of the $1.75 that we spend today for ours off of the Dollar Menu.

Yes, I know Grok didn’t eat three meals a day and he may not have eaten hamburgers with ketchup. Just hang with me, mister anthropologist. Those numbers are imperfect, but the stark contrast between today’s food spending and that of Grok is undeniable.

“Okay”, you say, “So Grok spent a lot on food. I spend less because I’m not a hunter-gatherer. Agriculture makes stuff cheaper.” Sure. But let’s not stop with Grok. Simply consider the fundamental principle that when it comes to food, you almost always get what you pay for. This is true even in agricultural societies. Let’s take a look at more recent times for comparison’s sake.

The 20th Century and Industrial Food

Consider the early 20th century American. In 1913, feedlots didn’t exist, so cows ate grass and the fat composition of beef was more balanced and rich in Omega-3’s and CLA. Crisco and margarine hadn’t inundated the market yet, so everyone had lard in their larders. If you ate chicken at all, your mother cooked up her laying hen that was pecking around near her doorstep eating clover, crickets, and table scraps. Sausage ingredient lists were so short that the butcher could tell you his recipe by memory without mispronouncing a single word. Modern GPS-driven 18-row corn harvesters and government subsidies didn’t exist yet, so grain was expensive and you generally didn’t feed it to animals. Farmers grew vegetables regionally and seasonally without the use of off-farm chemicals like Roundup and anhydrous ammonia. Hired hands picked tomatoes when they were ripe because the gassing technology used to make them red today was not available. Pre-packaged, brand-name foods were unknown in the supermarket. In fact, in 1913, supermarkets didn’t exist.

But here’s the shocker: that stuff wasn’t as cheap as you think. A dozen eggs in 1913 cost about $8.73 in 2013 dollars versus about the $1.93 that they cost in Wal-Mart today.3 Changes in price vary dramatically, but on average food prices have come down a lot.

What Work Buys

That’s a decrease of 82% in hours worked for groceries.

Why Is Our Food So Cheap?

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that average food prices have dropped as much as 82% over the last century. What could possibly have caused such a dramatic change in real food prices? In short, food prices have fallen because the composition of our foods has been compromised by the industrialization of our food system.

Ham, which averaged (in 2013 dollars) about $5.90/LB a hundred years ago averages only $2.69/LB today.3 Doesn’t the fact that we now pay less than half the price that our great grandparents paid for “ham” seem to suggest that we’re possibly not eating what they ate? Taking a closer look at this example, it’s not hard to see that the very definition of “ham” has indeed changed significantly since the early 1900’s. Genetically modified Roundup Ready corn and soy laced with ractopamine is now fed to the pigs from which the ham is made. Huge 2,400-head confinement buildings house the pigs before they are taken to centralized slaughterhouses that kill them by the thousands. Ham recipes now include water, Sodium Phosphates, Carrageenan, Sodium Erythorbate, and Sodium Nitrite. I’d be willing to bet that your great grandmother would notice a significant difference between our 2013 “ham” and the hams that she ate that were cured by a trusted neighbor with salt and brown sugar. Simply put, the changes in the American food system that have enabled food prices to fall as much as 82% over the last century have, as an unintended consequence, altered the composition, lowered the quality, and decreased the healthfulness of our food. Let’s take a little walk through the last 100 years and see how this gradual change occurred.

Lard Consumption

The effect of cheap margarine and Crisco on lard consumption in the US. Lard is now known to be one of the healthiest fats available to man, surpassing even olive oil in terms of healthy fat composition.

Beginning in the 1930s and 40s, increasing mechanization of food production and the advancement of food science technology started to change the American foodscape. At the turn of the 20th century a process was developed for the hydrogenation of liquid oils and by the 40s margarine had taken the place of butter and lard in many American homes. Chemical fertilizers became popular which, in conjunction with the advent of the self-propelled combine harvester, increased crop yields and lowered the prices of grains which eventually lead way to the feedlot model of beef production that we have today.

The signing of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 enabled the construction of the Interstate Highway System which made national food distribution possible. This created a need for further advancements in food technology as Americans were, for the first time, buying huge amounts of foods from thousands of miles away. Preservatives were needed to keep foods tasting like they came from just down the street. National markets justified staggering investments in food processing equipment now that food companies could operate at a much larger scale. As the supply chain got longer, customers lost the direct ability to hold their farmers, butchers, and bakers accountable. Transparency of production was now a thing of the past.

Fierce competition between national food corporations arose which lead to price wars fought with cost cutting measures that often lead to lower quality ingredients. These cheaper ingredients didn’t taste like the real McCoy so food scientists concocted additives, dyes, and artificial flavorings to make up for the difference in taste and appearance. Companies found that product shelf life and margins could be increased by adding chemicals like BHT to packaging. Industrial food processing required processing aids like silicon dioxide to be added to spices to help them flow through the production line. The USDA did its part by allowing these additives to be treated as non-ingredients and therefore not requiring them to be listed on labels. Meat products were infused with water to reduce their price per pound and stabilizers were added to make up for the loss in texture.

Eventually international sourcing of foods became the norm because produce from Mexico, fish from China, and even grass fed beef from Tasmania was cheaper. With this development, even less accountability was possible and fears about food safety became the norm. Americans voted with their forks for cheaper food at any cost and prices continued to decline while rates of obesity, heart disease, cancer, and hypertension exploded.

You Get What You Pay For

This is where we find ourselves today.  The effects of our modern food system touch nearly every part of this country from ecology to economics. But in short, we got exactly what we paid for: cheap food that wasn’t good for us. Food that wasn’t good for our rivers, our fields, our farmers, or our bodies. But this new “food” was indeed cheap. Very, very, cheap.

But there are alternatives. As I mentioned, Americans spend about 6.8% of their income on food. That is an anomaly from both a historical and a geographic perspective. In Portugal, most people spend twice that much on food. In France that figure is nearly at 13.5%. In both Japan and Italy, it’s more than 14.4%. And these countries are, in many other ways, quite comparable to the US.1 They just make eating good food a higher priority than we do and this choice is reflected directly in lower rates of obesity.4

You may say that you can’t afford those pastured eggs for $7.50/dozen at the farmers market. I’d be willing to bet that with your current lifestyle choices, that may be true. For some people, scraping together enough money to eat three solid meals of meats, eggs, and veggies of any kind at all is very difficult and after all it is much better to eat low quality meats, eggs, and veggies than Chef Boyardee. But for most of you reading this, there are choices you can make in other areas of your life that will make those delicious pasture raised orange-yolked eggs affordable. Do you really need two iPads? Would you be better off going on another vacation this year or staying home and spending that extra 5% of your salary on food that makes you feel good? We talk about the ancestral lifestyle rather than just the ancestral diet. Lifestyles are comprised of a series of choices that go far beyond not eating Frosted Flakes for breakfast. I can assure you that grass fed beef raised by American farmers who are struggling to survive in the modern marketplace will hands-down cost more than any other option you have. And it’s worth every last 2013 penny.

It’s up to you. You get what you pay for. As one Tendergrass farmer, Joel Salatin, puts it, “Have you priced cancer lately?” Joel may be blunt, but he makes a very good point. In the long run, cheap food might not actually be quite as cheap as we think.

David Maren is one of the founding farmers who created Tendergrass Farms, an online grass fed meat shop that makes it easy for you to support family farmers – one order at a time. He lives with his wife, Ann, and daughters Ruby Joy and Anna Claire in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Please consider supporting Tendergrass Farms in their endeavor to sustain family farms by placing an order today at their online grass fed meats shop for grass fed beef, pastured pork, pastured chicken, or pastured turkey.

1According to data from this Washington State University report

2Some would give higher estimates. That estimate came from Robb Wolf.

3The Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps records of US food prices over time in their Consumer Price Index. To calculate real prices I used their inflation calculator.

4The CIA has world obesity stats here.

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