Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
24 Sep

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.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I feel extremely lucky that there is a well organized farmer’s market within a 30 minute drive of my house that accepts EFT debit for tokens as well as has a grant program in place that will give EFT users tokens (half of their EFT debit amount) specifically for fruits and vegetables. Yes, its far for people who don’t have a car, or public transportation. However, if they could get to a farmer’s market, that would be the one to get to.
    That being said…things like CSA programs (either produce or meat) can help with managing costs. For me and my daughter, a produce CSA isn’t really helpful. I would need 1/4 of a normal share, or to split it with someone. My favorite thing this year has been the CSA that I belong to that is a meat farm. I get beef, lamb, chicken and pork in various cuts once a month. I still buy eggs (at a discount) and I supplement with breakfast meats (nitrate-free bacon and breakfast sausage from the same farm). I will still have meat into at least part of the winter. The nice part is the investment in a farm that raises the animals humanely and also getting to know the people who are working to raise your food. The market itself is my grocery store, and they also run a winter market indoors through the Ohio winter. I dislike going to standard grocery stores at this point, even though I have to for a few items.
    I definitely feel it is worth it to pay “extra” compared to grocery store items to buy directly from farmers a product that has been raised closer to the way my great-grandparents would have purchased or raised their produce and meat.

    Rhys wrote on September 24th, 2013
    • Sounds like my neck of the woods in Ravenna/Kent, OH. :)

      Jessica R. wrote on September 24th, 2013
  2. The lard consumption graph is crazy! I must of been the reason for the large uptick in the 2000’s. Joking!

    Erik wrote on September 24th, 2013
  3. This is an awesome article, and I really enjoyed it. However, there’s a part of it that’s a bit delusional, although I suppose it’s really directed at this audience.

    “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?”

    Most of the people on my street live on welfare and can’t afford A/C. More than half the jobs in the U.S. pay less than $30,000 a year, and they are exhausting manual labor or–on your feet all day– jobs. Income inequality in our country is a very real thing, and it is growing at a fast rate, especially with recent political moves to curb or destroy unions, cut govn’t jobs by more than 20% (which I might add are the few remaining middle class jobs left in which a lower class individual can be hired and work their way to the top, and that’s why they are being attacked)

    We also know that women living in poverty have more children, which only feeds the system of inequality. I don’t have an ipad or even anything close, my computer is about 10 years old and slow as molasses, and there is no way that I could afford to shop at TenderGrass Farms. I spend a large portion of my income on food, but if I had kids, I can assure you I would be eating mac and cheese for 3 meals a day.

    We are never going to win this fight over our food if we are only targeting the people in this group. Cheap manufactured food will continue to dominate this country because most of the residents live in poverty and have no other choice.

    Bev wrote on September 25th, 2013
    • I agree… I actually really do agree with this article, and was just ranting with my husband the other night about throughout human history, we spent a majority of our time working (in so many variable ways.. both for money and doing things like farming, hunting, gathering, whatever!) for food. And now we spend most of our time working for “stuff” and food is one of the first, if not THE first, thing to get the axe in our finances.

      But– and despite reading for the last year, I guess that I am not the main audience for these blogs. Two ipads? A vacation? I make less than $20k/year and I work 70+ hours a week in a skilled trade. I have cut everything I can (no TV, a single simple phone line, no driving unless necessary, my computer is quite old too, no new gadgets, STUFF, etc). I only have internet because I need it for work. I work hard and grow as many veggies as I can in my climate (zone 4), I keep chickens and am rewarded with wonderful eggs, and I still struggle. I rarely visit the grocery store.. most of my food comes directly from the farmer, or hunting (I hunt). Despite all this, I do sometimes go up to the kitchen and I get nervous when I am running low on foodstuff. Sometimes I’m not sure when I can afford more. I have to sort of laugh to myself when I see some primal recipes as the ingredients are exotic and well out of my price point– I was lucky, for example, to get a gift of some coconut oil for cooking from a relative that is not so rural as I am. I still eat in a “primal” way despite all of this. I truly believe that how we choose to eat has the biggest impact on our health and the environment– but it is financially extremely stressful sometimes! This is my reality and I am not complaining, but like you, I just had to comment on the “two ipads / vacation” part of this article. Is it really fair to assume the bulk of your readership has this level of expendable income?

      Sometimes I think of my days in true poverty .. the $0.10/package ramen noodles and the scavenging of free crackers at salad bars. That is a reality for a lot of people. No doubt it leads to health problems, which are more expensive in the long run, but truly if you had asked me at the time if I wanted to eat that day or if I’d rather face health issues later in life, I would have wanted to eat. Thank goodness I am no longer in that situation, but I am fortunate. A lot of people still are.

      I want to emphasize that I DO agree with this article, but please understand that you are addressing people that are trying to eat healthy, responsible diets that come from nearly every financial background, when making flippant comments and assumptions on income. I truly wish that more of us were making the average incomes that you quoted.

      JM wrote on September 25th, 2013
  4. Wow! Of all the things you have ever written, that was the most Inspirational thing yet. Being from Canada it is very tricky to eat well. But I have found with a little bit of time and research it can be done. We have things here that still grow in the wild. Like fiddleheads, berries, and some fish we can still fish some fish for free. Like I said,”Time and research”. I found and farm that feeds their animal grass in the summer. I grow my own veggies and freeze them for winter. People ask me all the time, “Why don’t you just go to the supermarket, it’s easier”. I used to go on about it. Not anymore. Now I just say, Oh just because. I wonder when people will start to understand. To all those Groks out there. Solder on. We are looking at you from the North. And yes our bacon is still as good as ever.

    Paulie wrote on September 25th, 2013
  5. IMHO, it is pay now or pay later.
    It is just a matter of priorities.
    Do you want to feel good and live a longer disease free life? -or- Do you prefer the alternatives? Cancer, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, etc…
    It would have been interesting to see declining food costs over the last century compared with rising health costs.

    D-Tay wrote on September 25th, 2013
  6. Pretty solid economic analysis. But we must remember that correlation is not causation.

    Oh, and if you have a back yard, you can raise a lot of chickens for $7.50 a week.

    Neal wrote on September 25th, 2013
  7. Is today’s food really cheaper when you factor in all the subsidies our taxes pay? Not to mention all the tax breaks those big food corporations get?

    KD wrote on September 25th, 2013
  8. We may have higher rates of obesity and diabetes but it’s an interesting comparison that Japanese spend more for better food yet have higher rates of stomach cancer.

    Albeit their overall life expectancy is a few years longer than ours. So that begs the question, is it worth it to live only a few years longer?

    Matt wrote on September 25th, 2013
  9. With regard to the Salatin quote: unfortunately, treating cancer is free for most people, because treatment is paid for by the government or by employer paid health insurance.

    If everyone paid for their own health care, I think we’d see a lot more emphasis on eating healthy.

    Warren Dew wrote on September 25th, 2013
  10. It’s because people now spend more money on other crap today that wasn’t spent in the past: overpriced cell phone contracts and other garbage. I know many people who buy, buy, buy, and buy but they don’t use any of it. I don’t have cell phone contract. I don’t pay for cable or satellite TV. I don’t buy all the useless electronic gadgets, or the cheap China made crap that lasts for a few weeks. I don’t drive either or waste money on useless health insurance. I commute by bicycle. A good fraction of my income goes to food, and I eat a lot. A grocery store cashier thought I was a gourmet cook. I know people who have got to have an iPhone, PS3, or whatever yet they’re regularly eating ramen noodles. Sure I like to buy gadgets and stuff, but get your priorities straight.

    Jonnie Boy wrote on September 26th, 2013
  11. One part of this analysis that is hardly touched upon is that the structure of production of farming is far different than it was 100 years ago.

    I do not mean the tools used to make the food, I am referring to the change in the regulatory climate concerning the production of food.

    Food is not really produced anymore with respect to honest profits and consumer desires. The USDA pushing certain nutritional choices on the country, combined with the numerous distortionary farm subsidies (crop insurance, subsidies for certain crops vs. others, tariffs on some crops instead of others, etc.) has wildly altered what food production would otherwise look like. The most recent farm bill for example had subsidies totaling in excess of half a trillion dollars over 10 years.

    Many of the industrial food processes which destroy the capital value of lands (in the form of runoff, soil depletion, etc.) are largely subsidized through the US government with respect to crop insurance for example. If farmers knew that the failure of their crops had the potential to actually wipe them out financially, they would do much to ensure that their processes were actually sustainable. There would be more investment in areas like biodiversity (finding cheaper better ways to do it) which would pay dividends in keeping their soils healthy.

    Before we start advocating going back to the way things were, why don’t we try getting the state out of our way first with respect to telling us what we should eat and subsidizing these unhealthy foods first.

    Keith K. wrote on October 2nd, 2013
  12. I think the high price thing is just a canard. You can obviously go to the expensive local markets and buy full price high end food and express your woe at having paid more for a primal basket of food.

    I go to Costco, where grass feds and organics don’t really cost much more than their factory counterparts. My local fru-fru market (think Whole Foods on a smaller scale) operates a budget market in the next town but which has about 60% of the same offerings in meats and produce at 2/3 the price. I shop sale flyers at the ~6 local markets. There is a meat buyers club in the area that raises grass fed meats and pastured eggs, portions and freezes them and sells for an average price of <$7/lb. There is another small business a few towns over that raises their own cattle, lamb, pork and duck and produces inexpensive charcuterie from them. And I cook simple foods from scratch that don't take much longer than cooking a frozen pizza.

    My son's public elementary school waps out 'pizza crunchers' and 'cheesy breadsticks' for lunch at an average cost of about $2.40 a meal. Its all mass produced factory food with cheap ingredients. We watched a show where in France a school lunch crew prepared pumpkin soup and white fish with couscous and a cream sauce for about $1.50 a serving. Every table had a big bowl of whole fruit. I've watched the local lunch crew produce the mass produced school lunch with four people. These folks made from-scratch lunch with three.

    My meals often cost <$2 per serving, although not always grass fed at that price point.

    cfb wrote on September 25th, 2014

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

© 2016 Mark's Daily Apple

Subscribe to the Newsletter and Get a Free Copy
of Mark Sisson's Fitness eBook and more!