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

What is the Cost of Eating Healthy Foods?

foodmoneyA couple years back I highlighted a Time Magazine photo essay called “What the World Eats.” It was a fascinating visual comparison of what – and how much – representative families across the globe consumed in a given week. (Several obliging MDA readers later shared photos of their own rations.) Revealing on yet another level, the Time feature included the cost of each international family’s provisions. Expenses varied radically as you can imagine with weekly expenditures ranging from $1.23 in Chad to more than $500 in Germany. The three American families, incidentally, reported spending $159 (California), $242 (Texas), and $342 (North Carolina) each. With the talk about rising food prices looming in the headlines again, I found myself thinking about Primal food costs. Is anyone seeing the jump yet? Are Primal folks more or less affected by these periodic fluctuations? Do we, as a Primal group, really spend more than the average American on our food?

As many experts and commentators have noted over the years, Americans as a whole actually spend less on food than any other country when it comes to percentage of income. In the U.S., our average food expenses constitute about 9-12% of our income (depending on the source (1 (PDF), 2, 3) you consult). In 1949, it was 22%.

By contrast, much of Western Europe today devotes 14-17%+ of their total household budget to food. In Pakistan, families spend an average of 46% of their income on food.

On top of this, there’s the breakdown of food spent for “at-home” consumption (i.e. groceries) versus “away” (i.e. restaurants, fast food). Of the roughly 10% of income Americans spend on food, more than 40% is spent eating out (PDF). (In Belgium, for example, that number is 25%.) That means a mere 6% of our income is spent on the weekly supermarket/farmers’ market haul. When you look at it this way, we see that average at-home food costs are roughly equal to average health care costs, utilities, entertainment costs, and vehicle purchases costs. That’s not combined, folks.

A few more facts? (PDF) The groups that spend the most on food per person are the most affluent households, one-person households, and older households (55-64). (Probably no surprises there.) Among the groups that spend the least are households headed by single mothers. Larger households and those with kids spend less per person, and smaller households spend more eating out. Northeasterns and Westerners spend more on food (both total food expenditure and eating out costs) than Midwesterners and considerably more (especially in terms of at-home food) than Southerners. Affluent homes devote a lower percentage of their (more substantial) income on at-home food but a higher percentage on eating out than lower income and middle income homes.

More income, however, doesn’t necessarily translate into better food purchased. Although the amount spent on items like eggs, pork, and vegetables rose in higher income homes in Belgium, for example, in the U.S. the items prioritized with increased income were fish, cheese, and sweets. In another international comparison, higher incomes in the U.S. were associated with a higher percentage of the budget spent eating out, whereas “away” food expenses stayed fairly level as income rose in Belgian households. (PDF)

The information, I think, opens the door for a million questions and observations. Today, however, I’m interested in how the Primal community compares to the average American when it comes to expenses. The University of Iowa Extension Program offers a calculator that tells you how much you should spend on food to achieve the USDA’s Low Cost Food Plan (their version (PDF) of nutritious of course). (The department also offers calculators for “moderate” and “liberal” eating plans.) Doing the calculation for a “typical” four person family with two teenagers at home and no meals out, my number came up at about $815 per month. Does a good Primal bounty exceed the USDA’s low cost estimate?

Let’s do our own bit of informal research here. (The polls are completely anonymous.)

Approximately how much do you spend on at-home groceries (counting CSAs, meat shares, etc.) per month per person in your household?

View Results

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Additionally, how many meals, would you say, do you eat away from home each month?

View Results

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Finally, I’d love to hear your other thoughts. What’s your thinking on the income percentage picture? How do you work it? I know Primal folks bring a lot of creativity to the table when it comes to foraging for the best deals (as well as the best nutrition). How much does resourcefulness save? Have you gotten thriftier over time, or have you consciously increased your outlay for food as you’ve travelled down the Primal road, so to speak? I’ll look forward to reading your feedback. Thanks for reading today.

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 think I spend less on food since going primal. I’m on food stamps and I know I don’t go over as much now as I used to. I know I eat less food and my pantry is almost empty now. Veggies are in the fridge and meat/seafood/berries are in the freezer. The only stuff in the pantry anymore are cans of tuna, salmon and olives and a jar of salsa, a bottle of balsamic vinegar and a bottle of seltzer. Also, cans of dog food.

    Melissa wrote on March 9th, 2011
  2. Before we started producing our own raw milk, butter, pastured eggs, pork and fowl my family’s food costs where $250 per person per month. We do some gardening but our soil is very poor. There are two adults and two children in my family.

    Since we have been growing our own food our costs are down to $150 per person per month. Here are some further suggestions to help others interested in growing more of their own food:
    http://eatkamloops.org/archives/1689

    I really like your blog and ebooks. I have ordered your two books. Thank you for your simple system of exercise. I’m sure I will be recommending your exercise system.

    Cheers,
    Caroline Cooper

    Caroline Cooper wrote on March 9th, 2011
  3. The extra I spend at the grocery store is about equal to what I used to pay at the liquor store.

    Casey wrote on March 9th, 2011
  4. Weird, we’re 99.9% primal and my husband and I spend $100 or less a week on groceries, eating out, and our biweekly csa.

    mchessher wrote on March 9th, 2011
  5. I think a lot of it is regional. Food is so expensive close to NYC. We pay $1600 – $2000 a month for a family of 5 in Southern CT. There is a huge premium on organic and grass-fed/free-range foods in this area as the sellers know it’s in high demand.

    Helj wrote on March 9th, 2011
  6. My husband and I are on a very tight budget and we manage to eat a healthy low-carb/primal type diet (lots of veggies, lean meats, nuts, etc) for $25-$30 per week. And that’s for the two of combined, not per person! There are weeks I spend more when I’m stocking up on something, but we average $25-$30 per week. Granted, we live in an area where costs are lower than the majority of the country right now, but they’re still quite high compared to when we got married 3 years ago, even.

    I buy a lot of frozen vegetables because they’re cheaper (especially if you buy store brand), there’s no chance I’ll forget about them and they’ll rot which helps a lot towards reducing waste, and because they have to be ready to eat when they’re frozen, they aren’t picked long before they’re ripe like a lot of the “fresh” produce you get at a regular grocery store. We don’t have any good CSA’s or farmer’s markets nearby, so we do the best we can with what is available to us.

    I also buy meat in bulk whenever I run across a good sale, which goes a long way towards keeping costs down. I’ll be able to do that more once we get an extra freezer. We don’t often buy foods we’re just “in the mood for”, but instead go for whichever meats and vegetables are on the best sale that day. We’ve learned to not be slaves to our cravings with this method, and live quite happily that way, too (most of the time, though we do occasionally indulge, which makes living that way the rest of the time bearable).

    Someday we’ll be able to increase our budget a bit and go organic and grass-fed. But as I said before, we’re doing the best we can with what we have right now, and I think that it’s pretty good.

    We do use protein powder sometimes, which I don’t include as part of our regular grocery budget because we don’t buy it that often. We’ll spend $60 getting two giant containers from VitaCost.com, which will last us probably 6+ months.

    We also get our eggs from a friend, and pay an additional $2.50 that’s not in our grocery budget a week for those (two dozen).

    Also, we typically only eat 1-2 meals away from home per week, when my in-laws have us over for supper.

    Meg wrote on March 9th, 2011
  7. I’ve been eating paleo (a la Loren Cordain) for at least 8 years and all of my grocery store expenses average $250 a month, walnuts in bulk included. My animal protein comes from canned wild caught salmon ($2.50/#) and regular turkey that I bake ($1.40/#) – a young one a month, but I’m starting to substitute home-grown organic sprouts for some of that. I figure that home-grown is cheaper and way fresher. Most of my meals are like rich dinner salads (20 ingredients, oil & balsamic vinegar). Once I learned to balance and season them I stopped losing weight and never crave anything and never eat out.

    Kurt wrote on March 9th, 2011
  8. Primal lifestylers will feel the inflation more than the “avg.” population due to the lack of processed foods in the Primal diet. Processing keeps less of the “real” stuff out of food and so costs can be kept under control. Real food? Not so much and so the Primal community pays…

    Ed wrote on March 9th, 2011
  9. We only spend about $175 per person, but I do a lot of work checking for sales, finding coupons. I especially seek out coupons for organics and real food options, which are harder to find but more valuable. Good resources include facebook, where you can ‘like’ your favorite companies and get first notice about new deals, Whole Living and other magazines, and searching out company websites, which often have a printable coupon. I also grow a lot of my own vegetables.

    junebu8 wrote on March 9th, 2011
  10. There’s only two of us, but we spend over $500 a month, eating all but Saturday breakfast at home.

    I buy eggs from a guy near my home (Alameda, CA) for $6 a dozen and we eat a lot of them.

    Really good meat is readily available, but it’s super expensive, as is the farmer’s market, where I pay at a minimum 25 percent more to buy local produce instead of the organic who-knows-where-it-came-from produce at my grocery store.

    I got rid of satellite TV to cut my budget rather than eat lousy food. I’m 52 years old, I am incredibly healthy, and I want to stay that way.

    Karen wrote on March 9th, 2011
  11. I live in rural Nebraska in the middle of a sea of grains. Being close to the source hasn’t spared me from rising food cost. I have a great relationship with my local grocer and he has warned me that prices will be going up still. I’m buying chickens soon. I will be working on primal diet for chickens( lots of grasshoppers). We will see if we can cut the food bill by raising and growing more of our own. I have to learn to can.

    Glenn wrote on March 9th, 2011
  12. HELP! For those of you who say you spend $100/week or less per person on food, please explain how you do it! Most of us are eating organic, right? I live in New England and at my organic market hamburger is $6/pound, olive oil is $20 for a big bottle, eggs are $5/dozen, coffee is $9/pound, a container of organic Kalamata olives is $10, New York strip is $18/pound (so I don’t buy it, obviously), etc. I eat no processed food, and I still can’t get out of there for less than $300/week. What am I missing?

    A Reader wrote on March 9th, 2011
  13. I have been Primal for 10 months now, and I will say that upfront costs were high in both time and money to figure things out. And looking at my history, my costs stayed about the same. I eat out less now, and eat home cooked meals 80% of the time (although I think that % is higher lately).

    Currently I have been averaging about $570/month on Primal groceries for 1 person. (I am single, plus I eat like a beast). I average $160/month for 1 person for dining out.

    Assuming 3 meals per day and my Mint.com # of transactions for eating out the last 10 months:
    22% of my monthly cost is Eating Out @ $9.30/meal
    78% of my monthly cost is Dining In @ $7.83/meal

    So it really isn’t worth it to me to go out to eat too much. It’s not worth the overhead costs for the service while eating food of very questionable quality from a health standpoint. I equate “eating out” to short term time savings with long term financial and health consequences.

    Luis wrote on March 9th, 2011
  14. I spend only $200-$250 or so a month as I buy my meats at the supermarket, whatever is on sale, and I will usually buy it in quantity.

    But I would gladly pay 10x as much for the results I have gotten, I look and feel 20 years younger (that’s actually a bit of a lie, I was never this strong when I was younger) … if you could put that into a pill how much would people be willing to pay for it?

    $2,000 a month? %5,000 a month? $20,000 a month?

    As an added bonus I have learned how to cook, which I never thought would happen. Though it is true that the only thing I have learned to cook is meat, lol.

    rob wrote on March 9th, 2011
  15. I live in Canada, and in a far northern location. My family consists of two adults, and five children (one a nursling, no table foods yet). We spend $1200 per month, which is about $200 less on home-food than before going primal/paleo. This amount is about average for a family of two adults, two children up here, anecdotally.

    This will be reduced by half beginning late summer, as long as our garden produces and our animals do too.

    Since last summer, we no longer eat out, but zero was not an option on the poll. We live rurally, and I don’t like paying for substandard food, not to mention the fuel costs to travel. If there were a primal/paleo restaurant, we would eat out probably once/month. When we used to eat out, we spent about $100 once or twice/month for our family.

    I am always shocked at how little food costs in the U.S. In a few major cities here, there is enough volume and competition to make prices more reasonable, but otherwise, its just expensive.

    My frustration is more to do with quality though. If I’m going to pay $4 for a head of broccoli, I am very upset to discover (by trying to lacto-ferment it) that it’s dead, completely devoid of living lacto-baccili. If those little critters, which are ubiquitous (save for on dead veggies) can’t live on it, I don’t want to put it in my body. I may as well eat dirt or wood; it would be just as nutritious.

    imogen wrote on March 9th, 2011
  16. I cow pool to help keep the cost down and get pastured beef slaughtered in a clean local (very small) facility

    Garett Renon wrote on March 9th, 2011
  17. Add 0 to polling options for – “Additionally, how many meals, would you say, do you eat away from home?”

    We eat 0 meals that were not made at home.

    Emily wrote on March 9th, 2011
  18. Food prices in the U.K have rocketed. since going primal (Just me and my daughter-havnt convinced the men yet!) As we’re buying tons more fruit,veg and meat our weekly bill had doubled to £200 for a household of 4. We cant afford organic and as we only eat Kosher meat we cant get grass fed so we’re eating the usual fare from the shops. Its very prohibitive.

    Cinders wrote on March 9th, 2011
  19. we are a fiamly of 4, me and my husband my 17 year old and are 3 year old. Are food bill has went up since going primal,but we started in late august, I think it will go down in the summer when the farmers markets are back open here in ohio. Im gonna stock up do a lot of canning and freezing of produce:)

    Jennifer wrote on March 9th, 2011
  20. buying grass fed and pastured meats is definitely less expensive when you buy direct from the farmer, with the added benefit that you know where it comes from. the farmer makes more on it that way too. i’m lucky that here in central ny we’re surrounded by farms, so we have lots of options, and we also have a great farmers market on saturdays. i purchased a whole grass-fed cow with 3 other friends and we are picking it up from the butcher on friday. it comes out to under $3 per pound in the package.

    Gail wrote on March 9th, 2011
  21. I have to add to this simply because I have to state it is a fact that my families lack of going 100% healthy is due to money. When i lived in America it was easier to buy healthier foods, but here in Sweden food is INSANELY expensive. Organic food is even more. There is not a variety of quality meats here as well. Meat is very rare and to find Organic would be like finding a needle in a hay stack. Also living in the country side of Sweden does not make it any easier because then food is ever higher priced than its normal REALLY high prices and then to buy organic that is if you can find it is taking a huge chunk out of our budget. right now I am an at home mother with three young children while studying Swedish and my husband is also in school. We have a extremely tight budget, living paycheck to paycheck, hardly making it as it is. So to spend an extra 2000 to 3000 Swedish kronor is out of the question for my family. We tried it when our economy was better and when it gets better again we will go back to it. But the “average income” family going healthy is not too hard on the wallet. But for a poor family it is just impossible. Why is it the poorer you are the poorer you eat? I think the world forgets that others sometimes struggle financially. I mean REALLY struggle but they also want to have the right to eat healthy as well.

    Uggla wrote on March 9th, 2011
  22. I struggle not to feel like a yuppie sometimes, buying local and organic foods. Local can definitely be LESS expensive than conventional, industrial produce trucked in from California and Mexico, but my wife and I have to stay savvy with coupons to save money on organic foods. I do think it’s worth it, but it is an adjustment. I’ve been enculturated with inexpensive food. Healthy, sustainable, nutrient-rich foods are more expensive right now, but we’re learning: CSAs, Food 4 All (the weeknight dinner club we’re a part of; we cook once and pick up food the other four nights, farmer’s markets, and gardening.

    Austin L. Church wrote on March 9th, 2011
  23. Why do you assume your readers are American, Mark? You do know that the internet works around the world, right?

    John Bull wrote on March 9th, 2011
  24. I’m not sure I notice an increase in spending. Since going primal, I’m a lot more attentive to things like buying fruits/veggies in season, so that seems to balance out the slight increase in cost from buying higher quality food and avoiding cheap fillers like rice/bread.

    Another thing that I do is just watch the sales. If chicken is on sale this week, I’ll eat chicken. If it’s ground beef that’s on sale, that’s what I buy.

    Also, eliminating soda and candy helps to balance out the cost of buying natural/free range stuff.

    AmyMac703 wrote on March 9th, 2011
  25. oops. I thought you meant per week, but it’s per month. I spend about $500/month, but that includes expensive wines and coffee. I blanch buying grass fed beef, but I make stews and freeze them, and that extends my dollar a little bit.

    kapo wrote on March 9th, 2011
  26. I have no idea why ‘studies’ always say that food costs less in the South. I’ve lived in the NW, the NE, the SW, and the rocky mountain West (and now the South) and food here in the South is by far more expensive than anywhere I’ve lived except NYC. Some items (like milk, eggs, and meat) will be twice as expensive as the prices I paid in the West.

    So, this economy has actually been good for us Southerners because, though prices are rising, it is causing competition and I am seeing lower prices on food items (sale prices) than I’ve seen in five years.

    So…don’t know what it all means, but I’m completely aware what a blessing it is to spend a small percentage of my income on food.

    Sarah wrote on March 9th, 2011
  27. I was just having this conversation this morning with some other moms who believe they can’t shop in Wholefoods because it is too expensive.

    I spend an max of $175 a month on food per person in our family (incl. 2 x 11yo boys.)

    When I switched to Wholefoods from a ‘regular’ grocery store a few years ago (because I was concerned the chemikills in the food I was buying were adversely affecting my son,) I spent no more money than I had previously.

    We were very cash strapped at the time and I was very concerned that I would spend a fortune at WF so I systematized my shopping. I planned meals a week ahead, made a shopping list of items to make those meals and bought only those on the list.

    I also set a monthly budget and if I overspent earlier in the month, I would get creative and use up what was in my freezer and pantry rather than buy yet more food.

    When I went primal 6 months ago, I spent no more money because I bought things like eggs instead of boxes of cereal.

    And as I’ve slowly moved everyone over to primal, I’m actually spending less than I was. We simply eat less food because fats and meat fill us up, we’ve cut out dessert and carb cravings affect us less often.

    I could probably cut costs even more if I were to use a CSA or shop at a farmers market but my main point is that it doesn’t have to cost a fortune to eat well, or primally, or at Wholefoods.

    Alison Golden wrote on March 9th, 2011
  28. I spend over $500 a month on groceries alone for a family of 3. We RARELY ever go out to eat.
    The food bills are killing us, but I know how important it is to eat whole foods, not processed. But I am not sure how long I can keep it up!
    It is $1.99 for a box of crackers and $5.99 for a bag of raw nuts. You can get 10 boxes of pasta for $10 – or one package of meat for $10.
    I know it is worth the extra mony, but after just having my second child, and deciding to stay hom – living off of on income makes the 10 boxes of pasta a lot more appealing. :(

    Gina wrote on March 9th, 2011
  29. I have an extremely tight budget and live in (Sweden) where organic food is rare to find and 4 times the price than it is in America. When I lived in America it was easier to shop at food coops and eat organic even on a tight budget. But here is just doesn’t happen. Sweden is known and prides its self on healthy living, good medical care, and a higher standard of living, but the truth is far from that. Healthy food is EXTREMELY expensive! Its very shocking the costs of meat in this country and that’s is just talking about the regular price of meat.

    Well I guess for the middle to upper middle class and higher healthy living is just a small sacrifice int he budget. But if you are poor or living paycheck to paycheck it’s going to be extremely hard for you to eat organic.
    Shame….

    Uggla wrote on March 9th, 2011
    • It’s a wild guess, but maybe there are less options for organic meat in Europe because “mainstream” meat is better quality…?

      Luce wrote on January 21st, 2014
  30. i think i spend around $600 a month for 2 people, which is a lot more than i would like to be doling out. but i can say this, i feel better physically and i am a happier person.

    i’ve been on the cusp of losing my job for over a month (public defender in a county run office that is just as desperately in debt as every other corner of the country) and my parents worry about the amount of money i spend on groceries. but you make sacrifices where you feel you can spare it — i’m just not willing to sacrifice my health. i’ll be better able to handle the stress of being unemployed if i can keep my body in line.

    Samantha wrote on March 9th, 2011
  31. I knew the cost of food has certainly been increasing. However, until this posting, I had purposely avoided computing the monthly totals. Ignorance is bliss, right?

    As a single guy, I spend right at $600 per month. This amount represents slightly over 10% of my monthly gross income and is spent only at the local organic supermarket and at local farm stands.

    Since I work from home, I am fortunate to be able to prepare nearly all my own meals. Just for variety, I may eat at a restaurant twice per month. There are restaurants where I live that use organic, locally-grown ingredients, but I actually prefer to cook at home.

    Rent is my biggest expense. Food is second. I still sometimes get “sticker shock” at the grocery checkout, when the total surpasses $200. However, I’m not too bothered by it anymore, because I know that NOT eating well will cost a LOT more.

    So, I consider my food expenditures as an investment in myself. Hopefully, it will be a hedge against disease and the higher costs of being sick.

    Asheville, NC wrote on March 9th, 2011
  32. I’m a farmer who went primal after being exposed to the concept by my paleo Crossfit customers. I can in no uncertain terms tell consumers that when farmers raise their prices, it’s because their costs are rising. We have to feed our livestock hay in the winter since grass doesn’t grow in the northeast year round. When the price of fuel rises, the cost of hay rises. Over the last five years, the cost of hay has DOUBLED. Additionally, thanks to increased food safety regulations, butchering costs have also risen significantly. My USDA processor has increased their fees by nearly 40%. I’m not going to get rich doing what I do, but I AM going to contribute to the health of other, my community and the earth while I’m eating very, very well.

    Sandra wrote on March 9th, 2011
  33. And now for something completely different: a question totally unrelated to this post. I’d really appreciate any insight, though.

    I am a 24-year-old female entertaining the idea of going primal. Problem is, I don’t know if I have the willpower to commit to it. I am crazy about carbs. I was reading somewhere that if you do the low carb thing for a while (I have the wherewithal to do that at the very least!) but then revert back to old eating habits you can experience ill effects, i.e. weight gain. Is there any truth to this?

    Thanks, and I do apologize for this being entirely off topic.

    Taryn wrote on March 9th, 2011
  34. The results will be a little skewed because after I voted, I realized it said per person not per family.
    Another thing, there should be a less than once per month category for eating out.

    cathyx wrote on March 9th, 2011
  35. It costs more but it keeps the doctor bills down so much that I feel we wind up saving money!

    Primal Palette wrote on March 9th, 2011
  36. In my household we definitely spend more on food now that we are Primal but we have offset the cost by eliminating items as well: alcohol, soda, eating out (keep it to a minimum or 1-2 times a week if that), junk food at movies, down grading cable package since out doing things instead of TV, packing lunches to work etc.

    So in the end it all balances out.

    Maggie wrote on March 9th, 2011
  37. This may be a good whole other posting in itself but what are some good online sources for Paleo food that people have found, and trust. I have been looking to buy meat and other supplies in bulk but don’t even know where to begin.

    james barlow wrote on March 9th, 2011
  38. I don’t buy things in bags or boxes…ie, all of my food is whole, fresh. If my body needs it, and I can stomach it, I buy and eat it. There are ways to save on “food”. Most people spend $150/month on foo-foo coffees at places like Starbucks…not including the tip. It was hard to break my cocoa/mocha habit, but quitting put a lot of money back into my wallet, and calmed down my gut as well.

    Cj wrote on March 9th, 2011
  39. I spend more on food since going Primal because I used to eat all my meals at taco bell.

    Since going primal the quality of food that I eat has improved drastically, I can’t even stand to eat at restaurants anymore. I would rather just wait until another time to eat than to waste money on food of questionable character and origins. It’s not some iron will either my cravings have changed (for the better) since taking the leap.

    I find that supplements such as whey protein and vitamins have added costs as well to my food budget but it is all worth it 100% for more reasons than I can list in one post.

    olin wrote on March 9th, 2011
  40. Fascinating topic on many levels. This discussion needs to be incorporated into the national healthcare reform debate. Food prices in the US are quite low (I live in Europe), largely the result of subsidies to ‘big ag’ companies. But what is the real cost? While everyone likes to protect the wallet, the real cost is revealed later as our society grapples with epidemic obesity, related disease and fees to pay for healthcare. Is the general public willing to pay more now in order to pay less later? Thanks Mark for encouraging constructive dialogue.

    Ken wrote on March 9th, 2011

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