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Noting that Americans are "blessed with bargains at the grocery store," state Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples writes that "right now, on average, Americans spend less than 10 percent of their disposable income on food."
"Compare that to folks in Mexico, who spend 22 percent, China, 28 percent, and Russia, 37 percent," he says in an op-ed column posted on the San Antonio Express-News website Dec. 29.
Bryan Black, a Texas Department of Agriculture spokesman, initially pointed us to the U.S. Department of Agriculture website to buttress Staples' claim.
A table created by the USDA's Economic Research Service outlines the proportion of an individual's disposable personal income spent on food from 1929 through 2009, when individual adults and families reportedly spent 9.5 percent of their total disposable personal income on food — 5.5 percent eating in and 3.9 percent eating out.
According to the table, the percentage of disposable income spent by Americans on food has dropped over the decades. In 1929, it was 23.4 percent. Since 2000, the share of such income spent on food has run between 9.4 and 9.9 percent.
Every year, the Economic Research Service uses data primarily from the the U.S. Department of Commerce and U.S. Census, which collects data from all retailers that sell food, to measure total food expenditures in the United States and estimates how much food is eaten at and away from home. (Go here for more details about the USDA's food-expenditure number-crunching.)
Ephraim Leibtag, a USDA senior economist, told us the percentage of income individuals in the U.S. spend on food has dropped because "as income and wealth rises in a given country, less of that income needs to be spent on food in percentage terms."
Black also pointed us to a July 2006 article on Salem-News.com, a website that describes itself as the "most unique and interesting news group in the nation" and "the first exclusively Web news organization in the world." The article lists "the percentage of disposable income spent on food at home" in various countries, statistics the article attributes to the USDA. According to the article, consumers in Mexico spent 21.7 percent of their disposable income on food at home, in Russia, 36.7 percent and in China, 28.3 percent.
But we noticed that these statistics for foreign countries, which aren't dated in the article, focus only on money spent on food prepared at home, whereas the USDA data also accounts for money spent eating out. The statistics on the Salem-News website are also at least three years older than the USDA's most recent measure of how much disposable income Americans spend on food.
We followed up with the Texas Agriculture Department about these distinctions. Black said in an e-mail: "USDA's ERS numbers are constantly changing, so there are many different sets of statistics floating around."
He also sent USDA data comparing U.S. food costs to those of other countries. In 2005, according to the ERS table cited by Black, food accounted for 7 percent of total household expenditures for goods and services, incurred by U.S. households. For households in Mexico, food expenses were 24 percent, Russia, 33 percent and China, 36 percent.
Separately, USDA economist Annette Clauson noted more recent data comparing the same food costs. In 2009, U.S. households spent 6.9 percent. In Mexico, households spent 24 percent; Russia, 28 percent and China, 32.9 percent.
Those figures look similar to the ones cited by Staples when he compared how much of their disposable income American households spend on food versus how much households in other countries spend. But it appears that the USDA only looks at total household expenditures — not disposable income — when comparing relative food costs in foreign countries. That's not an apples-to-apples comparison.
Still, available indicators support the thrust of Staples's statement, which is that Americans spend less than 10 percent of their disposable income on food, and the other three countries spend two and three times as much.
We rate his statement Mostly True.
San Antonio Express-News, Op-ed by Todd Staples: Groundwater rights should stay with landownership; Texans access to abundant, affordable food depends on it, Dec. 29, 2010
U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, Food CPI and Expenditures: Food Expenditure Tables, last updated Sept. 8, 2010, accessed Jan. 3, 2010
Salem-News.com, Americans spend less than 10 percent of disposable income on food, July 19, 2006
U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, Food CPI and Expenditures: 2009 Table 97, updated Sept. 8, 2010
U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, Food CPI and Expenditures: Measuring the ERS Food Expenditure Series, updated March 26, 2007
E-mail interview with Birgit Mead, Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Jan. 4, 2010
E-mail interview with Ephraim Leibtag, senior economist, Food Markets Branch, Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Jan. 4, 2010
E-mail interview with Annette Clauson, agricultural economist, Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Jan. 4, 2010
E-mail interview with Bryan Black, assistant commissioner for Communications, Texas Department of Agriculture, Jan. 4, 2010
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