Can that be right?

Tonight I made one of my favorite cheap-and-easy dinners–fettucini with an uncooked sauce made of chunky peanut butter, soy sauce, rice vinegar, garlic, red pepper flakes, and chives. Mix it up, dump the hot pasta on top and toss. Add a salad of lettuce leaves with vinaigrette. Eat!

Earlier today in a New York Times op-ed piece, I had stumbled upon a startling comparison of the amount of money people in various countries spend on food consumed at home. Americans invest a total of 6.8% of their household spending on this kind of food. Compare this to the figure for Algeria, where they spend 43.8%! Or Morocco, 40.3%; Egypt, 38.3%; Tunisia, 35.8%.

So I went off to the Web to see what I could find out about spending on food in countries that look more like the US. According to Eurostat, in the European Union as a whole, people spend about about 12.7% of their household income on food and non-alcoholic beverages.  But it varied widely from country to country; in Romania the figure was 44.2 %, compared to 9.3% for Luxembourg. So, the richer you are, the smaller the share of your income that you spend on food. But even among the world’s richest countries, nobody spends as little as Americans do.

A few days ago, also in the New York Times, Mark Bittman described our American diet as “unhealthful and unsafe.” You get what you pay for? Well, yes, but that’s not close to all of it.

When I was growing up in a small town in Texas, my family ate well, but plainly, and the atmospherics were that paying too much attention to what was on your plate was . . . unseemly. Effete. More or less in the same category as not knowing how to change a tire. My mother was quick to adopt innovations like canned ham and Potato Buds. We were sturdy people, by God, and we would eat sturdy food, without fuss.

Lately, like many others, I have been discovering the pleasures of the garden, the kitchen, and the table. As I think more about food, I want to prepare it with fresher ingredients, fewer additives, and more humanely produced animal products. I want to buy my food from local producers down the road or across the way. Inevitably, these choices are driving up my food bill. But never, ever will the percentage of money I spend on food reach the stratospheric levels of around 40% of all my expenditures.

Food is the great irreducible. You can put off expenditures on clothes; you can do without a car; you can move in with family or friends. But if you don’t eat, you won’t live. And the picture is fast coming into focus that more and more people around the world are struggling to put food on their tables.

I don’t know how to resolve these conflicts. I can eat lower on the food chain, and be healthier for it. I can seek out organizations devoted to building global food security when I decide how to allocate my giving. But it looks like we are going to have to attack this problem on a much larger, more coordinated scale, and soon. Look for future updates as I dig into what is being done, close to home as well as globally.

(The 2/5/11 New York Times article I began with, “The Kindling of Change” by Charles Blow, pulled together a number of  statistics suggesting the roots of the protests spreading across North Africa and the Middle East. Mark Bittman’s article, “A Food Manifesto for the Future,” appeared Wednesday 2/2 as a kickoff piece for his new column. You can find him at nytimes.com/opinionator.)

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