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What Does Your Diet Cost?

There are several ways to look at diets. People usually eat what they can afford to buy. This situation has led to abuses all over the world. Eventually it leads to farmers and companies offering cheaper and cheaper food to make profits. What needs to be broken is the idea that food has some inherent value. Another misconception exists in thinking that food is somehow exempt from the profiteering thing. It's not. As a matter of fact, food started accounting, taxation, theft, robbery, smuggling and exploitation. The history of food is a terrible one of slavery of people and animals, of destruction of the earth and waste of resources. I won't go into this here, but I will look at the three ways in which your diet costs you. It takes land, it takes work, and it takes brains.

Let me explain a little bit. Usually, the more land you can use, the less expensive you can offer your produce. This is because machine-farmed land takes more area than intensely managed biodynamic methods. It's less expensive to put in a large irrigation system and grow a lot of food, than to put in an irrigation system and grown half as much food. A farmer managing a 1000 acres at $10 an acre profit makes less than a farmer managing 100,000 acres at $1 an acre profit.

The more man-hours invoved in a product, usually the more it costs. French fries in a restaurant cost more than a potato that you prepare yourself. A farmer saves money even having to buy herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers because the man hours to hand-pick bugs, apply compost, or pull weeds is saved. Where man-hours are not so costly, there is not as much cost to the crop owners, such as in countries where labor is cheap. However, brains do cost. The race to develop new pesticides as the bugs become habituated to the old poisons requires great amounts of money.

Yet most of food cost after a point is perceived value. Advertising firms spend a great deal of money enhancing the value of food. The way food is packaged can make it worth more even if the packaging costs less. The way food is displayed can make it "worth" more. Apples are waxed to make them look shiny, something that people perceive adds value to the apple. Lights and music in the store make the shopping experience more pleasant than the warehouse looks of the cheap "value discount" stores. A little bit of something in a fancy jar seems to be worth more than a lot of something in a plastic bin. Food in a restaurant with candles and tablecloths cost more than food from a cart on the street, despite the overhead.

Grocers have to cater to the people who want the same ol' thing and those people who will pay more money for something new, just because it is new. A new package and a recipe change will get a rush of sales, but sometimes the old product demand will bring back the old package and product. Think about yourself: do you long for the same thing, day in and day out? Or do you grab at something new to try it out and see if it's better? If you are in the latter category, try to keep a lot of variety in your pantry.

Let's take a look again at our three "average" people. If they were stuck on their own, how much space and man hours and such would they need for their food? For those of you who have been curious about farming, this might be fun to look at.


Food Product Average AdultVegetarian MaleRaw Food Female
Total Pounds Consumed 227017051345
Meat, Dairy 11238540
Nuts/Grains/Legumes 210930115
Fruits, Veggies 7116501170
Total Fats (added) 683020
Total Sweeteners 158100
Total Land Needed 150,000 sq ft60,000 sq ft5000 (includes pond)

I'm not going to go into the hidden expenses here--that's a book unto itself! But this bottom line should jump out at you. I'm going to break down these diets and you will quickly see that the huge jump in square feet is because of the cow products. Dairy is much more efficient than beef and poultry eggs more efficient than chicken meat. If you are at all concerned about saving the planet, you could do one thing: stop eating beef. You could eat chicken, eggs and cheese and still save millions of acres on feed for cattle who will be killed. Also only 60 percent of the cow is used. While much goes into leather products, glue, dog food and such, quite a bit winds up in the trash, or in the river. The next time someone asks you what you are doing to save the planet and you don't eat four pounds of beef a week, tell them so. Tell them that you saved about 60,000 square feet, or roughly 1 acre, of cropland for some other purpose. If you want to eat beef on occaision, eat only range-fed beef or bison (buffalo). The grain used to feed lot-raised beef is costly. Range-fed cattle are healthier and they have a wider diet. Their fecal matter and urine goes back into the field rather than goes into the huge amount of waste from a feed-lot. The lives of the people who raise the beef are better as well. Someone loses money, but the pressure on land is going to rise, so we have to make better choices. A cow raised in Idaho or Colorado is better than the acreage used for feed in Iowa that gets more water and could be used to give forth something less wasteful.

A Look at Meats and Animal Products

A note in looking at this table: the food value is not calories, but the actual vitamins/minerals that are in the product in a 3 ounce serving. An egg is 2 ounces, a glass of milk (1 cup) is 8 ounces, a normal piece of chicken is about 6 ounces, and a hamburger is about 3 ounces of meat. This should give you a rough idea of what 3 ounces actually is. Use this column for comparison--it's too early to try to decide if meat is the best food value for nutrition, etc. I'm using a Completeness Score from the Nutrient Balance Indicator (TM) by www.nutritiondata.com (a great site--I highly recommend them.)

The land and annual produce is actual unless there are more than one animal needed. For instance a cow gives more than one person can use, but a chicken does not. I have not divided the cow or her milk in this chart, but you will note in the last column how many people can eat from that cow on the average diet per year.


Animal Product Yearly Land Use (sq ft)Annual Produce (lbs) Food Value (3 oz)Average DietEaters per/year
1 Beef Cow 653,400730 in 2 years3466 lbs5
1 Pig 28,000140 in 6 months2751 lbs2.8
Lamb 28,00045 in 4 months331 pound45
10 Chickens 35005 lbs/50 days2154 lbs1
1turkey 80015 lbs/2 months3314 lbs1
2 Tuna Fish ocean ?7bs/1 year4415 lbs1
1 Milk Cow 653,40022,000/year45780 lbsCalf-18,000 5 people
1 Cheese Cow 653,400400/year3530 lbs13
255 Eggs (1 chicken) 350 eggs150/year5242 lbs1.2

It may seem strange to you to start a book on cooking and gardening here. But gardening books assume that you are growing, at most, ten percent of your diet in your yard. This means that they can easily talk about growing a vegetable patch that gives 200 square feet of growing space for every family member. That will supply your vegetable needs--if you are average.

© 2008, A.R. Stone

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