The law of averages and cheap food

Two news items caught my eye recently and I don’t know if I can make them connect, but I know they each speak to us in agriculture.

Neither is a big surprise. The first headline proclaimed, “Americans look to spend less on food.” The second, “New U.S. Census to reveal major shift: No more Joe Consumer.”

Let’s talk about the first item. The global market research firm Synovate surveyed food shoppers around the world and discovered Americans are the ones most focused on price. Almost eight out of 10 U.S. consumers said they would switch one food brand for another if it were a better deal. (Guilty.)

I’m sure the current economy climate influenced that response, as the survey also found out that 39% of Americans say they’re spending less on food than they did 12 months ago.

What saddens, but doesn’t surprise, me is that most people, including 65% of Americans, still think grocery items are over-priced and should be cheaper.

Over-priced? The U.S. has the least expensive food supply in the world (we spend 10 percent of our income on food consumed at home, compared to 14 percent in Japan, 26 percent in China and 55 percent in Indonesia).

To be correct, however, food prices have steadily increased in the last 30 years (but then, what hasn’t?). Since 1982, food prices have risen 128 percent, compared to the general economy’s climb of 102 percent. But — and it’s a big but — the prices farmers receive have gone up only 34 percent.

And if you can digest more numbers, in 1980, farmers received 31 cents from the consumer food dollar; today, that’s dropped to 19 cents.

What’s wrong with this picture?

No wonder more and more farmers are trying to find ways to market directly to consumers.

Which brings me to the second item: There is no more ‘average’ consumer.

I don’t know that there ever was an average consumer, but we used to be a little more homogenous in our makeup and our thinking and our demographics. Now, the U.S. population of 309 million is all over the place. And that’s OK.

Unless you’re a marketer or someone who sells to consumers.

“The average American has been replaced by a complex, multidimensional society that defies simplistic labeling,” writes demographics expert Peter Francese in 2010 America, a new white paper released by Advertising Age.

One example? The U.S. Census, which will start its next count in the spring, will list 14 options to define household relationships.

Francese adds that “minorities are the new majority.” In Texas and California, what we traditionally think of as the majority (white non-Hispanics) is the minority. In fact, in the nation’s 10 largest cities, “no racial or ethnic category describes a majority of the population.” The rural U.S. has seen similar trends.

I guess what doesn’t change is that all these people, regardless of race, religion or creed, basically want the same thing: good ol’ Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Food, water, shelter; safety; to love and to belong. It’s only when these first needs are met that we develop other needs like self-esteem and finally, self-actualization.

So we come back full circle to food.

Our most basic need — we can’t alive without it — and we want to spend less money to buy it.

About the Author

Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell has been with the paper since 1985, serving as its editor since 1989. Raised on a farm in Holmes County, she is a graduate of Kent State University.You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/scrowell and follow Farm and Dairy at http://twitter.com/farmanddairy. You can also find her on Google+ and Facebook. More Stories by Susan Crowell

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