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FOOD SUPPLY, FOOD SHORTAGES

scale department stores and shops catering to consumers aspiring to culinary sophistication.

The prosperity at the end of the twentieth century, combined with the largely benign condition of inflation, led to an effective overall reduction in the portion of dis- posable income spent on food in the United States. At the close of the 1990s, U.S. households were spending 10.4 percent of disposable personal income on food, down from 11.4 percent in 1990. Household spending in 1999 was greater in four expenditure categories—med- ical care, housing and home expenses, transportation, and services—than it was in the category of food, for one sim- ple reason: with each additional dollar of income, the share of family income that must be spent on food is less than the share from the previous dollar. As real income rises, more family income is available for other needs. Wealthier families allocated far less by half than 10 per- cent of disposable income to food, while families at the lower end of the low-income category were spending up to 40 percent of their disposable income on food.

The Immutable Economics of Food

Due to wartime shortages, the National Live Stock and Meat Board in Chicago issued this 1944 booklet on tips for making the most of meat purchases during the national emergency. This included a pledge of the American homemaker: “I want to do my bit and more, to help America win the war.” ROUGH-

WOOD COLLECTION.

Regardless of the marketing ingenuity of food processors and supermarkets, or the culinary talent of restaurant chefs, the food system cannot escape the reality of the in- flexible economics of food. The typical stomach can hold only a finite amount of food. After a certain point, the stomach becomes inelastic; the same is true of the eco- nomics of food. To put a finer point on the observation, an individual who has not eaten for twenty-four hours may be willing to pay twice the asking price for a tempt- ing meal, but, once the meal has been eaten, few indi- viduals will pay a dime more to consume the same meal immediately.

one of every four dollars spent to eat out. Only a decade earlier, in comparison, one dollar in ten was spent on restaurant meals. Wages and employment in the food supply system rose, all in response to the search for con- venience.

Consumers were working more, earning more, and willing to pay more for convenience and for appliances like the microwave, which made convenience foods more convenient. By the end of the twentieth century, only one in three U.S. consumers said their food bud- get was a primary consideration in food purchases, while the other two said service and convenience topped their list. Oddly, as convenience became the hallmark of the U.S. food system in the twenty-first century, more space and attention was being given to kitchens in new home designs, especially as the size and amenities in homes increased. In addition, kitchen utensils with as much decorative appeal as utility were being featured in up-

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Food also obeys the law of inelasticity. The need for food is constant, and people who are starving will pay al- most anything, do anything, to get enough to eat. Sur- vival depends on a minimum intake of food, averaging between 1,800 to 2,400 calories per person daily, that will also ensure adequate levels, or stores, of essential oils, fats, vitamins, and minerals. Humans can, and do, sur- vive on less, but at a physical and physiological price mea- sured in stunted growth and susceptibility to chronic and infectious diseases. When food is scarce, food prices will increase; the more scarce food becomes, the more rapid the escalation in food prices.

When food is plentiful, in contrast, people will not pay more to obtain greater amounts of food than they need. Farmers who harvest more food than can be easily sold will be paid a substantially lower price for all the wheat, maize, rice, or hogs and cattle they sell in the mar- ket than they would receive without the excess produc- tion. When each farmer produces only slightly more one year than the last, the combined surplus can be so large as to devastate the income of all farmers, a condition that plagued U.S. agriculture for much of the twentieth cen- tury and now looms as a global condition. Farmers can-

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