Cheap food: Have consumers been trained? – Feedback Friday

I commute, and most of my drive time is either spent pondering life’s happenings or listening to a book on cd. I recently have been thinking about things that I don’t have an answer to, there is no right or wrong answer/opinion, they are just random thoughts.

So I am creating a “Feedback Friday” category, where we can discuss some of these ponderings. I would love your feedback, thoughts, insights…

So here goes…

Do you think the consumer (including myself here) has been trained by retailers and marketers to seek out bargains, cut expenses, and look for deals in every aspect of their life – including wanting cheap food? In the U.S.A. we already spend less than 7% of our income on food – which is much less than most countries (Source: USDA ERS: Percent of consumer expenditures on food, alcoholic beverages…).

Think about it, the biggest shopping days of the year are after major holidays, where people can “save” so much money. Many cars are sold at the end of the year when they are marked down to make room for the new cars. And what about those 2-for-1 options at restaurants, fuel saver rewards for grocery store loyalty, loan interest rates that can be cut, or happy hour specials? I truly think we have become trained to find and seek out bargains (because we want to spend our hard-earned money on something else, right?). And we feel upset when we pay the full price for something, when we could have saved a few bucks on it.

When the weekly grocery store flyer comes in the mail, who doesn’t look to see what products are on sale? In the past month I have purchased: shrimp, chicken breasts, pork ribs, bananas, bell peppers, and apples that were marked down from their “normal” price. Nothing was wrong with them, they were just the featured items of the week, I like all of those items, and well, they were reasonably priced.

I hear a lot of people in the ag community across all sectors (conventional, organic, grass-fed, natural, etc.) talk about consumers moving to cheaper cuts of meat (i.e. hamburger vs steak) or balking at paying the price the food product is worth (because they saw it priced cheaper at another store/supplier). BUT, have consumers been trained to want cheap food? They can score deals in every other aspect of their lives, so why shouldn’t they expect to for their food? ** Note: I realize this generalization does not apply to all consumers who seek out specialty and niche products and will pay a premium for various items they deem important.

Why does that anger and frustrate us in the food production business? Shouldn’t we see that as an opportunity? I fully understand how much work and effort goes into raising and growing food, but most people do not. And when consumers see high price tags attached they think the farmer/rancher is making tons of money (which is not entirely true). Is there a way to make healthy, safe, nutritious, delicious food available at reasonable prices so they consumer feels like they are always getting a bargain? Or is food already a bargain purchase?


What do you think? I would love to hear your thought on this matter? Am I completely crazy in my thinking, or am on to something here?


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4 thoughts on “Cheap food: Have consumers been trained? – Feedback Friday

  1. Definitely agree with you about the people want cheap part. I’ve noticed that every fast food commercial on TV is not about the good food that they are offering, even though it is good stuff, it’s about “get a lot of food for *just*” and then an excellent low price we jump at. (The “just” is essential.) I don’t understand why people get upset at the thought farmers might make a lot of money. We buy Apple products all the time….With your last question about reasonable prices, it seems the innovation and labor-saving machinery we’ve come up with has made good food available for reasonable prices. There’s been pushback against these innovations, which we need to listen to, but I think there is a paradox in a consumer that wants cheap food that is high quality without using today’s practices.

    1. Hi Elise –

      Yes, the food industry is an interesting one. I have begun to think that they cannot be making money off of the food, as it is very reasonably priced – so maybe the money is made on beverages? $3 for an iced tea is pretty steep 🙂 I read an article this morning that the Silicon Valley in California is turning into the newest high tech location (all of the computer and tech folks are turning efforts toward agriculture). One of the pieces they talked about was an automatic lettuce trimming machine that will save the lettuce industry millions in labor. So as technology advances we may continue to see inexpensive food, as there are fewer labor costs… food for thought. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. I completely agree that Americans have been conditioned to seek out, purchase and eat cheap food (especially meat). “Back in the day” meat used to be a luxury – people would cook a dish and add a little meat for flavor because they didn’t have the money to eat 6 – 8 oz. portions of meat with every meal. Now, with factory farming, middle class families can have meat for every meal and large portions at that.

    Right now, I’m reading Ted Genoway’s newest book, The Chain, which chronicles the evolution of the pork production industry, focusing on Hormel. Hormel created Spam in part because Americans wanted to eat more meat but couldn’t afford to. Spam was a cheap way of doing this by using parts of the animal previously discarded. After WW2, meat consumption rose by 20% because the government became subsidizing corn – which in turn lowered meat prices (because the animals were being fed the corn).

    Since then, due to new equipment, slacker health & safety standards, corn & grain subsidies, and increased efficiency in general (at the expense of animal & worker welfare) people are used to paying less for meat and scoff at paying $7.99/lb for grassfed beef (what I currently pay) or for cutting down on their meat consumption when they’ve grown used to the volume they currently eat.

    1. Hi ATL Ethical Eats,
      I agree, meat is more readily available for people and in larger portions. Just had a visit with one of our meat scientists last week about the size of harvest ready cattle getting so big that certain cuts of meat have become too big for center of the plate (i.e. ribeyes). Million dollar question though is do we accept it and create different dishes to accommodate or do we go back to smaller cattle to make the meat cuts a little more desirable? I suppose time will tell.

      I am adding The Chain to my list of books to read. Thanks for making me aware of it.

      From what I have heard, $7.99 a pound for grass-fed is a pretty good deal. We buy beef from local producers, so I am a little out of the loop on current prices. I think ultimately people buy based on price. If it doesn’t fit into their budget they switch to a different meat protein or to a different cut of meat, hence why hamburger is leading the market right now (with historically high burger prices).

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