This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

I have friends that live in the far suburbs, and spend quite a bit of time in their cars.  They each drive seperate cars far away to work in the morning after dropping their kids off for school in a different direction, drive far for groceries, etc.  Financially they just get by every month, and going grocery shopping with them at a big box store is a significantly different experience than going shopping with my wife at Trader Joe’s or the Met (both an easy walk from our house).  I never thought twice about this difference – they make less than us and have more kids, and I’ve certainly had to make due with simple and cheap groceries at different points in my life.  But today I saw this graph:

Notice the size of the food wedge next to the transportation wedge for the average American family.  Pinching pennies on large blocks of low-quality cheese is less effective than just driving a bit less.  If they had only settled for a smaller home (for the same price) in a dense area, it would have had a much larger effect than years and years of choosing low-quality food.  I know people love their yards.  But I don’t think most people realize they’re making a choice between more yard space and, well, everything else in the world they love but costs money.

3 Replies to “How to buy better cheese”

  1. Great graph. Food (particularly, farmer’s markets) was one of the major reasons we decided staying in the city was a high priority. I remember one friend noting that we regularly buy things like salmon and fresh free range eggs and said, “Wow, you eat like rich people!” I don’t think I had the presence of mind to say, “… and we have those thousands of dollars because our life doesn’t require a car.”

  2. Congratulations, you’re the quote of the day in Jeff Wood’s Other Side of the Tracks today.

    You’re correct about the trade-off between driving and food affordability. As a broke student, I still eat pretty well since I walk or bike to the store and don’t own a car.

    As Don Shoup discusses in The High Cost of Free Parking, I wonder the extent that food prices vary between a typical big box store with abundant free parking and a more urban grocery store or market. The free parking would be hidden in the cost of groceries, although the grocery store in a more dense area might have higher prices for other reasons (E.g., a Whole Foods in Tucson, AZ is cheaper than a Von’s in LA.)

  3. [Francis] Awesome. Of course I would have guessed my more quotable comments in the past day would have been over here*, but I’ll take the connecting cheese with cars quote as a compliment.

    Regarding sprawl shopping vs. urban stores, I think it would be tricky to really compare the two kinds of grocery store. The organic free-range eggs you’d buy at a Whole Foods may carry a lot more value and be more expensive to produce than the cage-farm eggs you’d get from a Von’s. Maybe if WF carried a large block of low-grade oily cheese we’d know for sure. ;-)

    * That’s right I came up with both “If you can’t see past today then tomorrow you’ll be stuck in yesterday.” and “There are many more people in cities than on mountaintops.” in the same comment. Some days I’m a regular Confucius.

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