For anyone who’s lived elsewhere and tracks a household food budget, this may not come as a surprise: Mainers spend about 34 percent more to put food on the table than the typical American.
Mainers spend a lot on food – according to the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis, more per capita than residents of other states, with the exception of Vermont and Alaska.
The BEA recently reported that Mainers spent $3,736 per capita in 2014 on what the bureau calls food and beverages purchased for off-premises consumption, otherwise known as groceries. Vermonters spent $4,104 per person and Alaskans spent $3,924, while New Hampshire followed just behind Maine at $3,635. The national average is $2,780.
Lifelong Mainers may not notice the difference, but folks who move away are conscious of the higher prices.
“My niece, who lives in Ohio, when she comes to visit, she can’t believe it,” said Gloria Quatrano of South Portland. “She says everything costs more here than it does down there.”
While no one is challenging the veracity of the federal data, there is no consensus among food analysts contacted by the Maine Sunday Telegram about why Mainers spend so much more on food. Speculation ranges from consumer choice (we simply enjoy food more and are willing to spend more on it); food costs more here (Mainers paid 11 percent more than the national average on nine staples tracked by the federal government); and regional tastes (a larder full of New England fish and seafood will cost more than a comparable cupboard of beef or chicken).
But for Mark Lapping, all it takes is a quick glimpse at a map for a clue as to why Maine is near the top.
“We’re at the end of the food pipeline,” said Lapping, a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Southern Maine who has studied food issues in the state and region.
Lapping said all the states in New England have to import a fair amount of their groceries because most of the food processing in the U.S. is done outside the region.
All six states, except Rhode Island, exceeded the national average of $2,780 in per capita food spending, and Rhode Island came in under that figure by just $5.
It’s not just that a lot of the food is grown elsewhere in the country and then shipped to the Northeast. Lapping said that the number of farms in both New England as a whole and in Maine has been in a long-term slump, although the state has experienced a rebound in recent years.
Most of the food produced in the region is sent elsewhere for processing, he said. So, add to the cost of the food the cost of transportation to the processor and then more to bring it back from the processor, and the result is higher prices attributable just to moving the food around.
“Almost everything goes out of state for processing and then we buy it back,” with only a few exceptions, such as seafood, Lapping said.
Ephraim Leibtag, the deputy director for research at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said there’s more to it than that.
“It’s what people choose to buy,” he said.
Leibtag said prices do play a role, but that probably accounts for only about 20 percentage points of the higher spending on food by Mainers.
CHOOSING LOCALLY HARVESTED FOOD
With Mainers paying 34 percent more than the national average on groceries, the higher spending probably reflects their food choices as well, he said. For instance, Mainers might opt for fish instead of beef, and a pound of haddock is more expensive than ground chuck.
Brian Todd, president and chief executive officer for The Food Institute, said heavy spending on food by Mainers isn’t a recent phenomenon. The state’s residents have been outpacing the rest of the country on food spending for decades, he said, and the margin is growing. In 1997, he said, Mainers spent 24 percent more on food per capita than the national average, and that spread has since grown by 10 percentage points.
Todd said food retailing has grown in the state – between 2007 and 2012, the number of food stores in Maine grew by 18 percent, compared to an increase nationally of about 1 percent. He thinks Mainers are simply enjoying the wider choices by buying more food from more vendors.
His observation is borne out by a presentation made by Mark Malone of Malone Commercial Brokers at a 2013 forecasting conference for the Maine Real Estate and Development Association. Malone noted that 20 years ago, traditional supermarkets accounted for 86 percent of all food sales. Now that percentage has shrunk to 49 percent as wholesale clubs, specialty food stores, dollar stores and even pharmacies nibble away at supermarkets’ share of the market.
Wal-Mart alone has captured 25 percent of the food market, according to Malone’s presentation.
The wider availability of food products is coinciding with an uptick in the economy, said Todd. Recent declines in the prices of oil and gas could fuel more food spending by giving consumers more money in their pockets when they visit all those places groceries are now sold.
Lapping said Mainers’ growing reputation as foodies – witness all those restaurants in Portland that have sprung up in the last two decades – might also be playing a role.
“We now have more than 20 artisanal cheese makers in the state,” Lapping said.
Most towns have farmers markets where people can buy locally grown vegetables, fruits and meats, and Skowhegan now has a grist mill where farmers can take their grain to be ground.
While food sold in farmers markets and artisanal ground grain might be more expensive, he said, it’s a price Mainers seem to be willing to pay to know who grows their food.
Supermarkets have tapped into the buy-local food movement through their marketing. Lapping noted that supermarket chains highlight locally grown produce in-season, usually indicating which farm grew the fruit and vegetables.
And, he said, the number of Maine dairy and cattle farms is growing, especially as droughts in other parts of the country make it difficult for those farms to survive. Lapping said the impact of the drought on farming in California was easy for him to see on a recent visit there and it’s leading to greater demand from local dairies.
“Our ace in the hole may well be our plentiful water supply,” he said.
Leibtag said people shouldn’t discount the role of choice in the higher spending on food by Mainers. For instance, he said, the local food movement might offer the hope of lower prices in the future, but it’s often more expensive now.
“People may actually be willing to pay more for fresher food and better quality,” he said.
That’s true of Megan Young and Hank Hughes, both from Burlington, Vermont, home of higher spending on food than Maine. The two Maine College of Art students recently shopped at the Hannaford store near Back Cove for staples, but said they prefer stores that offer more organic food and farmers markets in season. They said that food is usually pricier, but they don’t mind.
“It’s worth it if it’s local,” Hughes said. “For Vermont, that’s a really big thing,”
Lapping said there’s a sad irony to Maine’s position as free spenders on food – many residents can’t afford it.
A quarter of Mainers under the age of 16 live in what’s called “food insecure” households, where residents literally aren’t sure where their next meal is coming from.
He said he recently surveyed 600 Maine families and “many of them felt it was necessary to do things such as growing vegetables, hunting or fishing” to ensure that their families were fed.
One way to counter that, Lapping said, is to make sure that less food is wasted.
Like the rest of the country, he said, about 40 percent of the food purchased in Maine is eventually thrown out, uneaten.