Washington/USDA -- In the 35 years from 1977 to 2012, the average American household budget spent on food away from home increased from 30% to 43% and about one third of all calories consumed, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Services (USDA ERS) Quarterly Food Away from Home Prices Data report. The study tracks food prices at four types of food away from home establishments, including full and limited service restaurants, vending machines and schools and divides prices by census regions and division.
According to USDA ERS, given the growing prevalence of food consumed away from one’s home, the agency says this data may be able to help study how food prices affect demand for different products and, consequently, nutrition and health outcomes. While the agency says multiple studies have been conducted in the past to look at the role of food at home prices on purchasing behavior and dietary outcomes, similar studies have been difficult in the past for food away from home due to limited price information.
From 1998-2004, the price at full-service restaurants (server takes customers’ orders and payment is made after eating) across the country increased but then decreased in 2005. The study reports that prices were flat during the recession in 2007-2009 but have risen again since 2010. On average, prices at full-service restaurants were highest in the Northeast and increased in that region from $7.25 to $10.10, or 2.45%, from 1998-2012. Prices were lowest in the South, increasing from $5.69 to $9.54, or 3.62%, during the same time.
Limited-service restaurants (those where customers pay at a register before eating) were, on average, one third of the price of full-service restaurants. Sandwiches were the most expensive category, averaging $6.74 in the Northeast in 2012, while Mexican food was the least expensive, averaging $3.27 in the Northeast in 2012. According to the study, hamburgers were the only category within limited service restaurants that did not decrease in price during the recession.
School lunch prices were also part of the study, and ERS reports they varied less across the country than full or limited service restaurants. However, school lunch prices increased more on average than the other categories, increasing more than 5 percent in the Northeast between 1998 and 2012. Nationwide, school lunch prices increased between 3-5% during that time.
While food prices at vending machines were the lowest of the categories studied, they increased the most overall, between 4-8%, from 1998-2012.