The Cost of Food and the Benefit of a Kitchen Garden

 "One should eat to live, not live to eatMoliere

"If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world" JRR Tolkien

I may be stepping out on a limb here, but I think most people consider food shopping a distress purchase in much the same way as refuelling your car and paying the energy bill. Cooking is a more enjoyable task though I would still say it is a chore most would happily pass on to someone else. Eating is, of course, essential but, I would hazard, Moliere probably sums up the majority of peoples' thoughts including ours'. We do still enjoy eating out in the knowledge that someone else has slaved over a hot stove to produce a sumptuous repast and we do not have to clear up the mess afterwards. Most of the time, though, we are just as happy eating in or picnicking out.

Our goldfish, on the other hand, always eats in and he gobbles the food so fast it is difficult to believe he even tastes it let alone enjoys it ...

A recent survey (pre-COVID) found that UK adults eat out on 2.4 billion occasions per year. Since there are approximately 40 million UK adults, that works out to 60 meals per adult per year on average. Assuming each adult eats about 1000 meals per year (three meals a day), that still means 94% of meals are still eaten at home (or someone else's home if you're lucky enough to be invited round!).

Since we consider food shopping to be a distress purchase, we've never paid much (any?) attention to how much it cost us. We just grew what we could, bought what was necessary, and minimised any waste. If I had to guess a figure, then it would be around £100 per week for the two of us. 

Why would I like to know how much our food bill is? One major and one minor reason. The major reason relates to 'growing your own' and answering the question - does it save money? For this, I need a time series of regular food bills. The minor reason is just for general use - such as completing a carbon footprint questionnaire - for which I only need the cost of a typical weekly food shop.

An opportunity to come up with a more realistic estimate presented itself when the UK went into COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020. From that moment, we switched to home deliveries from a single supermarket - and because we had to register with the supermarket, they kept a tally of everything we spent. We still have the bulk of our groceries delivered - a cheap (£1) & eco-friendly option - though we are also shopping at local shops (on foot). According to How Bad Are Bananas, a supermarket delivery is between two and six times (diesel van vs electric van) less carbon intensive than driving yourself.

Our first delivery was on the 9th of April 2020; we had tried to get an earlier slot but, in the general rush from every other UK household, we had to wait our turn. It was quite a large delivery as we had run out of quite a few basics - some basics such as flour, pasta, and toilet rolls were in short supply at the time due to panic-buying. The value of all deliveries from 9/4/20 to 21/1/23 are plotted out in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Supermarket Food Bills

Christmas food bills are often higher as households prepare for family visits. Xmas 2020 was cancelled, due to a more virulent COVID variant arriving in the UK. Christmas 2021 (big shop marked .) did take place although only one of two sets of visitors arrived (COVID again). Most of the shopping for Christmas 2022 was done in person 

If I sum up the total for the whole period (£7280), divide by the number of weeks (147), then the average weekly spend for the two of us would be about £50 (i.e. £25 per person). There are a few caveats, however:

  • Firstly it does not include my bottles of wine which I buy through mail order from Laithwaites
  • Second, it does not include any cleaning materials whether for humans, laundry, kitchenware, toilets or general cleaning; these are also bought via mail order from BigGreenSmile
  • Third, it does not include toilet paper, kitchen towels, and paper tissues shipped in from Who Gives a Crap
  • Fourth, it does not include tea and coffee bought on-line from specialised retailers
  • Fifth, certain items such as bread flour, vegetable stock powder, and cashew nuts are bought on-line
  • It does not take into account inflation which was low at the start of the pandemic but rose rapidly for a number of reasons including Putin's illegal and cruel invasion of Ukraine. Food inflation was 16.8% in December 2022 in the UK
  • It does not take into account the greater use of other shops locally after June 2021 when the vaccine became widely available
Visual inspection of Figure 1 shows food bills are lower in the main harvesting months (June - November) than is Winter-Spring months (December - May) where the growing season is largely dormant (with some notable exceptions, of course, like winter greens/brassicas).

To be honest, the cost data are neither extensive enough nor sufficiently detailed for a robust analysis. Food bill costs from June 2020 to May 2021 covers a single year and is, undoubtedly, the most robust data set because it covers: (i) one harvest season (June - November 2020) and one dormant season (December - May 2021), and (ii) there was limited access to alternative shopping venues during this period.

For the 6-month harvest season (June - November 2020), the supermarket food bills totalled £1206. For the following 6-month dormant season (December - May 2021), the supermarket food bills totalled £1633. A difference of £427 and a 'profit' of £250 after an allowance of £177 for seeds, fertiliser, seed compost, organic pest control, etc.

The real profit will be much higher because even in the dormant season (December - May) we are still eating stored produce (e.g. potatoes, onions, pears), frozen/preserved produce (currants, raspberries, apples, chilli and sweet peppers, aubergines, tomatoes, cucumbers, French beans, sweetcorn) and still harvesting fresh winter greens, celeriac, chard and parsnips. These produce will have reduced the supermarket food bills significantly in the 'dormant' months. I don't think it is unreasonable to consider a 'profit' of £500 from our 10 x 10 metre Kitchen Garden. Plus the added benefit of fresh, pestide-free vegetables and fruit.


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