Exploring Food Costs And Availability This Thanksgiving Holiday - United Ways of California

Exploring Food Costs And Availability This Thanksgiving Holiday

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

As we prepare for a second Thanksgiving holiday during a global pandemic, many of us have so much to be thankful for including a safe place to live, a healthy family, a secure job and more. Still, approximately one-third of families throughout California continue to struggle financially every day — over 3.5 million — according to our latest Real Cost Measure study on what it takes to meet basic needs.

Furthering that strain is the fact that many families are struggling to imagine what their Thanksgiving holiday will look like given increasing food costs throughout 2021, and the lack of healthy, nutritious food in their immediate neighborhood. In this blog post, we will explore what average food costs look like throughout the state, especially for families with young children, and visualize the dispersion of food deserts where access to healthy and affordable food is often difficult and limited.

Through the lens of our Real Cost Measure household budgets, food is one of the basic needs that appears to illustrate the most consistent pricing throughout California, unlike the cost of housing and child care. As illustrated in the graphic below, most counties and county clusters show that working households with 2 adults, 1 pre-schooler, and 1 school-aged child spend anywhere between 12-16% of their income on food, approximately $11,810 a year. One of the few exceptions is Solano County where this same household type can spend up to $15,371 on annual food costs, about 19% of their income.

While our Real Cost Measure is calculated through 2019, the latest currently available upon publication, the U.S. has experienced a 5.3% increase in food costs over the past 12 months due to inflation. This makes it more challenging for some families to afford the types of food they normally purchase in an effort to cover other household expenses. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly changed how many of us access and consume food by limiting how many times we go to the grocery store and increasing “to-go” orders at restaurants to reduce exposure from the virus.

What the data above doesn’t show, however, are the ongoing hardships many families have in accessing nutritious and healthy food. Using data aggregated from the Food Access Research Atlas, a tool by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.) to map food deserts, approximately 5 million Californians live at least one mile away from a supermarket (about 13% of the state’s population), and approximately 1.2 million of those are considered to be both “low-access” and “low-income” by the U.S.D.A.1

A majority of those living in a food desert reside in Southern California, which highlights the prevalence of food deserts in urban areas. It is painfully ironic that approximately 1.2 million Californians in the Central Valley live in a food desert given the state’s high agricultural production. According to a recent study by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, California brought in over $50 billion in crop cash receipts in 2019, about 45% more than the nation’s second largest agricultural competitor, Iowa. This speaks to the tragedy that so many families often struggle to access healthy and nutritious food given the fact that California is often considered the “breadbasket” to the rest of the world.

It is also imperative to emphasize how systemic racism has contributed to the creation of food deserts in many parts of our state and nowhere is that more clear than South Los Angeles where well over 60% of families fall below the Real Cost Measure. A recent spatial analysis found that there were only seven supermarkets in the entire South Los Angeles region compared to dozens of fast-food restaurants, liquor and convenience stores. Though a moratorium has been placed on the latter, people who rely heavily on fast food have “seven times the risk of having a stroke before age 45, double the risk of heart attack and type 2 diabetes, and four times the risk of kidney failure” significantly decreasing their expected life expectancy.2 In fact, Measure of America’s most recent human development study for California identified nine neighborhood clusters in South Los Angeles experience a life expectancy less than 81 years of age, the California average, and most of those residents are Black and Latino.

Hence, as we begin this Thanksgiving holiday, let us not only be thankful for what we have, but also recall the adversity many families have to endure to access and cover the cost of food. Many families throughout the state will have to work odd hours on Thanksgiving to ensure that their family’s basic needs will be met. If a working single mother arrives home at 9pm after working her third part-time job of the day, preparing a Thanksgiving meal for her family may feel nearly impossible. It would be much easier for her to pick up food from a local fast-food restaurant and get to sleep early for the next day with the hope of managing her family’s limited income. Many families may make heroic efforts to receive food from a local food bank, including waiting long hours with limited gas in their car, while others will find it difficult to celebrate as they recover from a loss of a loved one from the COVID-19 pandemic.

All of this is an important reminder that Thanksgiving celebrations are not universal, and that many families will struggle to find where their next meal will be coming from. As we learn to navigate and embrace this “new normal,” we should continue to acknowledge the long-term systemic challenges that low-income Californians face, especially this holiday season.


The U.S.D.A. defines “low-income” as those falling below the official poverty measure which is largely calculated by food, but it would be safe the assume that a majority of Californians living in a food desert fall below the Real Cost Measure which accounts for housing, food, child care, health care, and transportation and other basic needs.

Robbins, Ocean. From Food Deserts to Food Oases: Addressing Access to Healthy Food. Food Network Revolution. September 11, 2020. https://foodrevolution.org/blog/food-deserts-food-oasis-healthy-food-access/

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