The Allocation of Food Expenditure in Married- and Single-Parent Families

By Ziol-Guest, Kathleen M.; DeLeire, Thomas et al. | The Journal of Consumer Affairs, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview
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The Allocation of Food Expenditure in Married- and Single-Parent Families


Ziol-Guest, Kathleen M., DeLeire, Thomas, Kalil, Ariel, The Journal of Consumer Affairs


Differences in food expenditures in married- and single-parent families are examined using the Consumer Expenditure Survey Diary Component (1990-2003). Single parents, compared to married parents, allocate a greater share of their food budget to alcohol and food purchased away from home; conversely, they spend a smaller share of their food budget on vegetables and fruits. Compared to married parents, single fathers spend a greater share on alcohol and food purchased away from home and a lesser share on vegetables, fruits, meat and beans, desserts and snacks, and prepared foods. Single mothers, compared to married parents, spend a greater share on grains and nonalcoholic beverages and a lesser share on vegetables and alcohol. Single mothers and fathers differ from each other in almost all categories of food and beverage expenditure. We also find important differences based on the employment status of parents in the household: families where all parents are employed, irrespective of family structure, spend a greater share of their food budgets on food purchased away from home and a lesser share on vegetables, fruits, milk, and meat and beans compared with married-couple families in which the mother is not employed. We discuss ways in which family structure and parental employment status may be associated with food purchasing decisions.

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As of the year 2000, 15% of children and adolescents (ages 6--19) were overweight (National Center for Health Statistics 2002). Being overweight is due in part to a combination of genetic factors, poor nutritional habits, and inactivity. Overweight youth have a 70% chance of becoming an overweight or obese adult, which is significant given the links between being overweight and obesity in adulthood and health problems (Whitaker et al. 1997). Although individuals cannot control their genetic endowment, exercise and choices regarding nutritious food consumption play an important behavioral role in a healthy lifestyle.

The incidence of child overweight and obesity has garnered the attention of policy makers and has led to legislation stressing the importance of good nutrition, regular exercise, and preventive health screenings. (1) The Agriculture Department, also responding to the nation's obesity problem, revamped the food pyramid by taking age, sex, weight, and exercise into consideration (USDA 2003). The new food pyramid (www.mypyramid.gov) emphasizes the importance of a healthy diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats (including poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts), and fat-free or low-fat milk products. Similarly, a healthy diet is one that is low in fats, salt, and added sugars.

Eating habits are formed early in life, and preferences and choices that are determined during childhood can shape lifelong eating habits. Thus, it is a concern that many children have poor diets. Prior research finds that 81% of the diets of two- to nine-year-olds were poor or in need of improvement (Lino et al. 2002) and that parents' nutrition knowledge affects children's knowledge and dietary practices (e.g., Contento et al. 1993; Oliveria et al. 1992). Households with low socioeconomic status have been found to have especially poor diets (Ramezani and Roeder 1995; Variyam et al. 1998).

Estimates from nationally representative datasets have examined the prevalence of obesity and overweight by race and socioeconomic status, but very little attention has been paid to family structure. An inverse relationship between income and obesity has been established among adult women, but not among men and children (for a review of this literature, see Sobal and Stunkard 1989). Specific analyses among children find conflicting results. Results suggest that income has an inverse relationship with obesity for white children and adolescents but that this relationship does not hold for Mexican American or black youth (National Center for Health Statistics 1998; Troiano and Flegal 1998).

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