What a ridiculous question. Of course you can. In fact, many of you might be snacking in front of your computer even as you are reading this. But as I stood in the local supermarket, scanning the prices and frantically converting them to my own currency, I have to admit that this question crossed my mind for a second.
Costa Rica is known to have a higher price level than its neighboring countries in Central America, but I was shocked – and I’m told it’s a common occurrence for visitors from Europe – at the prices of groceries, which are noticeably higher than in Germany or the United States. Combine that with a lower average income, and you arrive at the fact that the average Costa Rican spends around 25%-30% of her income on food (22% on food and beverages and 9% on food consumed outside the home). Compare this with other countries in the chart below (or get a better look at the original), and you will note that in cross-cultural comparison, it’s around middle-field. Note how you can barely see the US and Canada on this map.
I guess what astonishes me is that Costa Rica is an emerging country with a strong middle class and a comparatively high standard of living – the medium income is U.S. $8,860 -, and yet its proportional food expenditure rivals countries with a much lower income level. This means that the prices correspond to an unusually steep food expenditure for a European stipend, as well. Of course, some items are more expensive than others (I longingly gazed at a jar of peanut butter for $7 the other day), and imported goods targeting American expats are an obvious rip-off that one doesn’t even have to consider. In fact, this article points to the high proportion of imports (and the underlying fuel costs) as well as to the colon’s steady appreciation and subsequent price inflation as reasons for the high price tags.
However, in grocery stores I have noticed that fruit and vegetables especially come at a much higher price point than I am used to, and I have noticed that I intuitively have changed my diet to fill up on more rice and beans as compared to salads. Farmers’ markets are a good alternative, though I’ve only so far been to the organic one where prices are comparable (though the quality is obviously much better). However, you need to be on your A-planning game, and get your veg for the entire week then, or accept the supermarket prices. Comparatively, the fast food joints that you notice on every street corner offer enticing deals that promise to fill you up as well. Around 36% of all agri-food imports are used by the fast food industry alone. This creates the typical food desert situation, which has propelled Costa Rica into the countries more concerned with non-communicable diseases that are related to obesity and/or diabetes. According to estimations, 60% of Costa Rican women are overweight. And as my co-workers told me today, the national health care system, though leading in the region, is poorly equipped to deal with the onslaught of dietary-related illnesses looming in its future.
Yet, it is interesting to witness a country at the cusp of entering OECD membership where the average distribution of spending is still extraordinarily different from my European standard. On this path, interesting considerations enter the equation – for instance, Costa Rica is the only country in the region where prepared foods comprise a significant proportion of household food budgets; according to one interpretation, it’s because middle-class citizens, most of which work in San Jose, spend so much time in traffic that they don’t have time to cook anymore. After my recent experiences in commuting, I don’t doubt that claim – welcome to the drawbacks of development and urbanization, I guess!
Where have you traveled to or lived in where the cost of eating surprised you?