When the American Farm Bureau Federation created Food Check-Out Week in the 1990s, the idea was to remind Americans how affordable food is in the United States compared to other household expenses. The yearly theme of the program, which marks the week in which the average American will have earned enough income to pay for their family’s annual food supply, has been “Celebrating Safe, Abundant, Affordable Food.”

AFBF is introducing a new theme this year because the affordability message isn’t resonating with the public anymore, due to rising retail food prices and overall concerns about the economy. The new theme, “Stretching Your Grocery Dollar With Healthy, Nutritious Food,” is intended to communicate that food is still affordable in the United States, while giving a nod to consumers’ budgetary concerns.

The dates of Food Check-Out Week have changed, too, moving back a week to the week of February 15th. The official reason is to give Farm Bureau chapters more time to plan and “set the stage” for National Nutrition Month in March. One can’t help but wonder, though, if rising food prices required that the date be recalculated.

In previous years, organizers made the comparison of Americans working 37 days to pay for food versus working 77 days to pay federal taxes, 62 days to pay for housing/household operation, and 52 days for health/medical care. With the date of Food Check-Out Week moved to February 15th, Americans may now be working 46 days to pay for food, so the “stretching your grocery dollar” theme makes sense.

Among the points suggested by AFBF:

  • With many Americans feeling an economic squeeze, they may be eating out less and preparing more meals at home. So, it’s more important than ever to give them tools to shop smart, buying healthy food that fits within a budget.
  • Public health experts fear that lean economic times may mean an already-overweight public may resort to cheaper high-calorie foods, which can lack important vitamins, minerals, fiber and other nutrients. However, with smart nutrition and budget knowledge put into action, this doesn’t have to happen.
  • While America’s farmers and ranchers are committed to producing safe, healthy food, they share with consumers the same issues of putting nutritious meals on the table while sticking to a tight budget.
  • Knowing your food budget, planning balanced meals, making a list and shopping at competitively priced grocery stores with high-quality produce are just a few strategies to achieve better nutrition with less money.
  • Tips for smart food shopping include sticking to your list, reading food labels and not buying anything unless it will be eaten. Take time to compare prices for different brands and sizes by using cost-per-unit shelf stickers.
  • A healthy diet includes a variety of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, low-fat or fat-free dairy products, lean meats, fish, beans, eggs and nuts within daily calorie needs.
  • The price of unprepared, readily available fresh fruits and vegetables has remained stable compared to dessert and snack foods, according to USDA. This suggests that the price of a healthy diet has not changed relative to an unhealthy one.
  • Americans enjoy a food supply that is among the safest, most abundant and most affordable in the world.
  • A farmer’s job is to provide consumers with the highest-quality, healthiest food possible. Growing and raising wholesome, safe food is farmers’ top goal, and they continue to look for every opportunity to improve quality and safety.
  • Recent retail price increases at the grocery store are due primarily to higher energy costs for processing, hauling and refrigerating food products.
  • U.S. consumers still spend just under 10 percent of their disposable annual income on food, according to USDA data. Consumers in other countries spend much more: France, 14 percent; Japan, 15 percent; China, 35 percent; Philippines, 37 percent; Indonesia, 46 percent.

Acknowledging the higher cost of your product may seem counterintuitive and a bad marketing move. Consider this, though: during the 2008 Christmas season, a Boston-area jewelry store ran radio ads advising potential customers to forego buying that diamond tennis bracelet during these tight economic times and focus on spending time with loved ones.

Why would you tell people not to buy your product? The only possible answer is good public relations. People who can’t afford the bracelet will remember the good will expressed by the company and may patronize them in better times. Those who can afford it will also appreciate the sentiment and may choose to buy from that retailer over another.

So, if you recognize that consumers are having a hard time and offer to help them through it by stretching their dollar and helping them stay healthy, the effort should pay off in both the short and long term.

Clearly that is part of the rationale behind the new Food Check-Out Week theme and a good strategy for weathering tight times, which affect farmers and the public alike.

The author, a freelance writer, is public affairs specialist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Amherst, Mass., and was previously director of communications at the Mass. Dept. of Food & Agriculture.