A useful way to bring context to food prices is to compare the cost of a healthy diet with the median income of countries across the world.

Both of these distributions are shown in the chart. First I’ve plotted the income distribution of the world in blue – the height of each box corresponds to the median income of each country in 2017. The poorest countries you find on the left, the richest on the right. The width of each bar represents the size of the population in that country.

These are measured in international dollars, which correct for cross-country price differences. 

On top of this income distribution I’ve added the cost of a healthy diet for each country – shown in pink.

In the poorest countries, the cost of a healthy diet is higher than the median income. Even if the average person in these countries spent all of their money on food, a healthy diet would be unaffordable. 

In some countries – India is the largest among them – dietary costs would be roughly equal to the median income. There people would need to spend all of their income on food to afford a healthy diet.

Towards the right we find the world’s richest countries. There, median incomes are much higher than dietary costs. In these countries the median income earner can afford a healthy diet with a relatively small fraction of their income. The average person in France could spend just 6% of their income on food. In Denmark, just 5%.

What this comparison shows is how far most of the world is from being able to afford a healthy diet. We cannot spend all, or even most, of our income on food. We would have very little to spend on other essentials such as energy, housing, clothing, education and healthcare.

On this chart I’ve also drawn lines that show us what level of income you would need if you were to spend one-third; 20% or 10% of your income on food. This is equivalent to the share that people in high-income (10% to 20%) and middle-income (one-third) countries spend. Median incomes would need to be anywhere in the range of $11 to $37 per person per day.

There’s no definitive answer as to which of these income levels is ‘right’. But considering it in this way gives us some indication of what minimum thresholds might seem reasonable to aim for given the cost of healthy, nutritious diets across the world.

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