This page provides the following information:

National Food Expenditure Series

National-level annual total food expenditures are allocated between types of products and outlets. The four product types are:

  • food at home (FAH),
  • food away from home (FAFH),
  • alcohol at home (AAH), and
  • alcohol away from home (AAFH).

FAH products are packaged foods and AAH are packaged alcoholic beverages; both FAH and AAH are meant for off-premise (or home) consumption. FAFH products are prepared meals and snacks, and AAFH are alcoholic beverages; both FAFH and AAFH are meant for immediate consumption.

The four product types are further allocated by the type of outlets where the products are obtained.

For FAH, the outlets include:

  • grocery stores,
  • convenience stores,
  • other food stores,
  • warehouse clubs and supercenters,
  • other retail stores and foodservice, not elsewhere classified (NEC),
  • mail order and home delivery,
  • direct sellers (sales by farmers, manufacturers, and wholesalers directly to consumers for final purchase or use), and
  • home production and donations.

For FAFH, the outlets include:

  • full-service restaurants,
  • limited-service restaurants,
  • drinking places,
  • hotels and motels,
  • retail stores and vending machines,
  • recreational places,
  • schools and colleges,
  • other FAFH sales, NEC (food sold on trains, at hospital and nursing home cafeterias, at veterans canteens, and at office buildings); and
  • food furnished and donated.

AAH is allocated to:

  • liquor stores,
  • food stores, and
  • other places, NEC.

AAFH is allocated to:

  • eating and drinking places,
  • hotels and motels, and
  • other places, NEC.

The FES also partitions FAH and FAFH sales into final purchasers and final users. While most purchasers of food are households, government and businesses also purchase food. Final purchasers are those who pay for the food, while final users are those who use the food. This difference is important mainly for food assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the USDA Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), and others for food that is paid for by the Federal Government, such as purchases made with SNAP and WIC benefits. The Government is considered the final purchaser, and households are considered the final users. Governments also purchase FAFH as expensed meals and for child nutrition programs like the NSLP, the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), and other programs. Final users, on the other hand, are those individuals who use the food. For the final-user estimates, food assistance and other government transfers are counted as household use. As such, both FAH and FAFH have one final user—individuals/households.

FAH has three final purchasers:

  • individuals/households,
  • home production, and
  • government.

FAFH has three final purchasers:

  • individuals/households,
  • government, and
  • businesses.

Food expenditures by households are expressed per household and as a share of disposable personal income. Food expenditures by all purchasers are expressed on a per capita basis.

Data Sources and Methods for the National Estimates

This section briefly describes the source data and methods used to measure the national Food Expenditure Series (FES). A more thorough description of the current national data can be found in Measuring the Value of the U.S. Food System: Revisions to the Food Expenditure Series. This publication also delineates the differences between the current version of the FES and the archived data series.

The primary data sources for the FES are the Economic Census for data on sales by employer establishments and the surveys for total (employer and nonemployer) sales data from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census. The percentage of sales on food and alcohol for on- and off-premise consumption at employer establishments (Economic Census) is applied to sales for all establishments for all industries that are covered by the Census Bureau. Nominal sales are augmented by sales taxes, which are applied to all retail outlets and eating and drinking places. Sales of foods and alcohol sold by eating and drinking places are further augmented by an estimate of tips paid by consumers. In the last comprehensive revision, 97 percent of the FAH and 78 percent of FAFH expenditures were based on data from the Census Bureau.

A few components of the FES are measured differently because either the Economic Census does not collect data on these industries, or the information collected is incomplete. Food sales by commissaries, exchanges, Veterans Canteen Service, higher education, farms with direct sales to consumers, and train food services are estimated with data from Circana,formerly Information Resources Inc. (IRI), (more information can be found on the Using Proprietary Data page); the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; the National Center for Education Statistics; USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, Census of Agriculture; and Amtrak annual reports. The cost of food furnished to employees and the military is estimated with personal consumption expenditures from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis, while the cost of food furnished to institutionalized populations (hospitals, nursing homes, psychiatric facilities, and prisons) is based on information from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and various trade associations.

The value of commodity donations (through the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, the Emergency Food Assistance Program, and Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations) and some Federal food and nutrition assistance programs (e.g., Child and Adult Food Programs, Summer Food Service Program) is based on administrative data from the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service. The value of home production is estimated using the value of on-farm food consumption from ERS’s Farm Income and Wealth Statistics, and off-farm food consumption is derived from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

Data Sources and Methods for the National Monthly Estimates

The monthly estimates encompass most food sales, except for sales of food at schools and colleges. The estimates also exclude donations and the cost of food furnished to employees, airline travelers, and institutionalized and noninstitutionalized persons. The primary data source for the monthly estimates are monthly surveys from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census: Monthly Retail Trade Survey, Monthly Wholesale Trade Survey, Monthly Manufacturing Trade Survey, and Quarterly Survey of Services. At each annual update, a proportional method is used to revise the monthly estimates so that the sum of these estimates equals the annual sales estimates for FAH and FAFH. The objective of this method is to keep the ratio of the estimated quarterly or monthly series to the indicator series as constant as possible under the annual constraints.

Revisions to the National Food Expenditure Series

To improve the accuracy and timeliness of the Food Expenditure Series (FES), major revisions were made in 2018. The data product and associated report, Measuring the Value of the U.S. Food System: Revisions to the Food Expenditure Series, contains the following:

  • inclusion of new source data and methods;
  • introduction of advance estimates, revised estimates, and final estimates;
  • reorganization of published tables;
  • benchmarking of the monthly sales series to the annual series; and
  • establishment of a timetable for data release.

The FES consists of advance, revised, and final estimates. The first set of estimates for a given year are the advance estimates, which lag 1 year and are based on source data that are incomplete and subject to revision. These initial estimates are replaced the following year when more reliable data are available. The new estimates are called the revised estimates, which lag 2 years and are based on more complete data. With the release of each Economic Census, the revised estimates are replaced with final estimates, which lag 3–8 years and are benchmarked to the 5-year Economic Census. With the release of the 2017 Economic Census, the revised estimates were replaced with final estimates in 2022.

There were two changes in the 2017 Economic Census that were reflected in the Annual Food Expenditure Series update released in June 2022. First, the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) code used for the “Mass merchandisers” outlet (452112) was dissolved. Therefore, sales in this category are split between other appropriate food at home (FAH) outlets for the entire series, resulting in updated estimates since 1997. Second, the product classification system used to estimate the percent of sales in each industry devoted to food and beverage purchases was changed to the North American Product Classification System (NAPCS)-based product lines. This change resulted in slight changes within outlets, dating back to 2012. The Census Bureau published a concordance document to link the product codes previously used to their NAPCS equivalent. For more information, please see What’s New for 2017 Economic Census.

The advance estimates are extrapolations of the revised estimates, using monthly and quarterly Census data (Monthly Retail Trade Survey, Monthly Wholesale Trade Survey, Monthly Manufacturing Trade Survey, and Quarterly Survey of Services) or a price index (Consumer Price Index [CPI] or Producer Price Index [PPI]). The quarterly and monthly survey data are not as reliable as the annual survey data, but the cumulative sum of these estimates over a year can be used as an extrapolator for the annual survey data that is revised later. The revised estimates are based on data in the Annual Survey of Retail Trade, Service Annual Survey, Annual Wholesale Trade Survey, and Annual Manufacturing Survey. The final estimates are based on the Economic Census data, which are a complete Census of employer establishments.

The estimates in the comprehensive revision of the FES were reconciled to previously published estimates and to the Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) series and the Consumer Expenditure Surveys (CE) estimates to assess accuracy. In addition, the advance estimates for 2016 were compared with revised estimates for 2016 to assess estimation errors from using timelier but lesser quality data.

State-Level Food Expenditure Series

The State-level Food Expenditure Series (FES) was developed in 2023 to provide consumer food acquisitions and spending behavior over time at a more local level. The report, Estimating the State-Level Food Expenditure Series, provides details of the methods and data used to produce the State-level estimates. The source data for the State FES was discontinued and replaced in 2024. The report, Addendum to Estimating the State-Level Food Expenditure Series, outlines the new base data and subsequent changes to the State FES estimates from the archived data series. The methods for State FES estimation remained unchanged. Like the monthly estimates, State-level food spending estimates present information only on food sales and exclude food furnished, donated, produced at home, and served at educational institutions, as well as the other furnished foods that are not included in the monthly spending estimates. The State-Level Food Expenditure Series produces annual estimates and only disaggregates outlets by FAH and FAFH. These estimates include Statewide total expenditures as well as per-capita expenditures by State, each with and without taxes and tips.

Data Sources and Methods for the State Estimates

The State-Level Food Expenditure Series follows a similar methodology used in the national-level FES but uses a different underlying dataset. The national-level estimates are based primarily on food sales reported in the Economic Census, which is published by the Census Bureau every 5 years, and uses the Census Bureau’s annual surveys to interpolate between years and extrapolate lagged data forward. The State-level FES estimates are based primarily on sales reported in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW), which provides data on establishments across all sectors, including grocery stores and food service outlets. The same process to isolate food spending within each industry is used in the State-Level Food Expenditure Series as it is at the national level. State-level estimates are then benchmarked to national FES annual estimates.

Recommended Citation

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. Food expenditure series.