PUBLIC HEALTH
March 20, 2019

Eating Well for Less

It does take planning, but healthy foods are within the reach of even those on a limited budget.

People often complain that it costs too much to eat healthy foods , but a new study casts doubt on that idea. It found that a low-income family of four can afford meals that meet guidelines for good nutrition.

The cost of healthy food is one reason why low-income families find it hard to eat healthy meals. So, researchers at the University of California Davis collaborated with Northern Valley Indian Health and the Mechoopda Indian Tribe (MIT) of Chico Rancheria as part of a larger study to develop two weeks’ worth of meal plans. The majority of people in these Native American lands live on an average income of $35,000 a year or less.

The bulk and general supermarkets had the lowest average daily cost for a family of four — $25.

The goal was to produce menus to feed a family of four — mother, father and two young children for two weeks. The foods on the menus included those the Mechoopda community liked to eat, and those that met U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines. They also included realistic portion sizes. To cut down on fat and salt, the team limited the use of processed foods. To prevent boredom, meals were varied; they also were affordable and did not necessarily require cooking.

Researchers, in collaboration with the Mechoopda community, produced two-weeks of daily menus. Not every meal plan met the daily nutritional guidelines, but over a two-week period, all nutrient requirements were met.

“These menus showed that a healthy diet on a budget was achieved by balancing daily targets over two weeks, not every day. This focuses healthy eating on balance rather than being deprived,” explained Karen M. Jetter, of the University of California Davis and lead author of the study, in a statement.

After the menus were developed, researchers went to 13 grocery stores in Chico, California to determine the cost of the needed food items.

Stores were classified as general supermarkets, discount markets, specialty markets or bulk supermarkets. The bulk and general supermarkets carried the greatest amount of the foods needed for the two-week menu plan and had the lowest average daily cost of $25. That is consistent with the USDA low-income cost of food meal plan, but greater than the cost of the USDA Thrifty Food Plan, which the USDA uses to determine food assistance benefits.

Specialty and discount stores lacked up to half of the needed items, and they also had the highest average daily cost at $39 a day.

Planning is what made the difference, and that can be a problem. Even families on a low income can purchase nutritious foods, but this requires careful planning and comparison shopping among local grocery stores to maximize their budgets. This poses an added burden on already-stressed low income families, even if it's worthwhile.

Shopping carefully is a chore, but it’s one that will keep your family healthy. You can’t put a price on that.

The study is published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

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