Last week, in my Economics of Obesity entry, I asked my readers "Is it really more expensive to eat healthful food or not?"
My question was prompted by an article in the Houston Chronicle that asserted that the cost of fresh food and the time crunch felt by the working poor conspire to cause poor eating habits, less activity and thus obesity.
The reader response was overwhelming and the vast majority strongly felt that eating well - that is fresh foods instead of packaged, processed foods - costs more money and requires more time to prepare.
The response did not deter me from trying to evaluate the truth of these notions from a real world experience - trying to plan a menu for one week, for a family of four, that was mostly fresh, whole foods within a tight budget. I honestly did not know however, what is considered a "tight budget" for grocery shopping. I know what I spend and I know I consider it a tight budget - but for those who live as the "working poor" what does that budget really look like?
I'd like to thank Jessica R. Dreistadt, the Coordinator of Advocacy and Outreach at Second Harvest Food Bank of Lehigh Valley and Northeast Pennsylvania for her email that provided a link to the "Frugal Food Challenge," an experiement with 21-adults participating and challenged to purchase all food eaten in one week based on the average food stamp allocation - 89-cents per meal - with three meals a day as a foundation, that's just $2.67 per day!
Noteworthy of the challenge - the participants had never experienced poverty or the real issue of food insecurity and the results were telling. I strongly encourage my readers to take a few minutes to read through the report - it is an eye-opener!
That said, I had my budget - for a family of four, eating three meals a day, each meal limited to an 89-cent budget, I had to create a menu that would feed this family for just $74.76 for the week! [The math = 4 people x 3 meals per day = 12 meals per day; 12 meals per day x 7 days a week = 84 meals; 84 meals x 0.89 = $74.76]
Is it even possible to feed a family of four on just $74.76 a week? Can it even be done with packaged, processed foods - let alone the vast majority being whole fresh foods?
Well, it is definitely not easy...but, with some time and planning, it is doable - barely - and it does require some compromise.
First armed with the local grocery store circular I looked over the specials and sales for the week and decided the first items to include were the proteins. Protein and fat are essential in the human diet and for this reason, protein foods were to be the critical items determined first before any other selections. Animal proteins already come packed with fats, so this allowed me to concentrate on the fruits and vegetables after the meat, poultry and fish.
On sale this week, a 10-pound turkey for $4.90, 3-pounds of lean ground beef for $5.64, two 1-pound keilbasa for $3.00, a 3-pound chicken sample pack for $2.97 and lastly, a pound of salmon for $4.99. I'd quickly burned through $21.50 of the budget just with the meats, poultry and fish - would the remaining $53.26 provide enough fruits, vegetables, nuts & seeds, whole grains and even some snacks for this mock family of four?
Staple items for some breakfasts, lunches, and cooking were next - 3 dozen eggs ($2.37), three 6-ounce cans of chunk light tuna in oil ($2.01), a 32-ounce jar of store brand real mayonnaise ($1.89), name-brand 16-ounce jar of natural peanut butter ($1.99), store brand bread crumbs - italian seasoned ($1.29), 24-ounce jar of name-brand spaghetti sauce ($1.79), two cans of tomato sauce plain generic ($0.99), a one-pound container of generic ricotta whole milk ($1.99) and name-brand lasagna noodles, whole wheat ($1.29). Another $16.61 spent from this limited budget, leaving just $37.65 for the remaining foods needed.
Fresh fruits and vegetables proved to be the most challenging to the budget, and this is where some compromise had to be made.
While ideally all the fruits and vegetables should be fresh, I had to compromise and include some frozen selections which proved less expensive than the fresh. For example, one-pound of fresh strawberries were available for $3.99, the frozen one-pound bag of strawberries (no sugar added) was just $1.50. The same proved true with some of the vegetables - fresh broccoli was on sale for $1.29 a pound, but the frozen one-pound bag of chopped broccoli was just $1.00....with less waste, the frozen broccoli had better bang for the buck.
So, fresh fruits and vegetables did include - 2-pounds of medium apples ($1.98), 2-pounds of baby carrots ($3.00), 2 Haas avocados ($3.00), 3-pounds of russet potatoes ($2.37), 2-pounds of yellow summer squash and zucchini ($2.58), a three-pack of romaine hearts ($1.99), a container of cherry tomatoes ($1.99), three cucumbers ($0.99), 2-pounds of green peppers ($1.58) and 1-pound of red peppers ($1.99). Another $22.47 from the budget, leaving just $15.18 for the rest of the fruits and vegetables and basics needed for the week.
Frozen selections included, 1-pound bag of broccoli ($1.00), 1-pound bag chopped spinach ($1.00), 1-pound bag of mixed vegetables ($1.00), a 1-pound bag of strawberries ($1.50)....budget remaining is just $11.68.
A loaf of store brand 100% whole wheat bread ($1.50), 1-pound generic butter ($1.99), ranch salad dressing ($1.79), two onions ($0.66), one 16-ounce cans of kidney beans ($0.69), a gallon of generic whole milk ($2.03) and packets of chili seasoning, meatloaf seasoning and chicken dinner seasoning ($2.97) exhausted the budget, leaving only $0.05 left, and I still had not gotten cheese into the menu!
I'm not sure I could do this each week and yet know that there are millions of Americans out there who must not only try, but actually live on such a budget. If you're interested in what the above foods make for meals, here is a quick overview:
Breakfasts included eggs with leftover vegetables to make omelets each morning. This was less expensive and more nutrient-dense than cold or hot cereal with milk to start the day.
Lunches included leftovers and sandwiches made from leftover meats and poultry, egg or tuna salad along with some fresh cut vegetables or the baby carrots.
Dinners included meat lasagna, chili, meatloaf, baked chicken, salmon and roasted turkey. Each dinner included lots of vegetables and a small salad each night. The turkey proved to be the biggest bargain of the week at just 0.49-cents per pound, providing nutrient-density and high quality protein in a number of potential meal occassions.
Snacks were limited to fresh and frozen fruits, the apples topped with peanut butter as a treat, perhaps even milk-based smoothies made with the strawberries.
The only beverage affordable was tap water - free - and one gallon of whole milk for the week. The budget simply did not allow soda, juice or coffee or tea.
In many instances I chose the whole milk variety of a food (milk, ricotta cheese) or the tuna in oil over the tuna in water for both calories and nutrient-profile. When you're hoping to feed a family of four on a tight budget, every calorie counts and every last nutrient is critical - and whole milk varieties offer better nutrient profiles for vitamins and minerals than do processed, low-fat varieties along with more calories to sate appetite; the same hold true for tuna in oil.
With very few exceptions, the use of coupons would be useless - the fresh and even frozen foods included in this budget are usually not discounted with coupons. This isn't to say I wouldn't recommend keeping your eye open to coupons available - the seasoning packets, salad dressing, keilbasa, peanut butter, tuna and some other items all potentially could have coupons available to save money and allow for more food to be included with the savings.
I often advise trying to find savings at a warehouse club. But, honestly, with a budget of just %$74.76 for a week, I'm not sure how a virtual family of four could afford the $45 membership fee. Over the course of the year, I'm not convinced that the family would realize a $45 savings from their food bill when you consider the limited availability of fresh foods at the wholesale clubs and the large packages that must be purchased for the savings. The potential for waste and limitation on variety due to the actual cost of the larger packs may be greater than the savings at the end of the day. This is something that should be investigated and some time spent before one invests in the membership fee - will you use it often enough, have the ability to buy the fresh foods and not see more waste with larger packs, and still have a good variety in your menu - with the membership or not?
One big discrepancy in prices was between the fresh and frozen vegetables and fruits. It is important for anyone on a strict budget to comparison shop the produce section and the frozen section before making their final purchases! While the fresh strawberries were on sale for $3.99 a pound, this was more than twice as expensive as the frozen strawberries. While the fresh broccoli was $1.29 a pound, a minor difference from the frozen chopped broccoli for $1.00 - it was with the long stems which would have resulted in more waste per pound, so the frozen broccoli was still a much better bargain.
Lastly is the very real limitation of the social aspect of sharing a meal with family and friends that is strictly curtailed on such a tight budget. Eating out is next to impossible and buying enough food to entertain at home is also limited. Here is where I think some creativity can help - perhaps family and friends can plan to get together once a week and share the costs without stating it as such? Potluck dinners, picnics, tapas parties, etc. can all help bring together friends and family to share a meal and everyone brings something to contribute to the meal and that may help keep a budget while allowing for that precious together-time we all need with those close to us.
By no means is the menu I put together to be considered nutritionally complete. I have not run the items through software to determine the nutrient profile - but would guess it is adequate in most nutrients, although I am sure it is most likely deficient in at least one essential nutrient. My goal wasn't, unfortunately a nutrient-dense menu on a budget, but a menu that was mostly fresh, whole foods.
That said, with good planning, I will assert that it is possible to put together a nutritionally-dense menu - time is the key along with selecting nutrient-dense foods that are mostly whole foods. As one of my readers emailed, "we don't live in a perfect world" - and I agree...striving for the best you can afford, with most food being fresh, whole food is about as perfect as we can get!