Eating healthy is possible on a limited budget when people rely on menu planning and bulk food stores, according to a new study. Using these techniques, researchers were able to create two weeks of meals consistent with the USDA’s healthy eating guidelines for an average of $25 per day for a family of four.
While this cost is consistent with the USDA low-income cost of food plan, it is higher than the USDA Thrifty Food Plan, which is used to determine food assistance benefits.
"This research demonstrates that menus that meet USDA guidelines can be purchased by a family of four when shopping at a bulk supermarket, but any reduction in SNAP benefits or increase in food costs would make it difficult for these economically vulnerable families to maintain a healthy lifestyle," says lead author Karen M. Jetter, PhD, Agricultural Issues Center, University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Davis, CA, USA.
The study, which was published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, was conducted in collaboration with Northern Valley Indian Health, Inc., and the Mechoopda Indian Tribe (MIT) of Chico Rancheria. Eighty-eight percent of the MIT population lives in a household with a yearly income of less than $35,000.
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In addition to the cost of meals, researchers also explored other important factors including access to stores, time for meal preparation, variety of foods offered, and whether the menus included “culturally appropriate foods,” according to Jetter. Researchers did not seek to create a healthy balance every single day, but rather a healthy average over the course of the two-week period.
"This focuses healthy eating on balance rather than being deprived," says Jetter.
The researchers did note, however, that one important limitation of the study was the time devoted to menu planning and creating shopping lists, which could be a deterrent for busy families. One 2017 study found that while the typical association of fast food with lower-income communities is unfounded, fast food is indeed consumed more by people with little downtime, regardless of income.
One 2017 study found that organic food is actually less expensive than conventional when principles of true cost accounting, like environmental and healthcare costs, are applied.
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