Eating Healthy Without Breaking the Bank – a (non-scientific) CAFB experiment.

February 27, 2009 § 15 Comments

We’re excited to see so much blogging about food stamp challenges around the country. From our friend Ed Nicholson from Tyson Foods to CNN news anchor Sean Callebs, to our own President & CEO, David Davenport who did the challenge for almost a month, bloggers are changing people’s perceptions about living on a food stamp budget and exposing the emotional toll of living on the cusp of food insecurity.

Photo courtesy of USDA

Photo courtesy of USDA

One theme emerging from food stamp challenge participants is how difficult it is to eat healthy on a limited budget.  Low-income families often must balance the need for nutritious foods and the need to feel satiated at the end of a meal. That in part, is the inspiration for our legislative agenda to provide healthy foods to low income children.   It also inspired us to do our own (non-scientific) experiment.   Is it possible to choose healthier foods without breaking the bank?  Is it true that choosing healthier options is prohibitively expensive for low-income families? Our AmeriCorps VISTA, Carrie Gibson, volunteered to gather data.  To make this as true-to-life as possible, we followed a few simple rules:

1. The shopping must be done at a grocery store in a low-income neighborhood, easily accessible to public transportation. 

2. We chose foods that had both a low-nutrition/quality version and a high-nutrition quality version.

3. For the high-nutrition/quality foods, we did not choose organic options, even if they were available, since most low-income neighborhoods do not offer organic products.

Here’s our list:

16 oz bag of white rice: $0.64 16 oz bag of brown rice: $0.86
16 oz bag of ground beef: $2.79 16 oz bag of ground turkey: $1.49
14.5 oz can of tomatoes: $0.69 ($0.04/oz) Fresh roma tomatoes: $0.98/lb; ($0.06/oz)
15 oz Can of peaches in syrup: $0.92 ($.06/oz) 3 fresh peaches= 15 oz @ $1.49/lb = $1.39
Can of spinach: $0.59 Bag of fresh spinach: $3.49
12 oz Imitation maple syrup: $1.09 ($.09/oz) 8.5 oz real maple syrup: $5.45 ($0.64/oz)
64 oz. 10% fruit juice: $1.89 64 oz. 100% apple juice: $2.19
Box of generic sugar cereal loops: $1.89 Box of whole grain Cheerios: $2.52
Packets of oatmeal with artificial fruit flavors: $1.99 ($0.15/oz) Box of plain oatmeal with no additional packaging: $1.49 (bigger size; $0.08/oz)
Bag of shredded iceberg lettuce: $1.69 Bag of shredded romaine lettuce: $2.89
Boxed frozen fish with breading: $3.39/lb of fish sticks Fresh cut tilapia filets: $6.99/lb
32 oz sweetened Yoplait yogurt: $2.15 32 oz unsweetened yogurt with acidophilous: $4.09
12 oz white spaghetti: $1.04 ($0.08/oz) 13.25 oz whole wheat spaghetti: $1.29 ($0.09/oz)
7 oz canned jalapenos: $0.62 ($0.09/oz) Fresh jalapenos $0.84/pound = $.05/oz
Loaf of white bread: $0.69 Loaf of 100% whole wheat bread with no high frutcose corn syrup $1.93
17 oz vegetable oil: $1.00 17 oz olive oil: $4.19
.5 gallon of orange juice from concentrate: $1.79 .5 gallon of orange juice not from concentrate: $2.99


The total for low-nutrition foods: $26.75

The total for high-nutrition foods $45.97

The difference: $19.22, or a little less than three hours extra work for Texans earning the minimum wage($6.55 per hour).

What do you think? 

Have you compromised on making healthier choices in your shopping list? Please comment, and pass it on.


§ 15 Responses to Eating Healthy Without Breaking the Bank – a (non-scientific) CAFB experiment.

  • Summer says:

    Interesting for sure. I’ve never heard this argument on items side by side in the grocery store like this. I’ve only ever heard the argument about fast food vs. grocery store foods.

    I wonder what would happen if you bought all the ingredients to feed fresh, lean burgers to a family of four and compared it to the price of four burgers from a fast-food joint?

    And although the $19 difference doesn’t seem like much when you break it down to three hours of minimum wage work, it’s still a 42 percent difference in those grocery bills, and that’s significant to any shopper.

    Thanks for starting the conversation! It’s definitely a balancing act to keep an eye on our health AND our pocketbooks these days.

  • Lisa Goddard says:

    We wanted to do something that had a realistic factor to the choices people may be making. The “time to prepare” needed equitable for the healthy and non-healthy items since many of those relying on our services are working full time and may not have the time to prepare a meal from scratch. It wouldn’t be fair to compare purchasing flour salt and yeast to purchasing a ready made loaf of bread.

    Our nutrition education program, like many programs around the country, is about teaching people about healthier options, not necessarily completely overhauling their diets. For example we’re teaching people how to make tortillas with whole wheat and olive oil instead of white flour and lard. It’s one thing to tell people, and teach them to make healthy choices. It’s another to set them up for success.

    Education and access must go hand-in-hand if we are to set people up for success The bill we’re advocating for – SB 944 will help. Hopefully, people will write their legislative reps in support of this bill. (hint hint)

    Thank you for your comments!

  • Excellent data, thank you so much for putting this together. I’ve always assumed it was more expensive and time consuming to eat more nutritious meals, and that those hurdles were what hindered low-income families from making choosing better foods. But it’s great to see it laid out in this way.

    This is such a complicated issue. Anyone who’s had a long, hard, busy day and then has to come home and make dinner can understand how hard it is not to give in and choose fast or order-in food. And I think people who turn to the food bank feel like this all the time. I know we can work together to make it easier for everyone to have better access to better food. Thanks for your work.

  • Interesting. The price difference between $45 & $26 may not seem like a lot to those of us that can afford it but to someone that doesn’t have the extra time or dollars, the idea is kind of hard to digest. I think we need some kind of bridge program, where we can bring people to the nutrition side in increments. People do not spend money on nutritious food because they can’t afford it or they’re not given options to take steps towards this lifestyle. It’s either buy all nutrition or nothing at all. Anyway, that’s what I have experienced in my past and even now. Thanks for your post.


  • Seanna Marceaux says:

    I do think this is good information and am a huge proponent of increasing accessibility of healthy food options & increasing nutrition education to low-income families. I do, however, think that there are some items on the “high nutrition quality” list that are the ‘ideal’ nutritious version and that there could be other choices that can bring the $total down. Even when we look at the low-nutritous column, specifically, the white rice ….although this food is lower in nutrients than brown rice, we would rather have low-income families eat white rice rather than buying ’empty’ foods such as cookies, chips, etc., which has been my experience with this population. I think incremental education, first getting them to buy nutrient-dense foods instead of empty foods is a great first step. Additionally, oatmeal with flavor packets is not a ‘bad’ option, since oatmeal is a whole grain….yes, there is added sugar & other additives, but it is better than fruit loops.
    Lycopene, a phytochemical in canned/processed tomatoes, is more bioavailable than in fresh. This does not mean that fresh get a lesser score, but with the sodium aside, I think canned tomatoes is a pretty good option for low-income families.
    The oil….vegetable oil is mostly soybean oil & we eat too much of that as a society. It would be best to consume more olive, yes. But Canola oil is very economical (although it is more processed than olive & olive has phytochemicals and canola doesn’t) in regards to heart health, it is a much better oil than “vegetable” & CHEAPER.
    canned spinach versus fresh……? What about frozen spinach. Frozen veggies are just as nutritious as fresh (maybe some prefer the texture and flavor of fresh more…but from a nutrition standpoint recommending frozen spinach is a healthy, cheaper option than fresh bagged spinach.
    White bread versus whole wheat without HFCS- I wish there was NOT ANY HFCS in any of our foods, believe me! But, it is better to eat whole wheat bread with HFCS than no whole grain at all. HEB Bake shop white bread is the same price as HEB Bake shop whole wheat bread.
    My professional opinion is that apple juice should be off the list either way. If any 100% juice- orange or grape is best.
    Maple syrup…imitation or not…both are 100% sugar with no nutrients. (yes, the natural one may have other added benefits. But again, nutritionally, they offer the same amount of ’empty’ calories)…Why not try honey(although ’empty’ as well), if people want some sugar…it may be cheaper than the latter.
    WHAT ABOUT CANNED BEANS? Rinsed in a collander to remove excess sodium….it is a good healthy, cheap option for families to get their fiber, protein, V&M, etc. & QUICK FIXING!
    So, maybe modifying the list a bit may close the price gap a tad. Still, healthier foods do have a pricier tag!
    Nonetheless, I think low-income individuals deserve to have the finest of the fine, too, so pushing for legislation making the foods listed more affordable is great. I commend you for your efforts in working to convince the legislation of such.
    I think that we need to educate families on avoiding the sodas, cookies, chips, etc. first! Replacing those with some canned veggies and canned fruit in ‘light’ syrup is a huge step forward, rather than giving the impression that we must have the best of the best to be healthy.
    And you are right, Lisa, preparation time is huge! Even those of us who are not low-income and work fulltime with families, need to find quick fix, healthy meal ideas at home.
    A low-income family can improve their health status by steering from low-nutrient foods & moving towards healthier options, even if some of these options are canned beans and canola oil….it can still positively impact the health of the family.
    BUT, yes, all of these ‘ideal’ options should be available to more people across SES lines!
    Sorry so verbose, but nutrition & health is my passion,
    Seanna Marceaux, RD

  • @kimjwilson says:

    Very interesting findings, CAFB folks. I’ve often wondered about whether the argument that it costs more to eat nutritiously was fact or fiction. I DO know it generally takes more time to prepare healthy meals (i.e. using fresh produce/ingredients rather than canned or frozen being a key reason). Also thought it was interesting to note that a couple of the healthier options are also the less expensive ones (i.e. ground turkey and the plain oatmeal).

    Related aside, Eating Well magazine’s latest issue contains an article on high-nutrition, inexpensive food options. Canned black beans, for example.

  • Lisa Goddard says:

    Seanna, thank you so much for your comments. We probably should have enlisted our CAFB nutritionist to go with us on our excursion. I appreciate the suggestions, and I’m glad you came to the same general conclusion we did:

    “Still, healthier foods do have a pricier tag!”

    Your comments also brings to light how complicated it may be to make those healthy food choices. I consider myself to be a fairly educated person and pretty good at deciphering food labels. The information you presented made me realize that there are many factors to consider in making healthy choices that I wasn’t aware of. I can only imagine what it may be like for someone with less education, and limited time to go shopping and really read labels.

    Clearly, Texas has a long road ahead in combating obesity and food insecurity, but that shouldn’t deter us from our goal.

    I appreciate your passion.

  • Ed Nicholson says:

    Thanks for a really good post. In doing the food stamp challenge with several others in my community, I was fascinated by comparing shopping lists with some. It’s truly amazing how many included higher-priced, processed foods in their baskets, rather than raw ingredients. They’re the ones who have complained most of being hungry as the week has gone on.
    I had the advantages of having a good kitchen, transportation to the cheapest grocery store in town, and some basic cooking skills passed to me by parents who grew up in the Depression and always had a garden.
    I think it points to the real need for the great work you and many other food banks are doing in nutrition, food-budgeting and food preparation programs.
    We need to continue to explore ways to make those programs more scalable and accessible to people who really need them.
    Thanks so much for the phenomenal work you do every day.

  • xoxoui says:

    Looking at it from simply a I-have-no-money and I-can’t plant-a-garden standpoint, someone would have to do some really strategic budgeting and meal planning in order to benefit from (for example) fresh items vs. canned items, which have a longer shelf life.

    I agree with everything Seanna said, and that last comment from Ed Nicholson reminds me…my parents always kept a garden, and we rarely nuked food. Whatever happened to those days?

  • Interesting, I think it can be hard to eat healthy on a budget, but there are ways. It’s certainly not impossible, I think most people just don’t want to put in the effort.

  • Liza says:

    After reading the article, I just feel that I really need more info. Could you share some resources ?

  • sandra roland says:

    I’ve survived on food stamps, I can’t say I lived on them I did not.My children did not go hungary they might not of had the sweet things some of the other kids had, I was able to make good choices when it came to makeing meal plans. Then I started working and they took my food stamps away because I made too much money. Then we almost starved, (food or medicine or doctor) if it wasn’t for the place that I worked being able to bring leftovers home..there were many nights thats all my children had to eat, They got a little breakfast at school and were on the free lunch program so they didn’t go hungary during the day.
    I’m sure there are so many children that fall into that catergory, that the only meal they have is one during school.
    The systems needs to be fixed to not give a hand out, but a hand up. If a person is willing to go out and work. all some people need is a little help. especially with food. I agree that there needs to be some sorta of education and suggestions for meals and things for people on a low income and people that get their food from the outreach programs.

  • […] Most commented blog post: Eating Healthy Without Breaking the Bank – a (non-scientific) CAFB experiment.  […]

  • Catherine Byrd says:

    I live in La grange,Texas.I am single mom, with kids on food stamps. The only income i get is ssi. So yeaterday i went to get emergency food stamps, but the lady told me i have to be migrant farm worker or illegal alein living in texas.well i guess because iam white my kids will go hungry.

  • […] 21, 2010 Last year, we conducted an experiment to answer the question, “Is it true that choosing healthier options is prohibitively expensive […]

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