Eating Healthy Is Too Expensive

The US government create the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in 1939 to alleviate food insecurity.

Since that time, the focus of the program has shifted to include improving dietary intake. Today, it is the largest federal food assistance program, serving about 21 million households and 27% of all children in the United States.

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To qualify for benefits, households generally have to have an income <130% of the poverty level (determined by household size). The average monthly benefit per person is $125 and $254 per household.

Overall, research has shown that SNAP does reduce food insecurity and improves child and adult physical and mental health outcomes. Despite this, many families who receive SNAP benefits report significant financial barriers to purchasing healthier foods. Compared with those who do not receive SNAP benefits, recipients have been shown to have lower diet quality.

SNAP was never intended to be the sole source of financing for a healthier diet (“supplementary”). However, many households rely heavy on these benefits, which are increasingly at danger of being cut from the federal budget.

In 2011, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) calculated the cost of various food plans based on the federal dietary guidelines. It was determined that a nutritious, low-cost diet would cost $147/week (or $588/month) for a family of four (2 adults + 2 children). However, that report was based on the OLD dietary guidelines (MyPyramid) and not the NEW guidelines (MyPlate) which was unveiled in 2010.

Notable changes were the allowance of vegan and lacto-ovo vegetarian eating patterns by renaming the meat, beans, and milk groups into the protein and dairy groups. MyPlate also encouraged a wider variety of produce consumption. Because of these changes, the 2011 estimate may no longer be accurate.

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WHY SHOULD YOU CARE?

Obesity rates have continued to rise in the past few decades, now with 2/3 of adults being considered overweight or obese. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins (“healthy foods”) are associated with weight gain prevention and reduced risk of lifestyle-related chronic disease, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers.

Low-income persons are more likely to be afflicted by these same diseases. Limited resources is one reason for lower adherence to federal dietary guidelines – not being able to afford purchasing healthier foods, lack of access, and lack of time to prepare healthy foods.

Because research often is used to inform policy and policy changes, up-to-date research is needed when making policy decisions.

More recently, researchers found that consuming MyPlate levels of produce would cost between $2.10-$2.60/day.

New research has also recently been published calculating varying scenarios of how much MyPlate levels of all age-appropriate food group serving sizes would cost.

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HOW MUCH DOES EATING HEALTHY REALLY COST?

Monthly costs for a family of four (2 adults + 2 children) were estimated to range from $930.42/month (mixture of fresh, frozen, and canned produce; beans as main source of lean protein – vegetarian diet) to $1,249.15 (only fresh fruits and vegetables; includes meat and eggs as sources of lean protein).

As a reminder, the 2016 USDA’s low-cost food plan was $588/month for that same household size and the average household receives only $254/month. This would mean that the household would need to find, at the very least, an additional $676/month in order to afford the most cost-efficient version of the government’s MyPlate nutritional recommendations.

However, we also need to take the cost of chronic disease into account…

It’s estimated that the direct medical costs (doctors visits, hospitalizations, medications, etc.) of heart disease in the US are almost $270 BILLION per year.

Research shows that increased fruit and vegetable consumption could prevent over 127,000 deaths per year from heart disease and that the value of this increased longevity would exceed $11 TRILLION.

SNAP is the largest federal food assistance program. Current federally proposed budget cuts to the SNAP program decreases the already inadequate amount of benefits available for food purchases and fewer people would have access to the program.

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HOW TO SAVE AT THE STORE

  • YOU DON’T HAVE TO BUY FRESH
    • Purchase a variety of fresh, canned, and frozen fruits and vegetables. Watch out for added salt, sauces, and sugar.
  • MAKE A LIST AND DON’T GO HUNGRY
    • You are less likely to make impulse purchases if you come prepared with a list and aren’t starving with a growling belly.
  • MORE PLANTS, LESS MEAT
    • Vegetarian sources of protein, like beans, are cheaper than meat. Consider having a Meatless Monday or replacing your main protein source with beans for several meals throughout the week.
  • PURCHASE IN SEASON
    • Fresh fruits and vegetables are generally on sale more and are least expensive when they are in season. Stop trying to buy fresh strawberries in the dead of winter.
  • STORE BRAND OR BUST
    • More often than not, generic and store brands are less expensive than even name-brand items when they are on sale or include a coupon.
  • SHOP AROUND
    • Stores know that you are probably willing to pay more for some items as long as you can do all of your shopping at one store. Don’t let them fool you! By putting in the extra leg work and visiting several stores, you can save yourself some major dough.
  • BECOME A MEMBER
    • By providing something simple like your phone number or e-mail address, many stores offer a customer card that allows you access to special prices, coupons, and sales. Many of these rewards programs are completely free.
SOURCE
Mulik, Kranti and Lindsey Haynes-Maslon. “The Affordability of MyPlate: An Analysis of SNAP Benefits and the Actual Cost of Eating According to the Dietary Guidelines”. JNEB 49(7), 2017. doi:10.1016/j.jneb.2017.05.178.
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