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Eating healthy on a budget isn’t impossible

Updated: September 7, 2011 12:32AM

The headlines Friday on a new report published in Health Affairs all agreed: “Eating right comes at a big fat price!”

Stupid broccoli. You taste like broccoli and you’re expensive? Well, pass the Fritos, because I guess there’s nothing to be done. Nutrition costs too much!

According to the study, which surveyed 1,300 participants in King County, Wash., shopping to meet the United States Department of Agriculture’s recently revamped nutritional guidelines comes at an added cost. Looking at what it would take to meet the recommended daily allowances of potassium, fiber, Vitamin D and calcium, researchers found that an individual’s grocery bill could rise as much as $380 a year.

It’s true that plenty of research has found a correlation between obesity and income, with the nation’s poorest hit hardest in the growing health epidemic. But let’s consider a few things before running out for a Taco Bell value meal.

For starters, that $380 a year was the upper limit for how much more survey respondents figured they’d need to hit their nutritional marks. Even that dollar-a-day figure could be dropped significantly by taking the time to shop for cheaper nutritional superstars like lentils, cabbage, carrots, oranges and bananas. So push that Whole Foods fantasy that eating right involves acai berries and fancypants mushrooms out of your brain.

Another overlooked factor is the high cost of eating out, both nutritionally and financially. A hefty 37 percent of the average American food budget goes toward eating out, and in many cities that figure creeps considerably higher. Cook at home, boil some water, save some money.

I feel the economic pinch too, keenly. My household income has declined in the past two years, and yet, darn it, my growing children just keep needing meals. When I made the decision last year to give up the plastic-wrapped supermarket meat and chicken for local and organic, I had to accept that I’d be buying a hell of a lot less meat and chicken to fit within my budget. I wince at the cost of organic milk, which my daughters chug by the jug.

But after crunching the numbers and living and shopping differently, I know that it can be done. Beans and grains come in a wide variety of forms, and thankfully, they’re cheap. Also, here’s a tip — water. Unlike juice and soda, it’s free.

It takes time to scope out sales and figure out what’s in season. It takes effort to support the local farmers’ market over ConAgra. At the end of an exhausting day, it’s hard work chopping up red peppers that the kids might reject anyway. And absolutely, food is both a social and economic issue.

But remember that we’ve been living too long under the cheap-chicken delusion — that mass produced food, cheaply made and distributed, is acceptable and a right. It’s neither — and the health benefits of proper eating should not be a luxury that only the wealthy should enjoy. A dollar a day is a pretty small price, in the long term, to avoid the escalating drain on our health and our collective care system.

To paraphrase that old saw about education: You think kale is expensive? Try heart disease and Type II diabetes.

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon, where this essay was posted.

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