Money Is Tight, and Junk Food Beckons

How much does it really cost to eat a healthy diet?

Economists, health researchers and consumers are struggling to answer that question as food prices rise and the economy slumps. The World Bank says nearly a billion people around the world live on a dollar a day, or even less; in the United States, the daily food-stamp allowance is typically just a few dollars per person, while the average American eats $7 worth of food per day.

Even middle-class people struggle to put healthful food on the table. Studies show that junk foods tend to cost less than fruits, vegetables and other healthful foods, whose prices continue to rise.

This fall a couple in Encinitas, Calif., conducted their own experiment to find out what it was like to live for a month on just a dollar a day for food. Overnight, their diets changed significantly. The budget forced them to give up many store-bought foods and dinners out. Even bread and canned refried beans were too expensive.

Instead, the couple — Christopher Greenslate, 28, and Kerri Leonard, 29, both high school social studies teachers — bought raw beans, rice, cornmeal and oatmeal in bulk, and made their own bread and tortillas. Fresh fruits and vegetables weren’t an option. Ms. Leonard’s mother was so worried about scurvy, a result of vitamin C deficiency, that they made room in their budget for Tang orange drink mix. (They don’t eat meat — not that they could have afforded it.)

Breakfast consisted of oatmeal; lunch was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Dinner often consisted of beans, rice and homemade tortillas. Homemade pancakes were affordable, but syrup was not; a local restaurant gave them a few free syrup packets.

One of the biggest changes was the time they had to spend in meal preparation.

“If you’re buying raw materials, you’re spending more time preparing things,” Mr. Greenslate said. “We’d come home after working 10 to 11 hours and have to roll out tortillas. If you’re already really hungry at that point, it’s tough.”

While he lost weight on the budget diet, Mr. Greenslate said, the larger issue was his lack of energy. During the experiment he was no longer able to work out at the gym.

A few times they found a bag of carrots or lettuce that was within their budget, but produce was usually too expensive. They foraged for lemons on the trees in their neighborhood to squeeze juice into their water.

Ms. Leonard said that after the 30-day experiment, one of the first foods she ate was a strawberry. “I almost cried,” she said.

The couple acknowledged that the experiment was something of a luxury, given that many people have no choice about how much to spend on food.

“People in our situation have the leisure to be concerned about issues like this,” Ms. Leonard said. “If we were actually living in this situation, I would not be taking the time to be concerned about what I could and could not have; I’d be worried about survival.”

Researchers say the experiment reflects many of the challenges that poor people actually face. When food stamps and income checks run low toward the end of the month, they often do scrape by on a dollar a day or less. But many people don’t know how to prepare foods from scratch, or lack the time.

“You have to know how to cook beans and rice, how to make tortillas, how to soak lentils,” said Adam Drewnowski, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington. “Many people don’t have the knowledge or the time if they’re working two jobs.”

Last year, Dr. Drewnowski led a study, published in The Journal of the American Dietetic Association, comparing the prices of 370 foods sold at supermarkets in the Seattle area. The study showed that “energy dense” junk foods, which pack the most calories and fewest nutrients per gram, were far less expensive than nutrient-rich, lower-calorie foods like fruits and vegetables. The prices of the most healthful foods surged 19.5 percent over the two-year study period, while the junk food prices dropped 1.8 percent.

Obesity researchers worry that these trends will push consumers toward less healthful foods. “The message for this year and next year is going to be affordable nutrition,” Dr. Drewnowski said. “It’s not the food pyramid, it’s the budget pyramid.”

The experiment in California was hardly the first of its kind, though the teachers’ budget was tighter than most. Last month Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm of Michigan and her family took a weeklong “food stamp challenge,” spending only $5.87 per day per person on food — the Michigan food stamp allotment. She told reporters that she ended up buying a lot of macaroni and cheese. Last year Gov. Theodore R. Kulongoski of Oregon lived for a week on his state’s $3-a-day food stamp allocation.

Ms. Leonard and Mr. Greenslate, who chronicled their dollar-a-day experience on their blog,, say they are looking at other ways to explore how difficult it is for people with limited income to eat a healthful diet.

“I challenge anyone to try to live on a dollar a day and eat fresh food in this country,” Mr. Greenslate said. “I would love to be proven wrong.” [via nytimes]

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