Eating Healthy Doesn’t Have to Break the Bank

By Jessica Easto

Buying fresh produce doesn’t have to be out of reach when your budget is tight. Here’s how to save money on fruits and vegetables.

When you have a limited income, budgeting for your groceries can be challenging. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) latest available numbers, a family of four with children older than 5 years old should be able to meet its dietary needs with $646.80 (a “thrifty food plan”) to $1,288.20 (a “liberal food plan”) each month.

No matter how much you spend on groceries, we can probably agree that spending more than $600 a month on food is no small fee. At the same time, the USDA uses the numbers in its thrifty food plan as the basis for maximum allotments through its supplemental nutrition assistance program, also referred to as SNAP. Unfortunately, this creates a problem, as it can be difficult to feed a family on a budget when using SNAP.

A 2017 study from North Carolina State University in Raleigh found that SNAP allotments only cover 43%- 60% of a “healthy” diet that follows certain federal guidelines. How much more a family needs to spend on food in addition to a SNAP allotment depends on what kind of diet the family is eating. For example, a diet that features only fresh produce is the most expensive, costing a family of four $626.95 each month in addition to SNAP benefits. But according to the study, even the least expensive diet—a vegetarian diet—costs $487.39 more than SNAP allotments.

Those of us who want to eat and serve fresh, healthy meals on a budget certainly have challenges to overcome. It’s true that frozen and canned produce can often be healthy options, too, but there are thrifty ways to get fresh produce on the table. In this post, we explore a few ways to do just that.

Develop your kitchen skills

Kitchen skills can be a barrier of entry when it comes to eating healthy on a budget. Not feeling comfortable in the kitchen can make the dollar menu at the local fast-food joint awfully tempting, and when you aren’t comfortable planning meals for your family, food waste can become a costly problem.

One great resource to becoming more comfortable in the kitchen is the free-to-download cookbook Good and Cheap by Leanne Brown. Brown first developed the book as part of her master’s degree in food science. She wanted to develop recipes for those living on a limited income, particularly those using SNAP. Brown’s recipes are inexpensive, easy to prepare, flavorful, and as the book’s states, “celebrate the vegetables rather than the meat.”

The book alone, of course, is not a silver bullet, but it is a great resource for anyone who wants to develop kitchen skills and eat fresh fruits and vegetables on a budget. If you prefer to have a hard copy, check your local library. Thousands of copies have been donated and are available to borrow.

You can also check out our article, “The Broke Person’s Guide to Home Cooking.”

Try local farmers markets

One of Brown’s top pieces of advice is to buy produce in season. “During their local growing season,” she writes, “fruits and vegetables are generally cheaper and definitely tastier than outside of season.” For example, you may have noticed that ears of corn are quite inexpensive in the summer months, but the price climbs in the winter. That’s because corn is ready to pick and readily available in the summer.

Your local farmers market is a great place to buy in season. At farmers markets, producers sell their produce and other goods directly to consumers. If you’ve never been to a farmers market, you may assume that its produce, which is local and frequently organic, may be more expensive than what you find in the grocery store. Although actual pricing depends on where you live and what you are buying, studies have found on average, produce is cheaper at the farmers market than it is at a regular grocery store. Additionally, the produce you buy at a farmers market is frequently fresher and higher quality than grocery store options.

It’s important to note that low-income neighborhoods are heavily impacted by food deserts, areas that lack easy access to purveyors of fresh produce and other whole foods, such as grocery stores and farmers markets. Still, that doesn’t mean if you live in a low-income area, you do not have access to farmers markets. A study by the Project for Public Spaces found farmers markets “represent an important strategy in the efforts to bring affordable, healthy food options into low-income communities,” especially since the number of markets in the United States continues to grow.

Use the USDA’s national farmers market directory to find a farmers market near you. You may also want to search for local directories, as states and other regional areas often produce their own.

Plan for the short term

Be strategic about the produce that you do buy. Brown recommends buying groceries on a weekly schedule in order to reduce your food waste. The idea is to only buy what you need for a week so that you can eat it all before it goes bad. You can also focus on buying fruits and vegetables, such as carrots, apples, and potatoes, that have a longer shelf life than more delicate types of produce. Additional tips on smart navigation of the grocery store are available here.

Consider ugly produce

Companies like Imperfect Produce may be beneficial if you live in one of the areas it services. The organization sells and delivers produce that otherwise would have been destined for a landfill because it doesn’t meet the specific aesthetic requirements most stores want to present on their shelves. For example, maybe the apples are a bit smaller than you would find at the supermarket, or the carrots aren’t perfectly straight, but they are still edible and healthy, just the same.

Because the company sells food products that otherwise would have been tossed to the side, Imperfect Produce is able to offer both conventional and organic produce for much cheaper than you would find at the store. The organization also offers a reduced cost box program for families that qualify for SNAP.

Plant a garden or join a community garden

If you don’t have access to a farmers market, or if you want to supplement the produce that is available to you, consider starting a small garden. Even if you live in an urban area, having a small, manageable garden is possible.  For a small upfront investment, you can set up small container gardens on a rooftop deck, or windowsill.

It’s true that gardening can be a lot of work, but there are certain plants that produce abundantly and are easy to care for in relatively small container gardens. According to the Urban Gardeners Republic, lettuces, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, radishes, green beans, and zucchini are among the easiest produce to grow in an urban setting. And don’t forget about herbs, such as basil and mint, which can thrive in small pots on windowsills if they get enough sunlight. Modern Farmer also has some great tips on how to start an urban container garden.

If you live in an apartment and there is any green space around the property, consider asking your landlord if you could plant a few things. If this or a container garden is not an option, try to find a community garden to join. There are different types of community gardens, but in general, members of community gardens share the spoils of the soil in exchange for helping tend to the garden. To find a community garden near you, use Urban Farming’s locator tool.

Consider using (or donating to) a food pantry 

Many of us think of canned goods and nonperishables when we think of food pantries. But many also offer fresh seasonal produce. For those of us who do not have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, food pantries can be a great resource.

Ample Harvest, an organization that helps connect gardeners with food pantries, provides resources and locators for those in search of a food pantry that offers fresh produce. If your garden takes off and you end up with more produce than you can eat, you can use Ample Harvest to pay it forward and donate your extra produce to a food pantry near you.

What to do with your savings

What happens when you have extra money left over in your grocery budget? We recommend starting an emergency fund. Even if you can only contribute a few bucks here or there, an emergency fund is an important part of becoming financially stable. That way, when an unexpected expense arises—or one month’s grocery budget got eaten up by something else—you will have an emergency stash of cash to tide you over.

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