A Spiritual Journey into SNAP

One family's experiment living on a food-stamp budget

The Cost of Eating Well

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In December, a team of researchers from Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Medical school published a meta-analysis in which they compared the cost of eating a healthy diet (defined as including lots of veggies, fish, nuts and whole grains) versus an unhealthy diet full of refined flour and sugar, meat and processed foods. They confined their work to wealthy, developed countries and compared prices both by cost per serving and by cost per calorie. They found that on average eating healthy cost about $1.50 more per person per day than the unhealthy diet. The researchers commented that it is assumed that eating a healthful diet cost more, but conventional wisdom suggested that it cost a lot more than $1.50 per day—$6.00 per day for our family of four. The authors note that this price differential would be significant and even prohibitive for some, but for those who can afford it, they argue, eating better saved in the long run by avoiding a host of diet-related chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease.

An interesting aspect of this study is that it compared conventionally produced foods and did not include organic options. From the researcher’s perspective, this makes sense because studies attempting to document an impact of organic food on human health have been equivocal. Some organic options like dairy have more healthful fat balances and fewer synthetic hormones, but the beneficial effects have yet to show up in large studies. Eating fewer pesticides would also seem like a good idea, but again, this has not demonstrated rigorously. What we do know is that organic farming practices are easier on soil and life, which might be a good enough reason to prefer them. But I digress. The point is that conventional wisdom also says that there is a significant surcharge for organic products—less for veggies, more for animal products.

What does this mean for our SNAP family challenge. For those of you who know me, you’ll know that I’m a devotee of local, organic food and will generally prefer organic over conventional whenever possible. When I had the luxury of a less limited budget, I didn’t think much about this choice—I almost always went organic. I’ve already talked about milk. Today, I confronted tomatoes. Needing crushed tomatoes for the chili I’m making for the Kokanees swim meet this weekend, I faced down the canned stuff aisle. Looking specifically at Wegmans brand—the least expensive option available—I noted that conventionally produced (28 oz.) crushed tomatoes were $1.49 while the organic version was $1.99. Two cans, that’s $1.00 or a bit more than a half a percent of my weekly budget. I chose organic.

Now, you might say that I’ll get nickeled and dimed out of my budget with those sorts of decisions. Perhaps, but the more important cost-saving decision came before I even got to the can aisle: I rolled by the ground chicken. My usual chili recipe contains ground bird of some sort. At the store today, high Karma ground bird from Frank Perdue would have set me back $4.99 for this recipe, while slightly lower Karma (organic) bird from Wegmans would have cost $5.99. So by going veggie for this dish—even with the organic tomato surcharge—I saved several dollars. And while you may notice that the meat is not there, the nutritional impact is minimal and the things that makes this recipe special are the whole kernel corn and chipotle, so nothing is really lost. And even with the organic tomatoes, this chili is still among the most economical meals that I make—around $7.00 for a pot that lasts us through two dinners and several lunches. Plus it is low in fat, high in protein, rich in veggies and the picky eaters gobble it up.

Reflecting further on the Harvard study, it seems likely that most of the additional cost of the healthy diet comes from fish and nuts. These are expensive—particularly when produced sustainably—and may well be off our Lenten table altogether. Or, at best, the fish might be reserved for a feast day instead of a fast—with apologies to the Roman Catholics!

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