When I read a recent article telling me a healthy diet is expensive and difficult to achieve, the nutritionist and healthy food advocate in me has to stand up and respond.
The Union-Bulletin on Aug. 4 ran a front-page story by The Associated Press about a study done at University of Washington titled "Following Federal Guidelines to Increase Nutrient Consumption May Lead to Higher Food Costs For Consumers." Reading it over, I felt there were too many holes in the story to fairly judge the research findings. So I contacted the researchers directly and got my hands on the whole study. As I suspected, there were many important details that didn't appear in news media.
Basically, the study found that meeting the federal dietary guidelines may be difficult for those people with limited food budgets, "unless general food consumption patterns and relative food prices change."
Now, we know food prices aren't changing anytime soon, so the only other factor would be food consumption patterns. Obviously, adding some fresh broccoli on top of a fast-food diet isn't going to really help anyone, and buying some fresh foods on top of the costly junk food will increase a monthly food budget, so something else has to happen.
Americans need to change the way they look at meal time and focus less on processed, prepared foods and more on fresh meals from scratch. I know this is a stretch for many people, especially those who feel they don't have the time, energy or knowledge. This may require a move away from those foods that people commonly eat, toward new foods and new methods. And those people on a limited budget may need dietary guidance, to assist them in finding affordable sources of the commonly low nutrients, vitamin D, potassium and dietary fiber.
The study states that increasing nutrient intakes, specifically potassium, could possibly increase daily food costs by $1.04 a day, or $380 a year, a figure the news media highlighted. But this figure is relative, based on how a person obtains the potassium. A banana provides 450 milligrams of potassium, so eating two a day would more than bridge the gap between what the average person consumes and what is recommended, at a mere 40 cents, or $146 per year. A banana also provides 3 grams of dietary fiber, or 12 percent of the recommended daily intake, which is consistently low in the standard American diet. So, two nutrient birds with one stone - OK, a banana or two.
At any rate, the study suggested that selecting foods with good sources of multiple nutrients could be a way to improve nutrient intake with a minimal effect on food budgets.
Foods high in saturated fat and added sugars (processed foods) are cheaper than nutrient-dense foods (whole foods), which makes it an easy sale for those on a limited budget. But these processed foods do not contribute to meeting dietary recommendations and can eat away at a food budget without meeting nutrient needs.
If people are serious about a healthier diet, they need to re-evaluate their current food patterns and remove the empty calories like sodas, candy and junk food. This will leave money in their pockets for more nutrient-dense foods.
In the news story, the writer reported that eating local and organic can be more expensive. I can see the point in that, for someone on a limited budget shopping at an expensive boutique-style store like Whole Foods. But in a town like Walla Walla, buying produce in season from a local farmer, and maybe organic, can be quite affordable. Especially if it's a part of a person's weekly food budget already.
My family is on a limited budget, with both my husband and I working part time, so we know all about trying to make ends meet. We bought a farm share at the beginning of the season and get a full box of produce at $30/week, which provides us with local, fresh, seasonal produce and eggs that lasts through the week. We also buy beans and brown rice in bulk, saving money while supplying us with nutrient-dense protein, dietary fiber, and an array of vitamins and minerals. Supplementing these basics, we make a run to our local grocer once a week to get dairy products and bananas.
No wasted money on processed junk foods. If we get a sweet craving, we make homemade cookies or ice cream, which still contributes to our nutrient needs. All this for less than $150 a week, less than the average low-income consumer respondent in the study.
I know the study is more focused on the financial effect on the consumer, but we can't really separate the cost the consumer pays for food from the cost of travel, cost of ozone-depleting emissions from semi-trucks carrying that produce thousands of miles, and the small percentage of cost the farmer actually gets when selling to large distribution houses, leaving him with a barely livable wage. These are all a part of the whole that the media stories didn't take into account.
And what about the cost of health care? A nutrient-dense healthy diet costs the consumer less in medical bills as well. Better diet has been proven to lead to less visits to the expensive doctor's office and lower insurance premiums, saving the consumer money now and down the road.
This is not an easy subject. For most people, food is a very personal, emotional issue. And meeting nutritional needs is vitally important, but most folks don't want to change the way they eat. It's what they know. It's comfort. It's their history, their culture and their identity.
People want to eat better, but don't know where to start and many think they can't afford it. The study calls for more assistance from the federal government to help average Americans meet dietary recommendations, through financial incentives for low-income consumers to buy fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains. It also called for changes in the U.S. food production and distribution systems, and reorienting agricultural subsides to support the production of fruits and vegetables.
It's up to each of us to make positive healthy changes at home, but having a better system that promotes and supports a healthy diet would be a great benefit to us all, especially those who need more help.
There are also wonderful resources out there for those who want to make healthful changes to their diet that don't require more government programs. Check your local clinic for nutrition education classes, take a whole- foods cooking class, or search the internet for an abundance of ideas and resources.
Don't let news headlines make you think you can't afford to make positive changes for you and your family. Healthy dietary change is within each and everyone's grasp and every journey starts with a first step. What's yours going be?
Need help getting food on the table? Check out local food banks in Walla Walla, some of which provide fresh produce:
- HelpLine (509) 529-3377
- Pantry Shelf (509) 526-4169
- Salvation Army (509) 529-9470
- St. Vincent de Paul (509) 525-3903
Interested in having a weekly box of seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables fresh from the field? Join one of the many Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm share operations in the Walla Walla Valley:
- Monteillet Fromagerie Farm (509) 382-1917
- Welcome Table Farm (509) 529-0772
- Ideal Organics Farm (509) 386-6038
- Stones Throw Farm (509) 529-5456
- West End Farm (509) 525-7139
- Schreiber and Sons (509)266-4348
- Made in Walla Walla Box, Daily Market Co-op (509) 529-7348
For more about nutritional meal planning, Washington State University Extension offers a free self-lead online course at www.extension.org/pages/20590/better-meals-with-better-planning