Food costs

I was reading this weekend the One Dollar Diet Project. A couple decided to see what kind of diet they could put together for $1/day (each). They ate very basic foods like oatmeal, rice, beans, and very few fresh fruits or vegetables. To help ward off scurvy (extreme vitamin C deficiency) they drank Tang. They ate like this for a month and kept a blog.

Somewhere in the blog they said before they did this experiment, their normal food budget for the two of them was $150/week. I did the math and a family of 4 on that budget would spend $1200/month for food! This seems incredibly high. We spend about $300/month for the 4 of us. Even if we include the eating out we do, I don’t think we spend $1200/month on food. Granted, we don’t eat much meat (they are vegetarian so their meat cost should be zero) and buy a lot of our food in bulk, still that seems very high. It works out to $10/person/day for a family of 4. We are spending about $2.50/person/day.

We seem to be upside down when it comes to diet in this country. We are told to eat healthy, yet it is more expensive to do so. It should be the other way around. Unfortunately, big agriculture and business, not healthy nutrition controls food prices. Junk food has a longer shelf life. It is easier and cheaper to produce in bulk to send to stores than fresh produce and organic or specialty health foods. This may be partly why their food budget is so high.

This makes me wonder about the average family’s food budget and food costs in general. One thing that I’ve been reading blogs about lately is food costs. Why does healthy food cost more than junk? As a nation, we are overweight. This is causing millions of dollars worth of lost wages and increased medical costs. Wouldn’t it make more sense to pay for lowering healthy food costs and food education?

How do we keep our food costs lower? I can group it into three related catagories: limiting impulse buying, buying in bulk, and paying attention to the type of foods you buy.

We limit the number of trips to the grocery store. This cuts down on impulse buying which can quickly raise your bill. If I run out of something in the middle of the month (such as cheese) we usually do without until the next scheduled grocery trip. The exception to this is fresh fruit, assuming we have money later in the month. We keep a grocery list rather than just buying what looks good. Again, that helps cut down on impulse buying. My list is vague at times such as just saying frozen veggies or fresh fruit. That way I can choose what looks best or is most affordable when I go to the store.

We are lucky to have enough storage to buy mostly in bulk. I buy basic staples like what they did for their experiment such as beans and lentils, rice, oatmeal, flour, peanut butter, and pasta. Then I repackage it into canisters for the week. This also helps cut down on trash, which is something they mentioned in their blog too.

Paying attention to the type of foods you buy can save a lot of money. Pre-made foods are the most expensive (and usually the least healthy) on a per meal basis. It is much more economical to buy the ingredients and make it yourself. If you can, make enough for several meals and freeze the leftovers. I buy very few pre-made items like frozen dinners or canned soup. As I mentioned above, we eat very little meat. Meat is more expensive than even fresh produce on a per pound basis. We have meat only about once or twice a week. Even then it is a fairly small amount, often in something like spaghetti, soup, or a casserole. People don’t needs as much meat as Americans eat to get the required animal proteins. We don’t eat a lot of sweets or snack foods either. They are a special treat.

Another factor , which is often overlooked in food budget planning, is portion size. Food is plentiful in this country. This is where we have a problem, both my family and Americans in general. This is mentioned in their blog. Even with rising food costs, in general, only a relatively small part of our monthly income is spent on food. Americans often eat huge portions or several small portions of foods (seconds, thirds) at a meal. By eating a poor diet including lots of processed foods, you can consume more calories before you feel full. As a result, Americans overeat and gain weight. It is not unheard of to eat a full day’s worth of calories at just one meal.

I’m trying a diet (it’s more of a food management plan) now called the No-S Diet which says no seconds, no sweets, and no snacks except on special days or days beginning with S. This actually is a healthy way to control your daily calories and eat more healthy. The kids do get to have seconds and healthy snacks, just not me. I’ve lost 3 pounds so far. It’s also stretching our food budget a little.

In the meantime, farmers are going broke because their costs are going up faster than the price they can sell crops. Yet, by the time the fresh food hits the stores, it is 5-10 times more expensive. For instance a bushel (60 pounds) of oats sells for $8. Yet when I buy oatmeal, a 50 pound bag costs me $45. I recently heard of a farmer who has 3000 acres. He will not be planting his fields this summer. He would need to borrow 1.5 million to buy seed, fertilizer, fuel, etc. Yet after it is harvested, he estimates only to get 1.2 million for the crop. This mean he would loose $300,000 if he planted crops. He is not the only one. I am concerned if enough farmers decide it isn’t profitable to plant this year, the price of food will really rise and we may face shortages.

So what is the solution? There is no magic answer that will solve all our diet and food price problems. It is a complex problem. The first thing is nutrition education. This should be included in the schools at every level. School lunches in many areas have been made considerably healthier recently and even resulted in cost savings in some places. Restrictions and better guidelines should be placed on what can and can’t be purchased with food assistance to ensure recipients are eating healthy. Why save $1 in foodstamps if you then spend $2 for medicaid because of the food choices? Food manufactures need to have cheaper healthy foods. Progress is being made in this direction, but not fast enough. Finally, we need to just eat less. Yes, it is that simple for many of us.


4 Responses

  1. [linked to this post]

  2. Good post and thoughts to ponder….

    We invite everyone to follow our efforts on the ”dollar-a-day” challenge as I gear up for my next mission trip to Zambia; a country where living on just $1 a day is the norm.

    Feedback and suggestions always welcome.


  3. Karla,

    Thanks for visiting my blog. I enjoy checking yours. Zambia sounds exciting. How long will you be there and what will you be doing?

  4. Thanks! Stay posted as we’re updating daily…so far we’re on day 4. Doing well…

    I can’t wait to go to Zambia. I will be there for a few weeks in October with Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village program.

    I recently returned from Tajikistan, also with Habitat.

    Life-changing, to say the least!

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