Healthy Eating on a Budget

Belt strapped budget piggy bank

There was a time when imported foods and processed and prepared foods were considered a luxury only within the reach of the rich. But if you’ve so much as walked into a grocery store recently, you know things have changed. Healthy food is not the least expensive food from a financial standpoint.

I will often remind people that the financial cost is not the only thing to consider when choosing what foods you put into your body. In the long run, when you factor in healthcare costs and the cost of quality of life lost due to poor nutrition, a slightly higher grocery bill right now doesn’t seem all that bad.

But there is good news if you are shopping for healthy foods on a budget!

The State of Food Today: Healthy Eating on a Budget

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average American spent about 9.9% of their income on food in 2008. That’s a number that’s dropped incrementally for the last decade. The USDA’s Economic Research Service posts food expenditures by percent of disposable income. In 2000, the average American spent 9.9% of their disposable income on food; in 2008 he or she spent 9.6%.

We may be spending less but are we getting value for our money?

A 2009 consumer survey conducted by food industry research firm Technomic found that although over half of US consumers are more aware and concerned about their eating habits compared to the year before:

  • 70% say healthy foods are getting more difficult to afford
  • 53% say they buy unhealthy foods because of cost constraints
  • 44% say that their budgets prevent them from making healthy choices

The Dirty Dozen

There are certain foods that I strongly urge people to buy organic. At the top of the list are meat and dairy products (though I recommend avoiding pasteurized dairy products altogether, organic or not). One thing to consider is “you are what you eat, what they ate.”

The Environmental Working Group has put together a “dirty dozen” guide to the foods you need to buy organic. By following these guidelines and always choosing organic varieties of the following produce, you can reduce your pesticide exposure by 80%.

The foods with the highest pesticide loads are:

  • Peaches
  • Apples
  • Bell Peppers
  • Celery
  • Nectarines
  • Strawberries
  • Cherries
  • Kale
  • Lettuce
  • Imported Grapes
  • Carrots
  • Pears

The Clean 16

Eating the 16 least contaminated foods when you can’t afford to buy organic can cut your pesticide exposure from 10 a day to 2 a day on average, says EWG.

  • Onions
  • Sweet corn
  • Asparagus
  • Sweet peas
  • Cabbage
  • Eggplant
  • Broccoli
  • Tomatoes
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Avocadoes
  • Pineapples
  • Mangoes
  • Kiwi
  • Papayas
  • Watermelon
  • Grapefruit

Buying Local

Buying locally grown produce is another great way to save money and the environment.

Community-supported agriculture, or CSAs, are an alternative many people are choosing. Cornell University’s Professor David Pimentel published a much-cited paper in 2009 about the energy costs of America’s eating habits.

One head of iceberg lettuce contains only 110 calories and yet takes 4000 calories of energy to transport it from California to New York.

“On average,” says Pimentel, “our food travels 1,500 miles before we get it…it takes about 4 calories of transportation for each calorie that you consume.  Four to one.”

It’s really something to think about considering that Pimentel and his students discovered that our food system today accounts for 19% of America’s fossil fuel consumption.

Author of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle Barbara Kingsolver writes: “If every US citizen ate just one meal a week (any meal) composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce, we could reduce our country’s oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil every week.”

A recent report by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) has found that American consumers are 48% more comfortable with foods grown in the US over foods that come from out of the country and 72% buy locally grown products on a regular basis.

FMI conducts research for many big businesses and reports that the troubling economy has not significantly impacted consumer interest in sustainability.The firm is advising food manufacturers that “there is growing evidence that sustainability can make sound business sense, reducing costs and increasing consumer loyalty.”

As it stands today, CSAs cut out the middle man and you end up getting better food for a better price. A share in a CSA farm costs from $400 to $600 for the growing season and comes with tons of bang for your buck.

  • You get fresh food that is in season—both factors that increase nutrient value—every week.
  • You know where your food is coming from and can investigate the farming methods for yourself.
  • You reduce your carbon footprint and support both the local economy and sustainable agriculture.
  • You get to know your neighbors and re-connect with food.
  • You’ll get surplus food that you can dry, freeze or otherwise preserve for off-season months.


Bureau of Labor Statistics (2009)

Economic Research Service (2008)

Business Wire (2009)

Environmental Working Group (2009)

Cornell Alumni Magazine (2009)

Food Marketing Institute (2009)

Rodale News (2010)

Josh Axe

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