Is it Possible to Eat Healthy on a Food Stamp Budget?

Story at-a-glance -

  • In the documentary film Food Stamped, filmmakers attempt to eat a healthy diet on a food-stamp budget, which amounts to $1 per person, per meal
  • With a great deal of planning and preparation, the filmmakers were able to succeed on the food stamp budget for one week, but in the end they were incapable of getting enough calories and would have likely lost weight and become malnourished had the diet continued (which neither of them needed to do)
  • The film makes it easy to see why many Americans with tight budgets and limited access to fresh produce opt for the cheapest, most filling options for food, like white bread, fast-food hamburgers and noodles, but also makes it clear the devastating toll this type of diet takes on your health
  • While some Americans may opt for fast-food or junk food because it’s actually the only way they can afford a meal, many others – the majority – purchase it by choice, as junk food is convenient, for the most part affordable and also created to appeal to your taste buds
  • In order to protect your health, I believe you should spend 90 percent of your food budget on whole foods, and only 10 percent on processed foods

By Dr. Mercola

In recent years, as the pace of the US economic recovery has slowed, the number of Americans enrolled in the food stamp program has skyrocketed, now reaching an all-time high of roughly 46 million Americans.

With so many people in need of assistance to purchase food for their families, the question of whether or not it is possible to truly eat healthy on a food-stamp budget has become all the more pressing.

Husband and wife filmmakers Yoav and Shira Potash tackled this inquiry with both their cameras and their stomachs in the acclaimed documentary film Food Stamped.

Can You Eat Healthy for $1 a Meal?

While food assistance varies from state to state, a typical food-stamp budget amounts to a paltry $1 per person, per meal.

At the start of Food Stamped, nutrition educator and filmmaker Shira Potash reveals that teaching healthy cooking classes to elementary students in low-income neighborhoods gave her the idea to take the food stamp challenge. As she says in the film, "Even though I can get kids excited about fruits and vegetables, can their families realistically afford to make the kinds of things we're introducing in school?"

In its depiction of a wide variety of people who receive food assistance dollars, Food Stamped shows that many of these Americans live in "food deserts" – areas without grocery stores, and perhaps only a convenience store where they can purchase their food. 

Like all Americans, there's a decent chance that these low-income individuals may lack any knowledge of healthy eating and cooking, let alone the resourceful combination of skills and habits required to transform a $1-meal budget into a tasty, balanced diet for themselves and their families.

The filmmakers acknowledge that they had some advantages from the start. For one, Shira's experience as a nutrition educator provided her not only with the knowledge of what constitutes a healthy meal, but also the practice of how to prepare it. Meanwhile, the filmmakers took their food stamp challenge not in a food dessert, but in the "food-mecca" of Berkeley, California, a city with plentiful access to healthy food and farmer's markets.

On the other hand, Shira's filmmaker husband Yoav possesses no formal nutrition knowledge and was, more or less, dragged into the challenge by his health-crusading wife. In a humorous scene in which the couple traipses through the grocery store with their low-budget shopping list in hand, Yoav asks – incredulously – "You're choosing lettuce over coffee?" When Shira reminds Yoav of the high price of his daily habit, he mentions that perhaps he will have to "crash Alcoholics Anonymous meetings" for the free coffee.

While this filmmaking couple has a charming and light-hearted presence on-camera, when they are behind the camera they provide a deep and powerful look at the struggles many families face as they attempt to put three square meals on the table. The filmmakers visit food stamp enrollment clinics and tag along with low-income shoppers who tend to opt for the cheapest, most filling foods, such as white bread, factory-farmed ground beef, and ramen noodles.

Meanwhile, in interviews with Members of Congress who also took the food stamp challenge, Food Stamped shows how our elected officials – when forced to eat on meager budgets themselves – likewise fell prey to the allure of cheap convenience foods.

"The food that we ended up buying was the least healthy food," says Democratic Congressman Jim McGovern of Massuchusetts in a poignant interview featured in the film. "The less nutritious the food, the cheaper it is, the more you can afford."

Looking beyond our personal food choices, Food Stamped explores the faults in US food and farm policy. Why, for instance, is fresh produce hard to come by while fast-food restaurants seem to pop up on every corner?

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Government Food Choices That Make or Break Your Health

If your meals consist of $1 burgers and super-size drinks, your diet may be cheap, but it is also excessively high in grains, sugars, and factory-farmed meats. This is a recipe for obesity, diabetes and heart disease, just to name a few calamitous conditions that befall those who consume "the Standard American Diet," which Food Stamped memorably depicts with a red frowny face and the abbreviation S.A.D.

In a wonderful distillation of the US Farm Bill, the documentary shows how we have the US government to thank for this cheap food. Farm subsidies, particularly for corn, lead to the production of high-fructose corn syrup, cheap fast food, animal factories, monoculture, and a host of other contributors to our unhealthful modern diet. (A U.S. PIRG report on federal subsidies used an "apples-to-Twinkies comparison" to reveal the shocking truth about where your tax dollars are really going.)2

As Food Stamped uses graphics to show the billions of taxpayer dollars given to commodity crops every year, food policy experts, such as Shereen D'Souza, Director of the California Food and Justice Coalition, describe how the US farm subsidies program is actually promoting foods that are extraordinarily high in calories, fat, and sugar.

By examining the farm subsidies program and government-assisted nutrition education efforts side by side, Food Stamped reveals the glaring contradictions is US food policy. In one USDA program, our tax dollars are subsidizing junk food while across the hall another USDA program funds an anti-obesity campaign. This hypocrisy shows just how broken and wasteful our regulatory system really is. No wonder so many people fall into the junk-food trap.

The Allure of Junk Food That Keeps You Coming Back for More

For me, watching Food Stamped made me think about how many Americans purchase junk food not because of their own financial limitations, but simply because they choose to. Make no mistake: junk food is convenient, economically alluring, and engineered to appeal to your primal drive for calories, fat, sugar, and salt.

From the intense advertising to the lab-tested recipes, the junk food system is orchestrated to keep you buying more junk in lieu of real food. As you consume more and more of these highly processed products, you lose touch with the foundations of healthy eating – and your kids may grow up never knowing the value of a home-cooked meal.

The fact that manufacturers are able to keep pulling the wool over people's eyes, convincing them that these products are "foods" worthy of buying is nothing more than a marketing victory, albeit a very persuasive one.

One telling shot in Food Stamped reveals the ubiquity of fast-food with a simple but effective zoom-out. As the filmmakers visit a farmer's market in the low-income food desert of Watts, California, the camera reveals a Jack-in-the-box directly across the street from the farmers and the fresh produce. The implication is clear; on the one hand, the farmers and their produce have arrived in the ghetto, helping to make fresh and healthy food available in an area where it is sorely needed. On the other hand, the farmer's market is an occasional institution, operating just one day a week, while the fast food franchise pumps out its low-nutrient fare seven days a week, 365 days a year.

While it's possible to make the healthy choice, under these conditions, it's not easy.

And yet, Food Stamped provides inspiring glimpses of people like an African-American woman shopping at the Watts farmer's market who proudly conveys that her doctors tell her to "keep doing what I'm doing – a lot of fruits, a lot of vegetables, a lot of water, no fried foods."

But cost is just one factor. The convenience, pervasive presence, and the addictive nature of processed food are what drive so many Americans – rich or poor – to eat far too much junk.

In response, I want to highlight healthy foods that are very affordable, and also offer eight tips for stretching your food budget in a manner that is good for your health and your pocketbook.

Healthy Foods That Are Under $1

I'm often surprised at the prices people are willing to pay for boxes of breakfast cereals that are full of nothing more than sugar, or for bags of chips that offer nothing good for your body whatsoever. And don't get me started on soda and all the other sugary drinks that flood our stores. In short, they are an absolute health disaster!

These pricey processed foods will eat up your grocery budget in the blink of an eye, and will cause disease in the long-term. In reality, any money spent on junk food is a waste, and purging these items from your grocery list is the first step to eating right on a budget.

Some of the healthiest foods are incredibly affordable, even under $1 a serving, such as:

  • Raw organic milk
  • Raw nuts and seeds
  • Two cage-free organic eggs
  • Avocado, berries and broccoli
  • Fermented foods you make at home

Getting back to the original question, is it possible to eat healthy even on a very limited budget, I believe it can be – if you keep these foundational rules in mind…

8 Tips for Stretching Your Food Budget and Still Eating Real Food

In order to protect your health, I believe you should spend 90 percent of your food budget on whole foods, and only 10 percent on processed foods (unfortunately most Americans currently do the opposite). This requires some strategy, especially if you're working with a tight budget:

  1. Identify a Person to Prepare Meals. Someone has to invest some time in the kitchen. It will be necessary for either you, your spouse, or perhaps someone in your family prepare the meals from locally-grown healthful foods.
  2. Become resourceful: This is an area where your grandmother can be a wealth of information, as how to use up every morsel of food and stretch out a good meal was common knowledge to generations past. Seek to get back to the basics of cooking – using the bones from a roast chicken to make stock for a pot of soup, extending a Sunday roast to use for weekday dinners, learning how to make hearty stews from inexpensive cuts of meat, using up leftovers and so on.
  3. Plan your meals: If you fail to plan you are planning to fail. This is essential, as you will need to be prepared for mealtimes in advance to be successful. Ideally this will involve scouting out your local farmer's markets for in-season produce that is priced to sell, and planning your meals accordingly, but you can also use this same premise with supermarket sales.   

    You can generally plan a week of meals at a time, make sure you have all ingredients necessary on hand, and then do any prep work you can ahead of time so that dinner is easy to prepare if you're short on time in the evenings.

    It is no mystery that you will be eating lunch around noon every day so rather than rely on fast food at work, before you go to bed make a plan as to what you are going to take to work the next day. This is a marvelous simple strategy that will let you eat healthier, especially if you take healthy food from home in to work.

  4. Avoid food waste: According to a study published in the journal PloS One,4 Americans waste an estimated 1,400 calories of food per person, each and every day. The two steps above will help you to mitigate food waste in your home. You may also have seen my article titled 14 Ways to Save Money on Groceries. Among those tips are suggestions for keeping your groceries fresher, longer, and I suggest reviewing those tips now.
  5. Buy organic animal foods. The most important foods to buy organic are animal, not vegetable, products (meat, eggs, butter, etc.), because animal foods tend to concentrate pesticides in higher amounts. If you cannot afford to buy all of your food organic, opt for organic animal foods first.
  6. Keep costs down on grass-fed beef. Pasture-finished beef is far healthier than grain-fed beef (which I don't recommend consuming). To keep cost down, look for inexpensive roasts or ground meat. You may also save money by buying an entire side of beef (or splitting one with two or three other families), if you have enough freezer space to store it.
  7. Buy in bulk when non-perishable items go on sale. If you are fortunate to live near a buyer's club or a co-op, you may also be able to take advantage of buying by the pound from bins, saving both you and the supplier the cost of expensive packaging.
  8. Frequent farmer's markets. You may be surprised to find out that by going directly to the source you can get amazingly healthy, locally-grown, organic food for less than you can find at your supermarket. This gives you the best of both worlds: food that is grown near to you, cutting down on its carbon footprint and giving you optimal freshness, as well as grown without toxic chemicals, genetically modified seeds, and other potential toxins.

    Just as restaurants are able to keep their costs down by getting food directly from a supplier, you, too, can take advantage of a direct farm-to-consumer relationship, either on an individual basis or by joining a food coop in your area. Many farmer's markets are now accepting food stamps, so this is an opportunity most everyone can join in on.

While the film Food Stamped doesn't spell out these steps, it's clear that filmmakers Shira and Yoav Potash exerted considerable effort in the planning and preparation of their meals. The point for them was not to score an A+ on their nutrition report card (revealed at the end of the film), but instead to take audiences on an entertaining and highly informative journey. For that, they do deserve an A+.

While their trek began at the intersection of the economic recession and the obesity epidemic, it never really ends. Instead, it weaves its way into your grocery list and your own thoughts about what you consume. While there have been many films that explore food and health issues, Food Stamped does so with freshness, intelligence, and an appropriate sense of both humor and hope. In the face of a multi-billion dollar processed food industry, this low-budget documentary packs both a punch and a crunch. I highly recommend it.

Food Stamped
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