Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Vegetables, Cost, and the Good Ol' USDA

Cheap Eat Challenge: Watch or join us as our family of 6 learns to eat on $6/day.

Top to bottom and left to right:
frozen strawberries, carrots, kale
tomato puree, broccoli, artisan lettuces
spinach, banana, apple, grapes, orange
sweet potato, russet potato

Recently there's been a bit of talk in the old blogosphere about how much must be spent in order to get the 4.5 C of fruits and vegetables recommended by the USDA. (specifically 2.5 C vegetables and 2 C fruit). (Don't know what I'm talking about. Have a look here or here for a couple of the more objective outlooks, although the comments aren't always as objective.) The USDA says it can be done on $2.50/day. A bunch of other people say the USDA is living under a rock or perhaps on a mountain far away or maybe under a rock on a mountain far away.

And while I certainly won't argue that the purported scientists, dieticians, and politicians who comprise the USDA certainly must be a troop of Martian invaders having a good laugh at our expense ("Hey, Borg, let's make it look like a prism and keep calling it a pyramid and see if anyone notices." "Okay, (snorking genetically modified frozen soybean juice out nose) "but only if we can change the measurements from ounces to cups and spend over $5 million to do it."), I have to say that I believe folks can eat 4 1/2 C of fruits and veggies--a wholesome, colorful, and balanced blend on $2.50/day. Perhaps even less. It's not even too much of a challenge if you shop the Aldi/Walmart/Costco circuit. It's also possible in other supermarkets if you're careful to shop seasonal and loss-leader items. Co-ops, farmer's markets, and your own garden can also be helpful. In fact, in the summer, I'd wager people can even do the $2.50/day by eating locally and perhaps even organically (or near-organically).

Also, as a parting jab point: There's been a lot of criticism about how "sure, you can do it with iceburg lettuce and white potatoes, but..."

It's true that these are not the most nutrient-dense foods, but they are still more nutrient dense and unadulterated than, say, candy or French fries or soda or Cheese Whiz. Therefore if people not eating vegetables/fruits (and isn't that really who the guidelines are there for anyway) start to replace these foods in people's diets, or even merely supplement junky foods in their diets, that's a step in the right direction. After all, they've added some vitamin C, fiber, water, and other nutrients that weren't there before. And that is hardly a bad thing. Enough of those super cheap, somewhat nutritious vegetables and we might even find ourselves on the way to health. Or wealth. Or both. But I don't think we'll have to stick to the iceburg/russet regimen to make it on $2.50.

Here's a sampling of real foods at real prices that I had in my house:

1. Canned Tomato puree: 1 C for $.35 ($1.36 for 29 oz from Walmart--this is not sauce; it's concentrated tomatoe puree: ingredients--tomato pulp)

2. Frozen Strawberries: 1 C for $.60 (2 lb for $3.75 from Aldi; similar or better deals can be found at Costco/Sam's)

3. Banana: 1 C for $.20 ($.39/lb at Aldi, but this is something that's cheap no matter where you get it.)

4. Grapes: 1 C for $.38 (2 lb for $2.29 from Aldi. They were 2 lb for $1.49 last week.)

5. Oranges: 1 C for $.60 (I got 4 lb for $1.99 at Aldi. A month ago that much went for $1.49. The prices are higher now, as they're starting to slide out of season.)

6. Apples: 1 C for $.40 (3 lb from Aldi for $2.99)

7. Russet potato: 1 C for $.14 (10 lb for $2.84 from Aldi)

8. Sweet Potato: 1 C for $.25 (Bought on sale in season from Walmart for $.10-.20/lb; stored for the last 2-3 months in my very cold basement.)

9. Carrots: 1 C for $.40 (1 lb from Walmart for $1.00. You could have gotten them even cheaper from Buy Low a couple weeks ago at $.77/lb.)

10. Broccoli: 1 C for $.35 (I got about 3 crowns or about 9 oz from Aldi on sale a couple weeks ago for $.98)

11. Little heads of a variety of lettuces (petite tango, petite gem, petite oak) labeled 'artisan lettuces': 1 C for $.33 (a box of 4 heads from Aldi--about 9 oz. for 1.99)

12. Spinach: 1 C for $.28 (9 oz for $1.69 at Aldi. I see 10 oz for $1.99 at Walmart fairly often and I know the Asian store in our area has it even cheaper.)

13. Kale: 1 C for $.15 (9 oz from Walmart for $.98)

14. Romaine Lettuce: 1 C for $.14 (23 oz from Aldi for $1.99)

That averages out to $.31/cup of fruits/vegetables, which makes 4.5 C fruits and veggies come up to $1.39. There is variety, color, and plenty of leafy greens. No we don't live in NYC or Alaska, though Indiana hardly boasts the cheapest food in the nation; no this produce is not local or organic (though in the summer it very well might be), yes it tends to be seasonal and I see nothing wrong with some canned or frozen stuff in the mix. And yes, it was measured by me right in my very own kitchen only yesterday.

And now that I'm done dissing on the USDA (because it's fun) and also those who claim that it simply cannot be done (because I absolutely disagree with them), let me pause for a few moments of self-reflection and self-critique. Can a family of 6 whose collective nutritional needs (and let's face it, those USDA standards are surely bare minimums) come up to 11.5-12 C (I've used to determine the minimums for the children) of fruits/vegetables a day live healthfully on $6/day. Er, um, well. Maybe. Like if we were very very careful and only ate the cheapest foods of the lot (hmm, kale and russet potatoes--colcannon everyday anyone???) With an average of $.31/cup, we'd be spending $3.72 for 12 C--our minimum daily requirement. If we could reduce that to half by eating only the cheapest we'd be at $1.86, which is a more realistic number. But difficult, very very difficult. Difficult enough that I can pretty much guarantee that we wouldn't do it. Even if I tried to, I'm pretty sure I'd meet with resistance from the troops, who I'm pretty much 110% sure would NOT eat colcannon everyday, having lost touch with their Irish roots a long long time ago. And so, I must ask myself what I am sacrificing to eat very very cheaply and is it too much. I usually get my 4.5 cups. It's important to me and I make it a priority. Kip probably doesn't ever get his, though our dinners usually contain a couple of servings of vegetables. However, Kip is an adult and can therefore decide that he doesn't want to eat a salad with lunch if he doesn't want a salad with lunch. I'm not going to nag or pester because I don't believe in that sort of thing and because it would surely only backfire if I did. But our children... They, as I may have mentioned oh, a time or two, are very picky eaters and therefore it's not always easy to get them to eat their allotment of fruits and vegetables. But if they're tucked into some of the more expensive options like smoothies or if they're lovingly cut into slices at dinner, then we have a fairly decent chance. If they're in colcannon or an inexpensive salad, then we really do not. Much to think about for the mother who wants them to live a long and healthy life. Much to think about.

Any suggestions or thoughts about how to get kid-friendly, inexpensive foods down their stubborn little gullets? Please share. (And for the record, I love their stubborn little gullets with my whole soul.)


  1. Well, I agree with you and still disagree. I think it CAN be done on $2.50/day if you eat only what is in season and on sale that week. Which, frankly, can be exceedingly dull. But that's generally what we end up eating, though I did just buy oranges for 2.49 because that is how much they cost at Aldi and my children L.O.V.E them. And there is the issue.

    If we actually eat like normal people and eat what we LIKE, it's going to cost us a little more. And I think that is OK. My kids like oranges, they eat them as often as I put them in front of them, they are nutritious and healthy. I don't think that's unreasonable, nor was the price exceedingly high...even for a family on a carefully observed budget. But if you multiply 2.5/day by 4 (our family size) and then by 7 (days a week) that means I'm spending 70 bucks a week on produce. That is a LOT of produce and more, honestly, than we can spend. I also need to buy other staples with that money. For 110 bucks a week, on average, I buy all my household items, medicines, gifts, party supplies, foods, desserts, dates, cleaning supplies, clothing, food storage, and the many other little items that our family "needs."

    We aren't poor, we are a middle class family. My husband makes us a good living. But that is a LOT of money for produce, am I right? Or does it just seem that way? Yes, summer is cheaper, when you can shop the local farmer's market, but right now food does seem very expensive to me. I can only imagine a single mother trying to feed three kids, that amount would seem overwhelming.

    Anyway there are my ruminations, conceived with two hungry children hanging on my arm and still in sticker shock after yet ANOTHER week of $125 shopping!

  2. I don't know, Vanessa. I'm going to maintain that if you buy only what is in season and on sale, you're able--at least in these parts--to spend considerably less than $2.50/person/day on the USDA's recommendation for fruits and vegetables. My average came out to $1.39 for 4.5 C of fruits and vegetables. That gives you, should you wish to remain within your $2.50 limit, plenty of wiggle room to buy some foods that are favorites and not the cheapest on the shelves. I'm also going to reiterate that my fridge was full of a wide variety of tasty, colorful foods and they were all fairly cheap. We were definitely NOT just eating onions and potatoes to maintain our average cost of $.31/cup of produce.

    Also, with small children (and again, this is following the USDA'S recommendations, which may be on the low side) they don't insist you have 4.5 cups/child. My kids ranged from about 1.5 C to 2.5 C recommended, and they had no recommendations for children under 2 (which seemed weird to me)--my point being that for a a family of 4 with 2 small children, you wouldn't need to spend as much to get the required minimums.

    And knowing you, I'm sure you're totally at or exceeding your minimums on less than $2.50/adult/day.

  3. This post just strikes me as kind of funny, since I was just recently commenting to my husband that your blog seems to be mostly filled with breads, cakes, fudge sauce, and the like. Not that there is anything particularly wrong with a diet of bread, cake, and fudge sauce. :)

    I have found that for our family, I need to buy what we will really eat. I can buy the cheaper fruits/veggies, but they will rot in my bottom drawer. If I buy blueberries, the children will eat them.

    I never really save any money at the farmer's market. The produce is fresher and often times naturally grown, that is why we buy there, but rarely have I found it to be considerably cheaper than buying the same items at the supermarket. The exception to this is the Engelbrecht's CSA, which gives us loads and loads of food for what works out to be about $11 per week.

  4. Hee hee. My blog is definitely filled with cakes, bread, frostings, and fudgy stuff. Maybe that's our equivalent of blueberries:). I've made 3 cakes this month--even I'm getting tired of it.

    Seriously, though, some of us (that'd be me and Savannah) eat a bunch of fruits and vegetables. The thing is that we tend to eat them as just that--fruits and vegetables. I don't often do much to them. I saute the veggies if they're not the type you can eat raw and I make smoothies from things so I feel like the rest of my family is getting some nutrition, so I guess I really don't have a bunch of recipes including fruits and vegetables. Also many of my main dishes that include a lot of vegetables tend to be stolen from other sources--not my own creations or adaptations, so I don't feel like it's my right to put them up here. I should do more links to things I find online. (We don't eat cake for dinner; I swear it; not that the troops would complain if we did...)

    The other advantage I have in the fruit/vegetable department is that the things my kids do tend to favor are the cheaper things. They love bananas and tear through them. They like apples and oranges and summer strawberries. Other fresh berries and the more exotic fruits I tend to get mixed reactions on (thus the smoothie making). Which does make our financial load easier. And Kip helps out by just not eating extra fruits and vegetables period:).

    It's good to know about Engelbrecht's. I'll have to email you about it and then maybe I can post some info. You're always such a good source for local foods.



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