Sunday, October 16, 2011

Is Eating Fresh Really More Expensive?

I'm headed into the final five days of the hunger challenge. I'd been giving a lot of thought to how I'd handled the challenge: the types of food I'd been eating, the changes I'd made to my diet and lifestyle and I started to feel disappointed I didn't work harder to keep more of my own cooking and fresh foods at the forefront. I felt as if I'd tried harder I could have made my results more meaningful for other people. I could have written more recipes or talked about more resources or ways to budget and plan.

Then I realized that's the point of the challenge. Anyone in this situation day in and day out is surely faced with the same (and probably more) frustrations and fewer resources than I have been in the past month. It gets so easy to reach for the pre-packaged option that's cheap and quick. The first two weeks I showed you exactly what I was purchasing and planning on cooking. Last week my shopping happened at a time that I was unable to photograph the purchase. This week I decided to make a menu using almost exclusively what was already in my kitchen so I could spend almost half my budget (just $14.00) on food to bring to a friend's get-together. Did I make a poor decision with the money I had to spend? Some may say so. I say I was tired of turning down invitations from friends because I did not have the money to spend buying meals out or felt like I couldn't provide a contribution for a meal at their house. To be perfectly honest, my shopping has involved less and less fresh food as the month has gone on.

As the challenge winds down, I am continuing to gather information and research so I can provide others with some insight into the strategy of shopping on a budget. One area that has still felt fairly gray to me this entire month is the price of fruits and vegetables. When I started the challenge, I was asked several times if I thought I could afford fresh produce on this budget. My naive response was "Well, I know I can at least afford bananas!" knowing them to be one of the cheapest sources of fresh fruit.

In my research, I came across a study from the USDA on the prices of fruits and vegetables. I wish I'd found it sooner. It doesn't give you all the answers, but it does help spell out how much a particular fruit or veggie costs in various forms (fresh, frozen, canned or dried) and how much you'll end up paying per cup of actual food. For example, an ear of corn may cost .50, a can .67 and a frozen bag for $1.85, but which one is cheapest? Cans and bags are relatively easy to compare, but with most fresh produce there is at least some refuse (the inedible part that gets thrown away, i.e. banana peels and apple cores).

The USDA study looks at food prices in households across the US for 2008. Foods were purchased at various times of the year and from various retailers. They examined foods in fresh, canned, dried, frozen and juiced forms. They present their data in two ways: the first representing the actual price per pound and the second representing the cost per usable cup.

What did they find? You can see for yourself by looking at the full report here or the summarized findings here. Here's my Reader's Digest version and run down of the winner's circle.

First, not all produce is created equal. Some items see very little price difference from fresh to canned to frozen, others see major differences in price. Bottom line? Pound for pound it's cheaper to feed yourself Ramen noodles and canned soups. There's plenty of research and reasoning to point out the flaws in that diet plan, but integrating produce has to be a conscious choice. And it is possible to keep good nutrition in mind, even on a limited budget.

Cheapest Sources of Fresh Fruit (per usable cup of fruit)

  1. Watermelon (17 cents)
  2. Bananas (21 cents)
  3. Apples (28 cents)
  4. Navel oranges (34 cents)
  5. Pears (42 cents)
Cheapest Sources of Fresh Vegetables (per usable cup of veggies)
  1. Potatoes (19 cents)
  2. Carrots (25 cents)
  3. Lettuce (26 cents)
  4. Cabbage (27 cents)
  5. Onions (28 cents)
Cheapest Sources of Canned Vegetables (per usable cup of veggies)
  1. Sauerkraut/cabbage (30 cents)
  2. Carrots (34 cents)
  3. Green beans (34 cents)
  4. Corn (37 cents)
  5. Turnip greens (40 cents)
Cheapest Sources of Frozen Vegetables (per usable cup of veggies)
  1. Green beans (37 cents)
  2. Carrots (39 cents)
  3. French fries/potatoes (41 cents)
  4. Kale (48 cents)
  5. Green peas (51 cents)

Keep in mind, these are based on average prices over a year. Want a way to beat the average every time? Focus on what's in season. Grapefruit in September cost a heck of a lot more than they will in January. Use this Seasonal Ingredient Map from Epicurious or check out the selection at your local farmers market to find out what's in season near you.

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