Even with careful meal planning and buying in bulk, serving healthy meals to a family of four costs about $25 a day, which for many low-income U.S. families is not affordable, finds a study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. Researchers worked with Northern Valley Indian Health, Inc., and the Mechoopda Indian Tribe of Chico Rancheria in California to gather their data.
In addition to the cost of food, the researchers also looked at access to stores that sell bulk items, family time for meal preparation, and the availability of culture-appropriate foods. They created two weeks of daily menus to feed a household with a father, mother, and two children between ages 7 and 10 that met USDA guidelines for healthy eating, had realistic portion sizes, and included foods commonly consumed in the tribe’s culture. Approximately 90 percent of the households surveyed for the study had incomes of $35,000 or less per year.
When the researchers visited 13 grocery stores, including bulk supermarkets, general supermarkets, discount markets, and local co-ops, within a 10-minute car ride of Chico in northern California, they found that bulk and general supermarkets had most of the items for the two-week menu. Costs ranged from $25 per day at bulk and discount stores to $39 per day at specialty markets.
The $25 per day is higher than the USDA Thrifty Food Plan, which is used to determine food assistance benefits. This means that any reduction in benefits or increase in prices would likely create a hardship for these families.