Shopping for healthful food on a limited budget


Leila Mohammed studies nutrition information on milk cartons at a Giant Food store in the District as part of a class called Cooking Matters at the Store. The class teaches low-income consumers how to select healthful foods on a limited budget. (Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON POST)
February 26, 2013

NEW YORK — Three adults squatted in the cereal aisle of the Key Foods grocery store in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Each had plucked a different kind of oatmeal from one of the lower shelves. They were trying to determine which was the most healthful and the most affordable.

It shouldn’t have been that hard. And yet, it took a good five minutes for three smart grown-ups to analyze the serving sizes, sugar and sodium contents and the price per unit before they could settle on a 2-pound-10-ounce drum of old-fashioned oats. It contained no sodium or sugar and was $1.06 cheaper per pound than the runner-up, a smaller box of quick oats.

Helping shoppers make good decisions was the goal of this supermarket tour. It was part of a course called Cooking Matters at the Store, developed by anti-hunger organization Share Our Strength and administered by local partners, such as City Harvest in New York City and N Street Village in the District. The tours explore how to buy fruits and vegetables on a budget, how to read food labels and how to identify whole grains and compare unit prices. In 2012, 21,000 low-income adults attended a tour in 46 states; 68 percent of them were receiving some kind of federal food assistance.

It has become conventional wisdom that Americans don’t know how cook. But shopping for food, especially on a budget, is for many an equally daunting prospect. In a world where busy schedules mean that reheating a frozen pizza counts as cooking, shopping smart might be even more important.

“I read labels, but not all the time,” said Tony Ferreira, 58, who attended the Brooklyn tour. “This puts me on my guard. Now I know.”

The curriculum began as one part of Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters program, a six-week course that teaches low-income families how to cook healthfully. In the fall of 2011, the organization began to offer stand-alone store tours as well. Many partners do not have the resources to offer a six-week program, said Janet McLaughlin, Cooking Matters’ senior program director. “The shopping tour is always the true ‘aha’ moment for the families in our courses,” she said. “Smart grocery shopping is the first step to making healthier meals at home.”

Indeed, putting healthful food on the table starts long before cooks turn on the stove. Students examined labels on whole-wheat bread (to make sure that whole-wheat flour was the first ingredient listed) and cartons of Welch’s Strawberry Breeze Cocktail (only to discover that a single eight-ounce serving contained 32 grams of sugar). But the big focus of the tour was buying produce strategically. According to a 2012 Share Our Strength survey of low-income families, 81 percent knew that fresh produce was healthful but only 32 percent thought the same of frozen fruits and vegetables, which are often cheaper and don’t run the risk of rotting in the crisper drawer.

On the Brooklyn tour, leader Aliya Rowe praised the convenience of frozen vegetables and made a few converts. She also tried, less successfully, to convince the students that canned vegetables were a convenient, economical alternative. “I know you don’t like them as much,” she said holding up a can of green beans. “But sometimes, when you’re in a hurry, these are great. And it’s better than no vegetables.”

The tours also stressed the importance of meal planning. The Share Our Strength survey found that families that regularly budget and plan for meals using a written grocery list eat healthful, balanced or made-from-scratch dinners most days of the week.

But 35 percent of survey respondents don’t regularly use written grocery lists, and 55 percent do not plan meals before going to the store.

“You have to have a game plan,” said Rebecca Johnson, 39, who attended a tour at the Shoppers Food Warehouse in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County that was administered by the Greater Mount Vernon Community Head Start program. Johnson has a 4-year-old daughter and often clips coupons and makes lists. But she said the tour reminded her that she should never go to the grocery store hungry or thirsty, because that usually results in a cart full of snacks and drinks. “Nowadays, you want to stretch your dollar,” she said. “You want things that are versatile so that you can use them as leftovers, not stuff that is going to get thrown away.”

Many Cooking Matters participants agree. Of those who took a tour in 2011, 51 percent said they would start comparing food labels to make healthful choices, 54 percent said they would start comparing unit prices to find the best deals and 56 percent said they would read ingredient lists to find whole grains.

Despite its success, the program faces financial challenges. The recent deal to avoid the “fiscal cliff” decreased funding for nutrition education, which helps to pay for programs such as Cooking Matters, by $109 million, or 28 percent, for the current fiscal year. As a result, Share Our Strength anticipates that Cooking Matters will serve at least 3,000 fewer families than planned, though some partners are considering offering more stand-alone grocery tours and fewer six-week cooking courses, given the budget uncertainty.

The proof that such educational tours work was in the shopping baskets of the Brooklyn participants. At the end of the session, each student was given $10 to buy four servings of healthful produce, lean meats, dairy and whole grains. Kim Kilkenny, a 52-year-old mother of three, bought whole-grain pasta, kale, chicken cutlets, a quart of nonfat yogurt and a mango. She planned to marinate the chicken in the yogurt and mango, and serve it alongside braised greens and pasta. Her total bill: $9.90.

Black, a former Food section staffer based in Brooklyn, writes Smarter Food monthly. Follow her on Twitter: @jane_black.

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