About the Real-World Cost of a Nutritious Diet

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Picture a mother or father going into a grocery store, with three children — two girls and one boy — in tow. Little voices are clamoring for quarters to take to the gumball machine, small hands are reaching for the powdered donuts displayed right at a seven-year-old’s eye level. The parent pushes the cart toward the produce section, knowing that fresh fruits and vegetables can help the children grow up strong and keep the family healthy.

But finding the most nutritious produce amid the sale signs and sample stands can be challenging, especially for a family with a smaller food budget.

Fresh fruits and vegetables generally are the most nutritious and least expensive when they are in season. Farmers markets sometimes offer a “market match” that can make locally grown food more affordable. Frozen or canned food is also an affordable alternative but rarely is grown locally. Many grocers stock the same fresh items year-round and periodically place them on sale, so knowing how to cook a variety of in-season produce can mean cost savings for families.

Eating fresh is truly challenging: Produce may cost more than a parent has to spend on each child’s food per day. Families on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) receive, on average, $1.40 to spend per person, per meal, totaling $4.20 a day, according to data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.For these families and individuals, a bag of Brussels sprouts that costs $6 simply may be out of range.

Women who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or in the postpartum period; infants; and children up to age five also may receive food benefits from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) to purchase fresh, frozen, and canned produce. But knowing which fruits and vegetables to buy and when still presents a challenge, as does using the produce to make meals that are not only nutritious but also flavorful. 

This guide is designed to help you access fresh fruits and vegetables in your community. With insights from Alice Ammerman, DrPH, professor in the Department of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health, we offer guidance on using produce to make quick, healthy meals on a smaller budget.


“A Quick Guide to SNAP Eligibility and Benefits,”  Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, October 16, 2018. Accessed October 19, 2018.arrow_upwardReturn to footnote reference

Citation for this content: MPH@UNC, the Gillings School of Global Public Health’s online MPH program