Eat healthfully on food-stamp budget? It can be done

The poorest Americans would nearly starve if it weren't for fast-food dollar menus and other cheap, highly processed foods, such as mashed potatoes in a box.

We've heard this so many times that we accept as fact the idea that obesity and diabetes are so common because eating a fresh, well-balanced diet is just too expensive.

With record numbers of people on food stamps, that could mean the obesity epidemic is inevitably going to get much worse.

But is it really impossible to eat healthfully on food stamps?

I wanted to find out. So I went to a local Walmart on Chickasaw Trail earlier this year to buy a week's worth of groceries on a food-stamp budget for a hypothetical family of four.

I brought Stephanie Norris, a registered dietitian, to make sure I was keeping the food healthful and buying enough of it.

Norris and I doubted we could stretch our budget to cover all 21 meals, plus healthful snacks, for two adults and two kids.

Central Florida's poorest families of four can qualify for a maximum of $668 in food stamps per month, so we limited ourselves to $167 for a week's worth of food.

Norris quickly filled our cart with the fruits and veggies that she says too many of us (whether we're on food stamps or not) fail to eat enough of.

Then we hit the meat and dairy departments, where we bought a large package of chicken breasts for $10.80 and 2 1/2 pounds of ground beef, plus milk, cheese and eggs.

We worked our way through the other aisles, and Norris helped me select food that would be filling as well as healthful. Brown rice instead of white. Whole-wheat bread. Extra-virgin olive oil. Natural peanut butter.

In the checkout line, I waited for our moment of reckoning.

And was shocked.

Our total was $106.14, far below our $167 budget.

"I was surprised at how easily we came within the limit," said Norris, immediate past president of the Florida Dietetic Association, who also teaches nutrition at the University of Central Florida and Valencia College. "I thought we probably could, but I was surprised by how much flexibility I had."

But we weren't done yet.

Norris agreed to run the items we found through a computer program that would tell us whether we met our hypothetical family's nutritional needs.

We wanted to make sure the family was getting enough calories, vitamins and minerals from the meals we planned — meals such as whole-wheat spaghetti with meat sauce and baked chicken breasts with rice and salad.

We fell short in three areas. We needed more grains, dairy and produce.

I made a second trip to Walmart. Because we had about $60 left to spend, I splurged on some almond granola bars, oatmeal and chocolate-chip cookies — Norris wanted the oatmeal, I wanted the cookies — a bottle of light ranch salad dressing and, because my editor was so appalled that we left it off our first trip, coffee.