The Real Challenge: Eating Healthy on a Budget

The Purchase

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went grocery shopping for the week. I didn’t go with a list, but I had some general ideas of what I wanted. $30.67 isn’t much, so I started by doing a lap of the store, writing down prices and attempting to balance my limited budget. I quickly learned that carbs are cheap and would be filling, but are clearly not as healthy. I cut out pasta sauce to buy cucumbers and I dropped grape jelly to add on bananas and a few more apples. I relinquished my coffee addiction. And with every item I bought, I stopped to examine if there was a cheaper alternative.

At the end, I had calculated in my head that I was at $30, give or take a few. And that’s when I realized how stressful it is living on this budget. If I got to the register and my total was $31, I could afford to just buy the extra food and remove an apple from my stash for the week. But the 450,000 people in San Diego who do this every day are faced with this same experience, and they may not be able to afford the extra cucumber or the 2lb bag of carrots. They may have to ask the clerk to return an item, stall the line, etc. I was surprised to feel some of that fear and anxiety as I approached the register. I left with $1.07. It was the most conscientious I have ever been while shopping at the grocery store and it was a clear reminder of how thankful I am for my food security.

The Challenge

The week, as a whole, went pretty smoothly. I never felt like I was going to have to skip a meal, but by the conclusion of my Sunday dinner I will have only 2 extra potatoes, 1/3 of a box of pasta, and a few slices of bread remaining. I only got hangry once, so I call that a win, but I didn’t give myself much wiggle room on my budget. There were a few really difficult aspects to my meals, the first being the repetition. Every breakfast consisted of a bowl of cereal with milk and every lunch consisted of a peanut butter sandwich, a piece of fruit, and a small portion of vegetables. Dinner was more variable and was always the meal I enjoyed most.

After a long day of work the last thing I want to do is cook. During a typical week, I’ll make something easy like grilled cheese or pick up something on the way home. This week, I didn’t have that option but the temptation was always there. It often felt like there was less time in the day because I was spending so much more time worrying about my meals; making lunches, measuring portions, and cooking every night. Again, I realized how much more conscientious I was about what and when I was eating.

The Conclusion

Eating on a budget is manageable. Eating healthy on a budget? That’s a bigger challenge. As a health professional, it was an eye opening experience to the challenge of finding cheap, fresh vegetables. If I was a diabetic and I was trying to limit my carbohydrate intake, I would have drastically failed my diet this week. My core staples at every meal were cereal, bread, potatoes, and pasta; carbs, carbs, and more carbs. They were filling, and as a non-diabetic, made this challenge a little more manageable. I was able to find cheap fruits, but those are high in simple sugars that I advise my patients with diabetes to avoid. I successfully included less expensive, lean meats in my diet, but my week was lacking in bright, fresh, green vegetables. That is the issue with the limited amount of money provided to CalFresh users; either we need to work towards increasing the monthly CalFresh allotment or decreasing the price of healthy options. Easier said than done, certainly. But I have hope that Hunger Action Month and this week’s CalFresh Challenge have raised awareness to these issues and that we may continue move towards ending food insecurity.