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Sue Bush
More articles from Sue Bush

Cutting the Fat May Up the Food Bill

By Susan Bush
12:00AM / Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Joel Howard and his wife try to find healthy foods that fit the family budget.
When the issue is overweight children, the solution appears simple at first glance: trade video games for outdoor play and stock kitchen cabinets and refrigerators with low-fat, fresh foods.

Increasing physical activity levels may require parental encouragement or insistence, but is, in most cases, easily affordable. Certainly there are no costs associated with neighborhood games of tag and rope skipping, and a brisk walk after dinner can become a family habit.

But the cost of low-fat, low-sugar, high nutrient foods can be a challenge for many middle-income families.

Easier Said Than Done

Jeff Rogers is a married father of six children whose ages range from 15 years old to five months old. Rogers, a Pownal, Vt. resident, works while his wife cares for the children at home.

Nutrition is important to the couple, but the foods termed “healthy” are sometimes priced above the reach of the family finances, Rogers said.


Jeff Rogers' food budget stretches to feed a family of eight.
“It can be hard, especially when there’s only one breadwinner,” Rogers said. “You have to cut back on other things. I’ve paid a part of a bill rather than the whole thing at times so we can buy food. We do the ‘buy one, get one free’ thing but that type of deal almost never includes things like fresh fruit.”

An Aug. 22 trip to a North Adams-based chain-store supermarket appeared to support Rogers assessment.

A nationally-known brand of chocolate, cream-filled sandwich cookie was on sale as “2 packages for $5,” as were brand-name “chocolate half-rounds” and caramel and cream pastries. Meanwhile, one variety of peaches was advertised as being on sale at $.79 per pound, seedless navel oranges were priced at $1.79 per pound, and nectarines were offered at $2.49 per pound. Cantaloupe halves were advertised at $2.99 each.

Pownal resident Joel Howard is also married. Howard and his wife are employed outside the home and the couple have three children living in their home. Even with two working spouses, the food budget has been “extremely tight,” Howard said.

Setting the family table with healthy foods is important to him, Howard said, and he agreed that the costs of foods touted as “healthy” are often higher than other choices.

“When you are feeding a family, you have to go for the deals,” Howard said. “What you see in the stores isn’t always what’s supposed to be the best foods. When you are on a budget, if the deal is five boxes of macaroni and cheese for $2, then that’s what it is.”

The Monday evening supermarket visit found several "sales."

Shopping the Sales

One sale offered regular bacon at “buy one, get one free,” and a name brand, 12-ounce package of regular bologna was being promoted for $.99. Alongside the high fat processed meats was a 9-ounce package of shaved turkey, advertised as “97 percent fat-free, 50 calories per serving,” and priced at $3.49 per container.

Traditional hot dogs were advertised as a “buy one, get one free” marketing promotion; a name-brand advertised as “healthy” was priced at $4.29 for a 14 ounce, 8-frankfurter package.

In the juice aisle, name-brand and store-brand 64-ounce jugs labeled “100 percent juice” sold for $3.99, $3.89, and $3.49; meanwhile, 128-ounce containers of a nationally-known sugar-sweetened drink with significantly less fruit juice was promoted as a “buy one, get one free” deal.

Several breakfast cereals were on sale; a store-brand instant oatmeal variety pack was advertised at a “2 boxes for $4” price. A sugar-sweetened “cocoa” cereal was also on sale as a “buy two, get two free” deal. Two kinds of a brand-name cereal reputed to have a high vitamin content were on sale for $2.99. An inspection of the cereal box ingredient labels showed five types of sugar in one choice and three sugars, such as corn syrup, brown sugar syrup, and plain sugar, in the other.

A pound of ground beef labeled as 93 percent lean, antibody-free, and hormone-free was priced at $4.99 per pound. A package labeled lean ground turkey was priced at $3.29 per pound. Ground chuck labeled as 80 percent lean sold for $3.44 per pound and another package labeled 75 percent lean was priced at $3.19 per pound. One-pound packages of “hot” and “sweet” styles of Italian sausage made with pork were being sold at two packages for $6, while Italian-seasoned sausage made from turkey - often touted as higher in protein and lower in fat than beef - sold in 19.5-ounce packages priced at $3.99 each.

There were some on-sale items that appeared to be healthy choices, for example, six-packs of 4-ounce applesauce cups were offered at “2 for $4,” brand-name white tuna was priced at 10 cans for $10, and dry beans, such as black beans and navy beans, were selling at regular prices of $.79 and $.69 per pound.

But most items promoted as “healthy,” “fat-free,” or “low-fat” out-priced their “regular”counterparts. A store-brand 16-slice package of processed cheese food labeled “fat-free” sold for $3.69, while a 16-slice package labeled as containing “2 percent milk” sold for $3.29. A brand-name 16-slice “fat-free” processed cheese package was priced at $4.59, while a same-sized package made by the same company and advertised as containing 2 percent milk was priced at $3.69 – a $.90 difference. An 8-ounce container of “original” brand-name cream cheese sold for $1.79; the same brand, same size cream cheese container labeled “fat-free” was also labeled at a $2.19 price.

Howard and Rogers said that they and their spouses are educated about good nutrition and are aware that an apple is healthier than a cookie. They noted that they are also aware of the cost of feeding their families while trying to meet financial obligations such as the monthly utility bills. Both said that they do the best they can to deliver balanced meals to their children.

“The deals at the supermarkets don’t seem to be on the foods that are the healthiest,” Rogers said. “I honestly think that my five-year-old would rather eat fresh fruit. And he does get fruit at home. I wish we could afford more fresh fruit more often.”

Susan Bush may be contacted via e-mail at suebush123@adelphia.net or at 802-823-9367.
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