ESSAY- Bummer crop: the food you get for $50 a week

As the cost of food continues to rise dramatically, Americans face serious choices. For the vast majority of us, the question is rapidly becoming, "How much more of my income can I actually afford to spend on food?" And, equally importantly, what am I going to get for my money– Calories or nutrition?

The average American family spends 10 percent of its annual household income on food. But this statistic belies the harsh reality for many.

One local family, for example, spends 15 percent of its income on food, which may sound manageable, until you realize this translates into a meager $75 per week to feed seven mouths. For some, food may gobble as much as 80 percent of income. Clearly, these families face impossible choices between rent, gas, clothes, even medication.

Thinking about these choices, I devised an experiment. Based on the median 2006 household income of $48,601, and assuming two people per household, the average person spends about $50 each week on food. With two colleagues from the University of Virginia, and several graduate students, I wanted to test what could be bought with this average sum. 

Venturing to the nearest Giant, we set forth with three shopping carts, three distinct goals, and $100 each.

• Lynda Fanning, Nutrition Services' Clinical Nutrition Manager, was charged with spending her $100 to feed two people for a week by piling her cart as high as possible with as many calories as possible. Her goal: make the money stretch as far as possible. Lynda headed toward the center isles.

• My charge was to be the dutiful Food Pyramidie, spending $100 on the national nutritional guidelines from the bottom-up – starting with 84 oz of whole grains, then moving up the pyramid to 35 cups of veggies, 28 cups of fruit, 40 cups of dairy, and 77 ounces of meat or beans. My goal: buy healthy. 

• Tim Beatley, the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities, and co-teacher of our food systems planning course, was charged with spending his $100 on local foods– that is, if he could find any. We didn't tell him how to define "local," but we predicted his cart would return mostly empty. 

Our findings were eye-opening and, depending on your food preferences, more or less appetizing.

Lynda's shopping cart won the prize for economy. She stretched each buck to bring in a whopping 4,200 kcalories per person per day with "energy-dense" foods high in sugar and fat. She would not go to bed hungry.

Her day could start with frozen French Toast, a morning snack of mini-doughnuts and a Vault drink. Lunch could be peanut butter on Wonder Bread and root beer, or a hot dog with crinkle frits, followed by a snack of double-stuffed Oreos or crackers with Cheez Whiz. A hearty dinner of linguini with hamburger helper and a chaser of orange drink would top the day. While this high-calorie cart would definitely keep away hunger pains, it would cause even the tallest weight-lifting exercise nut to pack on the pounds. A lot of pounds. 

Lynda's shopping cart demonstrated the painful truth of why we are facing a public health train wreck– where nearly two out of three adult Americans are overweight or obese, and one out of three children is at risk for becoming overweight. It's basic survival. A limited wallet shops for value– stretching dollars, stocking the pantry with more, especially when there may not be food dollars next week. On a tight budget, a big box of Lucky Charms– breakfast for a week– seems like a far better buy than a few meager apples.

Where Lynda spent most time in the center aisles, I couldn't leave the fresh produce aisles. A rude shock was the sheer volume of veggies required by the Pyramid – after lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, eggplant, mushrooms, onions, squash, tomatoes, we still didn't have enough veggies for the week. Finally, adding more vegetables, we moved on to dairy. There we bought ricotta, milk, sour cream– but obtained only half the daily requirements before running out of money. Unable to afford meat, we added a bag of almonds and dried beans for protein.

The surprise was this: my shopping cart brought home 2339 calories per person per day. On this diet, I would not join the ranks of the obese but neither would I go hungry. Though some of the Pyramid recommendations were not affordable (meat and some dairy), I would be eating healthier than Lynda with her shopping cart.  

The third shopping cart came the closest to most student diets: booze, bread, and bacon. Tim Beatley snooped and strained to spy items that might be called "local." On his first pass, working with the classic definition of local as anything produced within 100 miles, he found the booze: Starr Hill beer, brewed in Charlottesville, and an assortment of wines from our increasingly renowned central Piedmont vineyards. Finally, he caved. He decided "local" could mean made locally. He tossed in Giant bakery bread, even though the flour was likely a mix of mid-western flours. Then, scratching his head, not wanting to go home hungry, he decided that local could mean anything made anywhere in Virginia. That's when he landed on Smithfield bacon. I didn't have the heart to tell him that Smithfield hogs are now mainly in the mid-west, Poland, and other East European countries. He also found protein in Virginia peanuts, which could be sweetened with Virginia honey.

Tim noted the perverse paradoxes of his shopping adventure: Virginia is proud with peanuts, but no Virginia peanut butter. Apples abound in Virginia, but none in the store– and no sign of Virginia applesauce or apple butter. Virginia is a top national producer of chicken, yet there's no way of knowing which of the well-stocked coolers might contain a Virginia bird. Equally frustrating, we couldn't find Virginia milk, yogurt, or cheese, despite all the Shenandoah Valley dairies. 

It was a sad reflection on the state of our food system– living in an agricultural state where it's easy to drink but nearly impossible to eat from our own agricultural riches. Tim might go to bed hungry on his shopping cart, but he'd probably be too passed out drunk to notice. To paraphrase an old saying: fruit, chicken, dairy everywhere, but not a bite to eat.

From our simple experiment we learned, yes, it is possible to eat on $50 per week. It's even possible to eat a lot. But it's not easy to eat well.

And if you eat a lot, as opposed to eating well, at what cost to your health? Who would wish these achingly difficult choices on parents making choices for themselves and their children, or on the elderly who may already have health issues, or on anyone at all?

What kind of a food system, with the richest agricultural production in the world, produces these perverse paradoxes? Our food system does not have to be this way. As a leader in world agriculture, America can afford to support healthy diets and our farm economies. It's only a matter of political will and systematic change in national and regional food policies. Imagine this: community dollars supporting community farmers, a more resilient food system, and every American able to find and afford fresh, local food.

It's not "rocket science," and the growing crisis in oil prices may provide a rocket booster to propel needed change. So, America, let's wake up to a new opportunity and old imperative: the might and right of affordable access for all to fresh, local food.


 Tanya Cobb is Senior Associate at the University of Virginia Institute for Environmental Negotiation, teaches graduate-level food system planning courses for the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning, and is author of "The Gardener's A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food."