The corner grocery store where you can pop in for an affordable gallon of milk and a bunch of bananas doesn’t exist anymore in many communities across the country.
More and more neighborhoods sit squarely in a so-called “food desert,” areas in small towns to big cities where there is little to no access to healthy and affordable food. According to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 2.3 million U.S. households live more than a mile from a grocery store and have no vehicle to drive to one for regular shopping trips. Another 3.4 million live between one-half and 1 mile away and also don’t have a car.
A food desert is typically found in low-income communities where the closest place to get food is a convenience store with high-priced products and little or no fresh fruits and vegetables. Consumers in these communities are paying a price.
They spend more to feed their families. Studies show that urban residents spend between 3% and 37% more for food when compared to the same items purchased in supermarkets in the suburbs.
They also develop more chronic health problems. Studies have found that residents in neighborhoods like these have higher rates of diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Local and federal leaders are working on solutions, according to the Food Empowerment Projects. Food justice advocates in Chicago, where 500,000 people live in food deserts, have opened food co-ops with fresh foods for sale. In Los Angeles, the city offered incentives to grocery stores and sit-down restaurants with healthier meals to open in food deserts. And New York City launched the Green Carts program, which brings inexpensive fresh produce to areas without a grocery store.
But, despite those efforts, thousands of families continue to have trouble finding affordable and healthy foods on a regular basis. The problem is two-fold for those living in a food desert: There is no economical store nearby, and they don’t have their own vehicle to get to one on a regular basis.
If you live in a food desert, preparing healthy meals can be a challenge, and simply moving can be an unrealistic option for most. But, on those occasions where you can get to a large supermarket or big box store, there are items you can stock up on to ensure you have cheap and healthy food at home.
Here are five steps you can take to eat healthy foods on a budget when resources are limited.
Team up and plan
Michigan State University’s extension office recommends teaming up with a friend or family member with a car to get to the store and also plan meals together. Buying and cooking in bulk can help to reduce your food costs and the time it takes to prepare meals.
Focus on canned, frozen produce
Fresh vegetables and produce are tasty, but they can be impractical for families who can only get to the store once or twice a month. Here’s the good news: Frozen and canned produce are cheaper and still healthy.
Researchers have found that the vitamin content in eight frozen fruits and veggies -- corn, carrots, broccoli, spinach, peas, green beans, strawberries and blueberries -- were nearly the same or even higher than fresh ones. Canned fruits and vegetables also offer about the same nutritional benefits as long as you steer clear of high-sodium or high-sugar varieties.
Stock up on dried beans
Think lentils, kidney beans, black beans and more. Those little legumes pack a powerful punch of protein and fiber at a very affordable cost. TheKitchn.com offers a very simple, but yummy way to whip up a pot of beans. A one-pound bag typically costs about $1 and makes about 10 very filling servings.
Fill up on eggs
Fresh meat can be expensive, but, like beans, eggs also provide plenty of protein at an affordable price. And, if you have access to a freezer, you don’t have to worry about them spoiling. You can freeze egg whites and yolks, together or separately, in the freezer. Momables.com shows you how.
Buy what’s on sale
When you can get to the store, focus on buying items that are only on sale to help cut your costs and make the most out of your food budget. Most stores have circulars at the door. Or, you can pull them up online before you go.
Eliminating food deserts won’t be easy. Lawmakers, grocery stores and communities will have to make some big changes. In the meantime, planning ahead and focusing on healthy and affordable foods when you can get to the grocery store may be the best strategy for those living in a food desert.
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