A commonly held view is that many people on low incomes can’t afford healthy foods.
Experts aren’t in agreement with this assumption, however.
Some maintain anyone can eat healthy, regardless of income. Others acknowledge budgetary roadblocks make it difficult for people on low incomes to select foods that are good for them.
There is agreement on one area: Eating healthy is about making good choices when selecting food.
Kim Crawford, director of marketing and community outreach for UnitedHealthcare, said she doesn’t necessarily buy into the notion that people on limited incomes can’t eat healthy.
“I struggle with that one,” she said, “because I don’t know if they can’t afford to eat healthy or they don’t understand how to eat healthy.”
Crawford, who specializes in working with the KanCare program, which serves people on Medicaid in Kansas, said people on low incomes aren’t the only ones who don’t always eat healthy foods.
“You see very wealthy people who have poor eating habits,” she said.
Education is a key to helping people overcome the tendency to grab food that is fast but not always cheap and rarely healthy, Crawford said.
“One of the worst culprits is your sugary soft drinks,” she said. “When you are consuming a soft drink, you are getting empty calories with no nutritional value.”
“Potato chips — they’re delicious, but there’s not a lot of redeeming qualities in potato chips.”
In the final analysis, even if certain foods that are healthy also are more expensive, the extra cost may be well worth it in the long run. Eating foods that aren’t healthy could contribute to a number of health problems, Crawford said.
“You’re talking heart disease, high cholesterol, diabetes — and all those things end up costing you a lot more money than if you were eating healthy,” she said.
Stephanie Sisk, an advanced practice registered nurse at Stormont Vail Health, works with people to develop healthy eating habits. People on limited incomes often seek out the cheapest food option, and many times that means they’re eating foods that aren’t always healthy.
Fresh fruits and vegetables tend to be expensive, and lean meats and seafood can be “really pricey,” Sisk said.
To help people on low incomes stretch their food dollars, Sisk advises them to check grocery ads when they come out each Wednesday and take advantage of specials, stocking up on such items as boneless, skinless chicken breasts when they are on sale and putting them in the freezer for use at a later time.
For weight management, she recommends high-protein diets that include budget-friendly foods, such as eggs, Greek yogurt and beans.
Canned foods are another good option, especially if they are of the no-salt variety. Otherwise, she said, people can rinse off and drain their canned foods before cooking them.
“You do want to educate yourself,” Sisk said. “Check your labels. You want to buy products that have more proteins and a little less carbs.”
Lihlani Skipper, of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School, said low-income people in the United States have a challenge when it comes to eating healthy diets.
“Although the cost of food in the U.S. is lower than that of other countries, the cost of healthy food is much higher than unhealthy food,” she said.
Skipper said the Healthy Food Policy Project defines healthy food as food that is minimally processed; fresh, frozen or canned produce that has little, if any, added sugar, salt or fat; food that is culturally relevant; food that meets evidence-based nutrition standards; and food that is both nutritious and safe to eat.
In spite of challenges, low-income individuals can eat foods that are healthy.
“There are many resources available that provide ideas of how to eat healthy food on a tight budget,” Skipper said. “Some ideas include cooking with dried beans, peas and lentils as protein sources and using smaller amounts of meat, poultry and fish.
“Other strategies include buying in bulk to get a lower cost per item, or cooking from scratch to reduce the amount of added sugar, salt and fat consumed.”
In her position as executive director of the Topeka-based Jayhawk Area Agency on Aging, Susan Harris works with senior adults, many of whom are on fixed incomes and struggle with balancing their budgets with healthy food choices.
“Low-income seniors often state that they cannot afford to eat healthy due to the expense of healthy foods,” Harris said. “Naturally, the foods that are not processed, such as fresh fruits and veggies, are more expensive than more highly processed, less-healthy options.”
People who don’t eat healthy can be at risk for a multitude of health issues, she said. Many seniors, she noted, already have chronic conditions, such as diabetes, that are heavily affected by not eating well.
Harris said people on limited incomes can find ideas to help with healthy and nutritious diets by contacting Kansas State University’s Research and Extension program.
In Topeka, there are regular opportunities through Harvesters, a community food network, to get healthy and nutritious food options at no cost.
“For seniors,” she said, “the barrier is often transportation to get to the distribution sites.”
Scott Nickel, a chef instructor at Washburn Institute of Technology, said people on limited incomes can eat healthy, provided they have a strategy for doing so.
Individuals can gain more knowledge on cooking by going online and searching Google, YouTube and “thousands of other sites that showcase easy, basic techniques,” Nickel said.
Nickel noted people can take advantage of local food pantries, many of which are based in Topeka-area churches. Other possible sources, he said, include Topeka Rescue Mission, New Hope Food Pantry and The Salvation Army, along with Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, Doorstep Inc. and other charities.
“One way or another, our society pays for unhealthy citizens,” Nickel said. “Eating the way our bodies were designed to eat and eating the things we were designed to eat is a way to reduce the burden on taxpayers (and) medical service providers and ultimately create a citizenry that weighs less and is healthier.”