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Living with less: legislators take the Thrifty Food Challenge

legislators take the Thrifty Food Challenge

By Patty Mattern, University News Service

State Representative Connie Bernardy lives in a community where 40 percent of children live in poverty and qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. This year, Bernardy, a 1985 University of Minnesota graduate, and a handful of other legislators agreed to live for a week on the same budget as a low-income and food stamp-eligible family. The U's College of Human Ecology and Extension Service Health and Nutrition Programs issued the Thrifty Food Plan Challenge to help more people understand the hardships faced by those less financially fortunate when it comes to buying and preparing food. Bernardy's interest in the challenge and nutrition education stems from her concern about her own community.

The USDA created a matrix to show how much it would cost to feed various combinations and ages of people-singles, families with children, the elderly, etc. It also worked out four budgets depending on your income. The "thrifty" plan assumes the lowest income and is used to determine how much people need in food support in order to eat a well-balanced diet. More than 224,000 Minnesotans participate in the Food Support Program, formerly known as Food Stamps, another 136,000 low-income people may qualify for the help, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services. Those 136,000 are either not aware the program is available or they're not applying for other reasons. The Food Support Program is designed to help get people back on their feet, budget wisely, and learn to prepare good meals.

According to the USDA thrifty food plan, a family of four with two children ages 2 to 5 with limited resources could feed their family a nutritious diet on $97.44 per week. That's $3.48 per day per family member for all meals and snacks--all prepared in the home. For Bernardy's family of four, the weekly allotment was $112.50. The plan isn't just about dollars and cents, it also includes recipes and shopping and cooking advice. Bernardy said she and her family did well with the plan, staying within budget. However, one daughter was sick and did not eat as usual and another daughter was away from for part of the week, so that cut down on food costs, she said. The recipe planning materials gave Bernardy new ideas, like intentionally making larger meals so there are leftovers. The Bernardy family's stint on the Thrifty Food Plan ended, but what Bernardy learned will stick with her.

"By living in the suburbs and having transportation, I have a lot more opportunities to get food at discounted prices," Bernardy said. "Many people in the inner city don't have big discount grocery stores."

In fact, many families must buy groceries at convenience stores near their homes and prices are usually higher. That means people using Food Support must stretch their dollars. Nutrition educators believe that education can help Minnesota families do just that and make healthier food choices at the same time.

"Nutrition education is a good public investment," says Bernardy. "For every $1 invested in nutrition education, we save $10.64 in long-term public health care costs."

University research has shown that having enough food to provide adequate nutrition is a challenge to the health of both urban and rural families. One nation-wide study involving rural, low-income Minnesota families found that 49 percent of rural families are food insecure and 17 percent of these families experience hunger. "Families who know how to manage their money were less likely to be food insecure," said Jean Bauer, a family economist at the university. "Linking money management with food shopping and preparation influences the health and well-being of families."

Some suggest that the outcomes of nutrition education programs often include more than just changes in nutrition behavior. "This type of programming has demonstrated that families who learn how to manage food budgets and their families' diets are often empowered to improve other aspects of their lives," says Suzanne Fundingsland, program leader for the University's Health and Nutrition Program. "For many families, participating in the nutrition education programs is an important first step to self-sufficiency."

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