How much does it cost to eat healthfully? Less than you may assume, according to a report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Serving for serving, fresh fruit and vegetable snacks cost 34 cents, on average, compared to 67 cents for unhealthful packaged snacks. And healthful vegetable side dishes cost 27 cents per serving, while less healthful packaged ones were 31 cents. You can snack on a banana for just 16 cents, compared to 99 cents for a Hershey’s chocolate bar. A side dish of sweet potatoes costs 31 cents per serving, compared to 38 cents for Stovetop Stuffing.
The report “reinforces the emerging view that fruits and vegetables can be nutritional bargains.” Many healthful foods do cost more per calorie, though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In most cases, it’s a good thing, since Americans consume too many calories overall and can “afford” to consume fewer calories from snacks and side dishes. Along with money savings, CSPI found that the healthful snacks and side dishes had substantially fewer calories than the unhealthful ones. Serving cucumbers with a sandwich instead of chips, for instance, will save 155 calories.
An earlier report from the Produce Marketing Association turned up many even lower per-serving prices for fresh fruits and vegetables, while research from the United States Department of Agriculture found that it costs less than $2.50 a day to meet the government’s produce guidelines—which is two cups of fruit and two and a half cups of vegetables a day for someone on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet. You can usually save money by buying produce in season and buying in bulk (assuming you will use the produce before it goes bad). Also, check out frozen and canned fruits and vegetables, especially when the produce you want is out of season.
Of course, grocery prices vary by location, season and other factors. And it’s well recognized that many urban and rural neighborhoods, especially poorer ones, are food deserts, meaning there is a lack of easy access to fresh, healthy, affordable foods. Somewhat encouragingly, another recent study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found that about two-thirds of residents of a low income Philadelphia neighborhood were making the extra effort to travel farther—a mile more, on average—to reach supermarkets with greater selections of healthful foods. A better solution, however, is to encourage local markets to carry more healthful items (and less junk foods) and to promote food coops and farmers’ markets in these areas.