In general, low-income women have diets that compromise their health. Low levels of food intake coupled with poor food choices, specifically in low food security groups, increase the likelihood of vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Low-income females are more likely than middle- or high-income females to be overweight/obese and to report having poorer overall health or a chronic disease. Participation in the Food Stamp Program (FSP) adds an additional level of complexity to the link between diet and food insecurity. Food cost is a major barrier to eating healthy meals in this population; it is not known whether low-income individuals have adequate resources to meet the food recommendations of 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).
A market basket of 149 menu items was priced at 29 food stores in eight parishes (counties) in southeast Louisiana over a 2-week period. Using these foods, a 2-week cycle menu with recipes was planned that met the food recommendations for the 2005 DGA for a reference family of four (male, female, and two children). Nutrient content was assessed using Nutritionist Pro. It was also determined whether low-income individuals could afford to buy and could find foods for the menus from Pennsylvania State University (Penn State menus) published with the Thrifty Food Plan. Lastly, the cost of both of these healthy low-cost menus was compared with the cost of food that low-income women in the State are actually eating.
Cost of menus that meet the food recommendations of the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans exceed food stamp benefits.
The cycle menus that were designed had some preparation required, relied on canned fruits and vegetables, and consisted of mostly nutrient-dense foods. Incorporating variety into the meals while keeping costs low was a major problem. Although menus met the food recommendations, they were low in potassium, linolenic and alpha-linolenic acid, and vitamin E but high in sodium and phosphorus. At the time of the study, the maximum FSP benefit for a family of four was $471 per month and the average benefit was $326 per month. The mean cost of the 2-week menus was $615.89 ($5.09 per person), $144.89 higher than the maximum and $289.89 higher than the average FSP benefit, suggesting that the cost of the meals exceeds benefits. Whether low-income families will accept these menus and recipes remains to be determined. Although foods commonly eaten in this region were originally intended to be incorporated into the menus, the foods eaten by the women were of such low nutritional quality and the 2005 DGA recommendations so stringent, doing so was not always possible. For example, 3 cups of low-fat dairy is recommended for each family member, but previous studies have shown that low-income women consume much less than one serving per day. Fruits and vegetables showed similar intakes and dietary shortfalls when compared with the DGA.
The total cost of the Penn State menus was $117.01 ± $11.79 (mean ± standard deviation) for week one and $112.19 ± $11.44 for week two. These average costs were 54 percent and 47 percent more than the average food stamp benefits received, respectively. However, note that these menus do not meet the food recommendations of the 2005 DGA. Only 7 of the 29 stores (24 percent) carried all 86 items. The menu items most frequently missing were pearl barley, garbanzo beans, and ground pork. There were no differences in the costs of food from stores in high- or low-income areas or in areas with a higher percentage of people in poverty. Data suggest that the menus are, on average, not accessible to people receiving the average food stamp benefits.
Lack of money, food stamps, and nutrition education are among the barriers that low-income individuals face in meeting the 2005 dietary guidelines.
Lastly, food group intake, energy/nutrient intake, and diet cost were assessed in 64 female FSP recipients in southeast Louisiana. From one 24-hour dietary recall collected at the beginning of the monthly resource cycle (Day 1) and one at the end (Day 2), nutrient intakes and diet costs were determined for both days of the resource cycle. Data were analyzed as a whole population, by food security status, and by fast food intake. Overall, intake was very poor, failed to meet recommendations for whole grain, fruits, vegetables, and dairy, and exceeded the recommendations for discretionary calories. Nutrition education, needed to plan healthy meals on a restricted income, was lacking. Overall, mean costs were lower than the healthy menus $4.94 (Day 1) and $4.08 (Day 2) (p=0.038). Food security status did not change the amount of money spent on food. Individuals consuming fast food spent significantly more money ($8.81) than those not consuming fast food ($4.72) on Day 1 and $7.14 and $3.44 for Days 1 and 2, respectively. These data suggest that FSP-reliant women spend a considerable amount of money on food that is nutritionally poor and that, with appropriate nutrition education, they could improve the quality of their diets. However, with the monies that most are currently spending, they cannot meet the 2005 DGA.