Times are tight, but don’t despair: there is no need to convert your family to a diet of macaroni and powdered cheese sauce.
By investing time instead of cash, families can eat delicious and healthy food, while also keeping the grocery bill lean, according to a nutritionist.
“People just have to sort of slow down a bit,” said Elizabeth Christianson, food & nutrition coordinator for the Alex Community Health Centre. “Take the time to plan their meals and spend a little time cooking.”
In February, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada released their report on Canadians’ health. The report included a study that revealed that the prices of some healthy options varied hugely across the country – 1 kilogram of brown rice costs $7.99 in Calgary but $2.19 in Toronto – and within provinces – a bag of six McIntosh apples costs $1.71 in Edmonton, but a whopping $5.02 in Calgary.
According to a Heart and Stroke Foundation spokesperson and cardiologist, healthy diets may be financially difficult for some families to attain.
“This report by the Heart and Stroke Foundation should serve as a wake-up call that healthy eating is in danger of being out of reach for many Canadians, a problem which may only get worse given the current downturn in the economy,” Dr. Beth Abramson was quoted as saying on the Foundation’s website.
"I understand why there is a perception that healthy food is more expensive,” said Christianson, who counsels low-income families on nutrition. “[But] junk food is expensive [too]. If people are buying potato chips, that all adds up as well. I think it's a little more work, perhaps, to eat healthy."
Christianson suggests that education is an important part of healthy eating. “They definitely have to be more aware, and that could be relearning [what to food cook and how to cook it].”
For some family cooks, this may mean familiarizing themselves with Canada’s Food Guide, and learning basic, recession-friendly cooking skills such as how to make soup or casseroles and how to cook canned and frozen produce which can be cheaper than fresh, said Christianson.
"People do need some basic skills,” she advises. “If broccoli is cooked within an inch of its life and is all grey and soggy, it's not very appetizing. If it's just cooked al dente and is a beautiful, brilliant green, it’s wonderful.”
Christianson is a fervent supporter of the Good Food Box, an initiative by the Community Kitchen Program of Calgary.
“Every time I see one, I say ‘wow, it's beautiful!’" Christianson says of the 20- to 45-pound boxes of mixed fresh produce.
February's 45-pound Good Food Box was stuffed with Russet potatoes, navel oranges, pink lady apples, red peppers and plenty more produce.
©Zoey Duncan/Calgary Journal
The Good Food Box is a volunteer-supported, low-cost produce program that is available to all Calgarians, as well as surrounding communities. The produce is purchased from wholesale supply outlets in the city, the same as grocery chains and restaurants purchase their food, said the operations manager for the non-profit organization Community Kitchen Program, which runs the Good Food Box.
“None of the Good Food Box is salvaged,” Ian Undseth said. It is Undseth’s job to order the month’s produce and he tries to choose local options when available but his focus is on quality and price.
If the produce is equivalent to that of the grocery stores, it begs the question: why does the Good Food Box cost less than half of what you would pay at a grocery chain? Undseth says that he does a cost comparison every month, to see what the $25, 45-pound box of produce would cost in-store.
"I will go to one of either Sobeys, Safeway or Co-op to do my cost comparison,” Undseth said. “At one of those grocery stores [in] the city it would have cost $67 [for 45 pounds of produce in January].” For the last 12 months, Undseth said, he has found that the $25 box would have cost between $58 and $64 if purchased at a grocery chain.
Part of the cost difference, he said, is due to labour costs for the stores. The Good Food Box has low operating costs because clients pick up their box at their closest depot, Undseth explains, dozens of which are placed throughout the city.
All one has to do to order a Good Food Box of 15, 20 or 25 pounds of produce is to find the closest depot on the Good Food Box website, communitykitchenprogram.com, then call that depot to order and pay for a box.
The boxes are available once a month, and although Undseth would like to see the program expand to twice a month, the expansion of service would require a substantial increase in resources.
Nutritionist Elizabeth Christianson has some basic shopping tips for people looking to keep the grocery bill reasonable as well as healthy.
“Read the food flyers and plan your meals around what is on sale that week,” she advises. “Make a shopping list and stick to it. Don’t shop for groceries on an empty stomach, and if possible, leave the kids at home. Buying in bulk saves packaging costs and can cost less.”
“One of the biggest errors…is buying white bread instead of whole grain, buying [fewer] nutrient-dense foods, or not knowing about nutrient-dense foods. I just don't agree that people can't eat healthy if they try."