New USDA Report Says You Can Eat Right for $2.50 a Day


You may have heard that last week, the USDA released its 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. One of the key recommendations of this year's guidelines is that Americans should increase their fruit and vegetable intake, ideally to 4.5 cups per day (2 of fruit, 2.5 of vegetables). This is pretty standard nutritional advice. But many Americans don't even come close to that amount of produce consumption.

One hurdle for those aiming to increase their fruit and vegetable intake is that produce can be expensive—so much so that many can't afford to fit it into their daily diets. Well, the USDA may be aiming to debunk that theory.

Last week, the USDA released a new report that claims that you can eat your daily recommended intake of fruits and vegetables on only $2.50 per day. While this may still be out of the price range for some, others will be able to pick up pointers on how to better budget for produce. Let's read the fine print.

The study, titled How Much Do Fruits and Vegetables Cost?, analyzed 2008 Neilsen Homescan data for fresh, frozen, canned, and juiced fruits and veggies. This data was collected by everyday consumers who used a home scanning device to record the price and amount of their groceries. The produce was bought from all types of stores: big-box retailers, local grocers, farmers markets, and so on. The price per pound of fruits and vegetables was then averaged. The study also priced the fruits and vegetables according to a recommended 1-cup serving size. The study contains a number of nifty graphs ranking produce from most to least expensive.

On the whole, value-added produce was more expensive than produce sold in its natural form (sliced apples are of course pricier than whole apples). But interestingly, the study concluded that "neither fresh nor processed foods are a consistently cheaper way to eat fruits and vegetables." That is to say, canned or frozen produce isn't always the less expensive option. Some products, such as carrots, are cheaper in fresh form; others, such as peaches, are a bargain in the can.

The study concluded that the least expensive fruit per one-cup equivalent was fresh watermelon, at $0.17 per cup; the most expensive was raspberries, at $2.06 per cup. And on the veggie side? Dried pinto beans are a steal at $0.13 per cup (though nearly all dried beans are about this price), and frozen asparagus is $2.07 per cup. But clearly there will be seasonal variation in prices, so it's always worth knowing what's local and fresh to ensure a better value.

This study raised a couple issues in my mind.

First, the report is based off a diet where only about 20% or so of one's daily caloric intake is from fruits and vegetables. The argument could easily be (and has been) made that this is already too little produce, and that the USDA should recommend even higher fruit and veggie intake. Second, items such as 100% juices and French fries are counted as fruits and vegetables according to the USDA. While not necessarily unhealthy, these items would ideally supplement rather than form the basis of a nutritious diet.

Additionally, there is no advice in the study to point consumers towards one type of produce over another. Indeed, the least expensive items in this study, and therefore those implicitly suggested as being an appropriate means of achieving a cost-effective, healthier diet, are not particularly nutrient-dense. Iceberg lettuce, onions, and boiled potatoes top the vegetable list; watermelon and apple juice from concentrate are among the cheapest fruits. It would be nice to see some differentiation within the broad, all-encompassing categories of "fruits" and "vegetables." After all, not all produce is created equal.