Longtime I Brake for Moms readers might remember that in 2013 I embarked on a month-long food challenge called MyPlate on My Budget. I partnered with Plate Full of Grace food blogger Rose McAvoy, who wrote recipe columns for The Daily Herald.
My question was simple: Could I follow the USDA’s MyPlate guidelines for healthy eating and also follow their thrifty budget as defined by the USDA Food Plan: Cost of Food Report published every month? In 2013, that meant my family of four had a weekly food budget of $144.80.
I’m no stranger to frugal shopping, and if I had been able to spend that sum on nutritious food I knew my family would actually eat, it wouldn’t have been a problem. But sticking to the budget was only half the challenge. The other half meant following the MyPlate requirements, which included eating two servings of fish each week, incorporating a variety of vegetables and following specific caloric targets.
What I discovered was that, yes, it was possible for me to follow MyPlate and stick to a thrifty budget — but it took a toll. My son developed a gag reflex whenever he smelled fish sticks, I felt burned out by my own cooking and everyone grew tired of eating corn.
Here’s what I wrote at by end of the experiment:
“If the MyPlate on My Budget experiment taught me anything, it’s that quality food costs more because it’s inherently worth more. Washington apples vs. New Zealand apples; Oregon shrimp vs. farmed shrimp from Thailand; freshness comes with a price and a reward.”
I’ve been thinking about the MyPlate on My Budget experiment a lot recently, because one of my cousins who is a dairy farmer shared a post from a Facebook group called My Job Depends on Ag, which has more than 85,000 members, including many farmers from Western Washington.
I don’t recall what the original post was, but as I followed the rabbit trail to all of the other heartfelt comments from agricultural workers across the country, I became deeply aware of how little I understood about the challenges farmers face.
A few days later, my daughter turned 10. When we looked in her baby book, I saw a page I created in 2009 about what things cost the month she was born. I wrote that a gallon of organic milk was $5.49. Now, 10 years later, I can still buy a gallon of organic milk at Trader Joe’s for $5.69. That’s mind-boggling. The price of organic milk has only gone up 2 cents per year.
We are extremely lucky to live in a country where the price of food is stable and quality products are plentifully available. I’m pausing to acknowledge that privilege, and also to admit my ignorance about the hardships farmers face growing food for all of us.
We eat 1,095 meals a year. The cost of food and access to nutritious ingredients impacts everyone. That’s why I’m dusting off the MyPlate on My Budget experiment one more time.
Can my family — which now includes a bottomless-pit teenage boy — follow the MyPlate guidelines and stick to the USDA defined “thrifty” budget of $158.30 a week for my family of four? Read my columns in the next few weeks to find out.
Jennifer Bardsley publishes books under her own name and the pseudonym Louise Cypress. Find her online on Instagram @the_ya_gal, on Twitter @jennbardsley or on Facebook as The YA Gal. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.