The Challenges of Eating Nutritiously on a Limited Budget

AMES, Iowa — Some Iowans will begin making changes to the food they purchase, acting on the encouragement of the March National Nutrition Month campaign to eat more nutritiously, because they can. But for Iowa residents living below poverty level – a little more than 12 percent according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data – making those changes will be difficult.

This is where Iowa State University Extension and Outreach education is making a difference. For more than 40 years, ISU Extension’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) and Family Nutrition Program (FNP) have been at work in Iowa communities, helping low-income families plan healthy, cost-effective meals. In 2013, more than 1,800 low-income families received ISU Extension and Outreach nutrition education and learned to eat more fruits and vegetables – a top strategy to reduce chronic disease and health care costs.

“We help families build their knowledge and skills so they can make the most of limited food dollars,” said Christine Hradek, EFNEP and FNP coordinator for ISU Extension and Outreach. “Studies show that for every $1 spent to deliver nutrition education in Iowa, $8.03 is saved in future health care costs.”

The experience of eating on a limit income

Hradek and Iowa State colleague Ruth Litchfield recently took the SNAP challenge of eating for a week on a SNAP allotment. They learned just how difficult it is to eat nutritiously on a limited income and they talk about the experience in their Spend Smart. Eat Smart nutrition blog at

“I came to understand that the knowledge and skills we teach are vital, but knowing what to do and how to do it are not enough,” said Hradek. “Time became the most important piece of the puzzle for me. In order to stay within my budget and eat healthy, I had to commit significantly more time to planning my meals, shopping and preparing food from scratch than I would typically do.”

Hradek stresses that her one week experience doesn’t compare to families who do it on a continuous basis. Litchfield, who teaches college courses about nutrition including food assistance programs, said her family had to change habits and the cancellation of school really threw her a curve ball. “That meant two additional noon meals at home for my son that I had not planned on. If I had been depending on school meals, that would have been a big issue,” Litchfield said.

Hradek and Litchfield also called on culinary skills when choosing what to buy and planning and preparing meals – following many of the lessons they share on the Spend Smart. Eat Smart. website at  

Extension nutrition education for all Iowans

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach provides nutrition education for all Iowans through a variety of educational programs – including the development of school wellness policies, sports nutrition, workplace wellness, food safety training and resources for parents, communities and childcare providers on raising healthy kids.

Contact any county extension office or a nutrition and health specialist to learn more about ISU Extension and Outreach nutrition education.



PHOTO: Litchfield's purchases during her family SNAP challenge.