Feed Your Family Healthfully on a Low Income Budget

By Karen Ansel, MS, RDN, CDN
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Even if you're struggling to pay your bills, there are resources available to help you and your family eat nutritious meals. "Poor nutrition can impair health and immunity, lower productivity, and hinder development and learning," says Alison Kaufman, MS, RD, LDN, Director of Hunger and Nutrition at the Jewish Family & Children's Service of Greater Boston.

If you're finding it difficult to put healthy food on the table, these resources can help.

  • Get to know SNAP. Formerly known as Food Stamps, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) can provide additional monthly assistance to buy foods such as fruit, vegetables, bread, cereal, meat, fish, poultry and milk. SNAP dollars aren't limited to your local grocery store. Monthly benefits, provided in the form of a debit card, can also be used at convenience and specialty stores.
  • Visit your local farmers market. If your neighborhood doesn't have a local supermarket, you may think it's impossible to find fresh fruits and vegetables. Farmers markets are sprouting up in many underserved neighborhoods. These markets provide fresh, locally grown produce that you can often purchase with SNAP dollars. And there's another perk: "Many states will give double dollars for SNAP participants who use farmers markets. So $10 in SNAP benefits will get you $20 in produce," says Mary Flynn, PhD, RD, LDN, an associate professor of medicine at Brown University.
  • If you have children under age 5, check out WIC. WIC, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, provides supplemental foods, health care referrals, nutrition education and breast-feeding promotion and support to low-income pregnant, breast-feeding and postpartum women, and to infants and children up to age 5 who are at risk for poor nutrition. If you're eligible, you'll receive foods to meet your unique nutrition requirements as well as those of your young children. WIC foods include iron-fortified cereal, whole-wheat bread, eggs, milk, cheese, beans, peanut butter, canned fish, fruits and vegetables and vitamin C-rich fruit juice. WIC can also provide foods for your baby including baby food and iron-fortified infant cereal and iron-fortified infant formula.
  • Take advantage of school meals. Depending on your family's income level, your child may qualify for free or reduced cost breakfast and lunch at school through the National School Breakfast and National School Lunch Programs. Thanks to the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, school meals are healthier than ever, serving up more lean meat, low-fat dairy, whole grains and fruits and vegetables. And good nutrition doesn’t necessarily take a break when school lets out. The Afterschool Meal Program may provide snacks or dinner to children in eligible school programs. "For children with parents that work shifts during the evening meal, dinner programs provide many children with the only food they will have access to after school," says Flynn. Even when school isn’t in session, the Summer Food Service Program provides nutritious meals to fill the void.

The following websites provide additional information about these programs.

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