Healthy Eating When Money is Tight

By Mike Fornaris 
Dietetic Intern

Allison Polke 

Let’s get serious for a minute: the truth is that many people do not know where their next meal is coming from. This struggle to access safe and nutritious food is known as food insecurity, and it is estimated to affect 797,000 people living in Cook County alone [1]. If you or someone you know is experiencing food insecurity, it is important to know your options. In this post, we will explore services to help those that are food insecure and review some tips for choosing healthy foods on a budget. Take a look at each program and check out the website to see if you qualify or to find services near you.

Food Assistance Programs

The SNAP Programsnap1
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food-stamps, provides grocery assistance for low-income individuals and families. The amount of SNAP benefits a family or individual receives each month is based on total household income. If you qualify, you will receive an EBT (or LINK) card that is automatically loaded with your predetermined SNAP benefit amount each month. This money is to be used to supplement income to assist in buying nutritious food. To see if you qualify and to apply for SNAP, you can visit the website at or call SNAP’s toll free line at 1-800-221-5689.

The Commodity Supplemental Food Program
The Commodity Supplemntal Food Program (CSFP) serves low-income seniors who are food insecure. It provides a monthly package of healthy foods that meet the nutrient needs of the elderly. The program also offers delivery services for those who have mobility issues. Visit the website at for more information.

Food Programs for Children
The National School Lunch Program provides nutritious lunches for low-income children during school. This program, fully backed by Michelle Obama, requires schools to offer meals that meet fruit, vegetable, whole grain, protein, milk, sodium, and fat requirements. These standards vary for each school age group.snap2

Similarly, the School Breakfast Program provides free and reduced cost breakfast meals at participating schools. These meals are also required to fit standards set by the USDA.

Schools that do not participate in other federal food assistance programs may qualify for the Special Milk Program which provides free and reduced cost milk to students. This program focuses on encouraging schoolchildren to purchase (or receive) milk by offering it at a lower cost.

The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program provides free fruits and vegetables to elementary school students. The FFVP also exposes students to a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in hopes to increase their consumption in and outside of school. Additional USDA supported programs, such as farm-to-school, are working with the FFVP to increase exposure and accessibility.

Children receiving these services may also benefit from Summer Food Service Program, which provides healthy meals to children during the summer months when school is not in session. This program especially tagets children that coming from low-income, food insecure families who often rely on meals during the school day to get by.

Finally, the Child and Adult Care Food Program provides healthy meals and snacks to Adults and Children in day care centers, emergency shelters, and children in after school care programs. Visit for more information on these programs.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)
WIC provides supplemental foods and formulas for eligible pregnant and postpartum women as well as children up to the age of five. To receive services, participants must meet income, residency, and nutrition risk requirements. If requirements are met, mothers and/ or children will receive coupons for foods including fruits, vegetables, proteins, juice, milk, and cheese/yogurt. Coupon amounts and inclusions will change depending on if a mother is exclusively breastfeeding or not. Find out more at

Greater Chicago Food Depository
The GCFD is part of Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food banks, soup kitchens, and feeding programs. Here at Heartland Health Outeach, we purchase and receive goods from the GCFD. In order to receive these goods, our pantries are under strict regulations and are evaluated annually to ensure these standards are maintained. Although the CGFD does not provide direct services, they outsource their goods to soup kitchens, food pantries, and other food programs throughout the city of Chicago. Visit their website at or to find a food bank near you or to learn how to get involved in the fight against hunger.

Getting the Most Nutrition for Your Money

Many people think it is near impossible to eat a healthy diet on a budget, but this is a myth! Eating right on a budget doesn’t have to be a daunting task. Doing this is all about finding a balance and eating a well-rounded diet complete with fruits, vegetables, healthy sources of protein and fats, as well as starches.snap3

General Tips

  • Try to shop when you are not hungry.
  • Plan out your trip by making a grocery list of the essentials – and stick to it!
  • Buy in bulk whenever possible.
  • Be on the lookout for coupons and generic brands. Off brands are often on the top or bottom shelves, so look around!
  • Cook stews, soups, and casseroles to make each dish last for several meals. Still have extra? Freeze it!
  • Limit soda and junk food as they are mostly “empty calories”, meaning that they do not provide many nutrients and are not very filling.

Fruits and Vegetables

  • Choose canned or frozen fruits and vegetables with no added sugar or salt.
  • Buy fresh fruits and vegetables in season.
  • Choose non-starchy vegetables like broccoli, spinach, and cauliflower instead of ones lik potatoes and corn to reap more health benefits.
  • Visit your local famer’s market for deals on fresh produce.
  • Consider starting your own garden or joining a garden share program.


  • Eggs, beans, and peanut-butter are inexpensive proteins. These foods can be used in place of some or all meat in recipes to maintain the protein content while cutting costs.
  • Consume smaller meat portions and fill up on non-starchy vegetables or beans.
  • Choose canned tuna in water as an inexpensive way to get fish in your diet.
  • Drink low-fat milk for supplemental protein, calories, calcium and vitamin D!


  • Oatmeal, brown rice, and pasta are great, inexpensive ways to add extra calories and fiber to meals.
  • Choose cereals with less sugar and more fiber to keep you feeling full longer.


Take Away
Overall, food insecurity is a huge problem in the United States – but, fortunately, we have many programs and strategies to help people access safe and healthy food. Use this blog post as starting point in finding out which services are available to help you through food insecurity struggles and make smart decisions when grocery shopping.


  1. Map the Meal Gap. (n.d.). Retrieved February 25, 2015, from

Image credit (by order of appearance)

  1. By United States Department of Agriculture [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
  2. “20111025-FNS-RBN-2079 – Flickr – USDAgov” by U.S. Department of Agriculture – 20111025-FNS-RBN-2079. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –
  3. By ParentingPatch (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
  4. “Hunger in the United States” via Wikimedia Commons (

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