Health & Fitness Issue 2016: Healthy on a budget

Where to find fresh, wallet-friendly produce and meat while using EBT.

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click to enlarge Health & Fitness Issue 2016: Healthy on a budget - KitchenComposure via Flickr
KitchenComposure via Flickr
Health & Fitness Issue 2016: Healthy on a budget

“What do you want for dinner?” I asked my daughter while glancing at her in the rearview mirror.

She smiled and gave a reply dreaded by all parents: “A Happy Meal.”

That’s what I get for giving my 5-year-old a choice.

I have to admit, McDonald’s and the rest of the fast-food giants can be tempting. Zipping through the drive-thru lane is more convenient and cost-effective, in the short run, than a daunting expedition up and down grocery store aisles.

Purchasing supermarket ingredients to feed a family of three can run anywhere from $20 to $30 per meal, while fast-food spreads can cost under $15. Yet, fast food is still the less healthy of the two. My regular challenge, as a single mom who depends on her EBT card, is buying healthy food on a budget.

McDonald’s isn’t an option for EBT users, anyway: SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) doesn’t allow EBT cards to be used for the purchase of hot, prepared foods. (That includes meals from a hot bar at Publix, or even a sandwich made with bacon — no BLTs if you’re on EBT.) Thus, my meals are restricted to uncooked items (produce, packaged goods, cold sandwiches) found at grocery stores and other participating markets.

I do most of my grocery shopping at wallet-friendly spots like Walmart, taking advantage of its Savings Catcher app, which refunds my money when a lower price from a competitor is caught. Despite the money I save through Walmart, it’s hard to find reliably fresh produce and meat products, so I tend to skip the store’s overripe bananas and gristly ground beef.

Because I have to be frugal, I shop around for the best value on produce and meat. I also want my daughter to grow up on a healthy diet, giving her the opportunity to learn good eating habits that she can sustain in the future.

After visiting Walmart for brand-name purchases, Aldi is my next stop. The store sells cheap groceries where I can get the basics: rice, coffee, chicken and ground beef. My shopping journey ends at a local farmers’ market like Wolfe’s Produce Market in Riverview, the St. Petersburg Saturday Morning Market or Sweetwater Organic Community Farm’s Sunday Market in Tampa, which also accept EBT.

According to the Food Research Action Center, one out of seven Americans is using EBT to purchase food for their families. With a demand for affordable food that remains nutrition-conscious, see our accompanying list of EBT-friendly grocers in the Bay area that offer fresh, healthy foods that won’t break the bank.

Earth Origins Market Monthly and veterans' discounts, along with a rewards program, help shoppers cut back on costs. 6651 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, 727-347-5682; 30555 US 19, Palm Harbor, 727-786-1231. earthoriginsmarket.com.

House of Meats There’s less of a variety here than at some of the list’s other mentions, but House of Meats is a great alternative food market. You'll find multiple branches across Tampa and Temple Terrace, plus recipe ideas, rewards programs, phone ordering and delivery options. 1910 E. Fletcher Ave., Tampa, 813-977-9207.

Meat Depot The name might suggest this is just a big butcher shop, but it offers a wide variety of spices, canned goods and produce, as well as frozen products. The staff will help you find products and savings based around your dietary needs, too. 1401 E. Fowler Ave., Tampa, 813-515-6328.

Publix GreenWise Market This Publix location focuses on sustainable, earth-conscious products you can’t always get in the supermarket’s regular stores. Multiple coupons available for shoppers on a budget. 2401 W. Azeele St., Tampa, 813-250-0129, publix.com.

Rollin’ Oats A popular natural foods market catering to shoppers looking for organic, locally sourced, GMO-free goods and more. The store also acts as a learning center, offering classes at its St. Petersburg facility. Savings brochures are published on the store’s site on a monthly basis. 1021 N. Macdill Ave., Tampa, 813-873-7428; 2842 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N., St. Petersburg, 727-821-6825. rollinoats.com.

Trader Joe’s This grocery chain with a cult-like following highlights a variety of inexpensive signature items, in addition to its produce, dairy and more. 3808 W. Swann Ave., Tampa, 813-872-6846; 2742 4th St N., St. Petersburg, 727-824-0907. traderjoes.com.

Whole Foods It's got a reputation for priciness, but products with the house brand, 365, are often cheaper (and better) than their supermarket equivalents. 1548 N. Dale Mabry Hwy., Tampa, 813-348-120, wholefoodsmarket.com.

Words by CL intern Jamie, a senior majoring in English at the University of South Florida; list compiled by CL intern Justin, who's also a senior English major at USF.

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