By the end of this summer, the Department of Agriculture will release a new iteration of the Thrifty Food Plan, a little-known but hugely influential document that impacts millions of Americans’ daily lives.
The plan quantifies the minimum amount of money needed for a diet that conforms to federal nutrition guidelines. That figure is then used to set budgets for all sorts of government initiatives, from military family stipends to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which was formerly known as the food stamps program and helps 38 million low-income Americans pay for groceries.
It’s crucial that the Thrifty Food Plan continue to include a robust role for frozen foods — and thereby preserve the ability of SNAP recipients to purchase them. Not only are frozen foods less expensive and more convenient than their fresh counterparts, they’re often more nutritious.
For decades, Americans have been implored to eat healthier — whether it’s a grade-school health teacher talking about the importance of eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables or doctors on television encouraging portion control.
These messages have the best of intentions. But following that advice hasn’t always been practical, especially for low-income Americans. More than 6 in 10 SNAP recipients say cost is a barrier to accessing healthy foods. It’s hardly reasonable to expect a family living paycheck to paycheck to splurge on fresh, organically grown produce at the local farmer’s market — if there even is a local farmer’s market.
Fortunately, it doesn’t take an outsize amount of money or time to eat healthy.
Frozen foods, for example, are quite affordable — and healthier than people realize. Fruits and vegetables are frozen almost immediately after harvest, locking in key nutrients and preventing spoilage during storage and transportation. According to research from the University of California, Davis, and the University of Georgia, the nutritional value of frozen fruits and vegetables is equal to, and in some cases better than, fresh-stored produce.
Frozen foods are also easy to prepare. On the other hand, preparing made-from-scratch meals takes a lot of time. In fact, SNAP recipients report that the No. 1 barrier to eating healthy is a lack of time.
Today’s shoppers can now find plenty of nutritionally balanced — and portion-controlled — meals in the frozen food aisle that take just a few minutes to cook. Or they can combine fresh and frozen ingredients in the same meal, such as including some quick-steam frozen vegetables alongside a freshly prepared entrée. Over 70 percent of consumers mix and match frozen foods with fresh ingredients, according to a recent study by the American Frozen Food Institute and FMI.
Frozen foods aren’t just more convenient to cook; they’re also accessible. That’s important because 19 percent of SNAP recipients say a lack of transportation to the grocery store makes it tougher to eat healthy. Many Americans live in rural areas where the nearest supermarket is an hour or more away. But nearly every bodega and dollar store in the country has a frozen food section. So people living in food deserts can generally find frozen foods with ease.
Finally, frozen foods allow SNAP recipients to stretch their benefits further. Frozen foods tend to cost less per serving and stay edible for longer periods of time than fresh ones. That’s good news not just for people’s wallets but for the planet, as it reduces food waste.
When federal officials update the Thrifty Food Plan, they must acknowledge that frozen foods are crucial to families’ ability to extend the reach of their food dollar and eat nutritiously. Doing so will ensure that millions of Americans continue to have access to healthy foods.
Alison Bodor is the president and CEO of the American Frozen Food Institute, which represents the nation’s frozen food and beverage makers.