Growing money on vines? | The Pacer

For the cash-strapped college student, there are few joys greater than cheap and healthy food.

Unfortunately, the world of 2020 simply does not work that way. The problem of nutrition and especially obesity in America is a greater epidemic than COVID-19 and, over time, more deadly. According to the USDA, nearly 11{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed} of American households were food insecure at some point in 2019. estimates that food insecurity in Weakley County in 2018 was 12.4{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed}. The effects of the pandemic are expected to have doubled the 2019 national statistics as Americans lose jobs and the price of goods inflates.

A closely related problem is a lack of quality foods. People without enough money to afford quality ingredients or not enough time to cook at home will naturally gravitate towards pre-packaged foods or cheaper alternatives, more likely to be highly processed. In a perverse twist, in the United States, counties with a higher rate of poverty are positively correlated with higher rates of obesity.

One way that Americans have responded is growing their own food. A 2014 report by the National Gardening Association (NGA) found that more than 1 in 3 American households were growing some of their own food. The greatest increase was among urbanites, young people and people with children.

While the trend was growing before the pandemic, since the beginning of 2020, even more American households have taken up gardening as per this NPR article about the “Pandemic Victory Gardens.”

The NGA estimates that a well-tended garden yields a half pound of produce per square inch, so with a typical 600 square foot garden and an initial investment of around $70, a gardener could yield as much as $600 worth of produce in a year.

Another way some Americans have decided to slash their grocery bills is to cut meat out of their diet. Around 5{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed} of the American population claims to be vegetarian, according to Gallup, and while people still debate about the health benefits, there is no denying the savings from ditching meat.

Meat as a commodity has been hard-hit by the pandemic, but even without the pandemic it has only become more expensive overtime. According to pricing information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, meat costs between 1935 and 2020 have increased by an average of 3.7{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed}. To put that in perspective, the overall year over year inflation for the entire economy has hovered between 2.24{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed} and 1.37{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed}, meaning meat by itself has increased in cost sometimes twice inflation. To give a concrete example from, $20 worth of meat in 1935 would now cost $440. Between 2019 and 2020 alone, largely due to the pandemic, meat prices rose over 7{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed}.

Even with the rising cost of meat, ditching meat products in whole or in part is more than just an edit to your grocery list. It’s a significant change in lifestyle, one with costs and benefits.

One member of the campus community who has been living meatless for years is Dr. Heidi Huse, an Associate Professor of English at UTM. We asked her what it was like living such a lifestyle here in rural West Tennessee.

“I’d say that for me, moving away from meat toward a plant-based diet and vegan lifestyle was more of a journey than a destination and happened over years,” Huse said in an email to The Pacer.

Huse cited benefits to cutting meat out of one’s diet, like reducing the environmental impact of livestock agriculture and nutritional benefits. Her testimony did, however, underscore the lack of options that college students would face going meat-free, making it especially hard for students living in on-campus housing without access to a fridge or kitchenette.

“For college students who might seek pre-prepared or convenience foods, unfortunately so far, healthy [vegetarian or vegan] options can be expensive, and fresh plant-based foods are perishable—not necessarily conducive to dorm living.” She added, “But I think that becoming more willing to try out plant-based foods can also make people more aware of the other parts of their meals—carbs, side dishes, snack or dessert choices, etc.  So they can move toward healthier eating and drinking overall.”

Nevertheless, she commented on some cheap vegetarian options, particularly those based on beans, legumes, nuts and seeds.

Dr. Huse was enthusiastic about the many online resources for plant-based recipes and diets like Forks Over Knives, T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies, VegNews and also various social media groups dedicated to meat-free eating, like her own Facebook group Northwest Vegans and Vegetarians.

According to Dr. Huse, Martin doesn’t have a lot of vegetarian or vegan options in terms of restaurants. She mentioned some chain eateries like Burger King and Taco Bell have plant-based options as well as La Cabaña, and some vegetarian restaurants in nearby Huntingdon and Paris.

Overall, however, Martin is sparse on meat-free options for eating out. As Dr. Huse pointed out, however, “the more people request plant-based options, the more the restaurants will expand their offerings.”

Planting a garden and cutting back on meat consumption are only two ways in which people are trying to shrink grocery budgets during a slow moving pandemic with no end in sight. One thing is certain, the tight budgets of coronavirus season are inviting creative solutions.

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