Are Lower Income Households Willing and Able To Budget for Fruits and Vegetables?
by Hayden Stewart
and Noel Blisard
Economic Research Report No. (ERR-54) 29 pp, January 2008
Americans eat too few fruits and vegetables, and the problem is
worse among low-income households. Past studies suggest that
low-income households, when given only a small increase in their
buying power, do not allocate additional dollars to fruit and
vegetable purchases. Only at higher levels of income are additional
dollars budgeted for these foods. One explanation is that
households have competing needs and wants, some of which are
preferred over fruits and vegetables when additional dollars become
What Is the Issue?
Discrepancies between actual consumption and recommendations, as
outlined in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, are fueling
interest in ways to promote consumption of fruits and vegetables,
especially among low-income households. This study expands on past
analyses of food spending by low-income households to explore two
issues that may enable better targeting of nutrition funding and
education. First, if a household earns less than 130 percent of the
poverty line, on what types of foods might it allocate a portion of
any small increase in income? Second, does a household's income
need to rise much higher than 130 percent of the poverty line
before spending increases on fruits and vegetables?
What Did the Study Find?
In 2003, households earning below 130 percent of the poverty
line spent less than higher income households on six out of seven
food types examined in this study. Even so, a small increase in
income will not likely induce them to spend more on fruits and
vegetables. Beef expenditures and spending on frozen prepared foods
do increase. Focus group analyses suggest that beef and frozen
prepared foods may be priorities over fruits and vegetables for
reasons of taste and convenience.
However, it appears that a household's income does not need to
rise much higher than 130 percent of the poverty line-a cutoff for
the Food Stamp Program-before the average household does allocate
additional resources to fruits and vegetables, given a small
increase in income. A positive income effect is found among
households earning between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty line.
Among such households, a 10-percent increase in income prompts a
1.15-percent and 1.93-percent increase in fruit and vegetable
How Was the Study Conducted?
Researchers analyzed data on 5,275 households who completed the
Consumer Expenditure Survey published by the Bureau of Labor
Statistics in 2003. We divided these households into three groups
based on their reported incomes relative to the poverty line. The
"low-income" group included households earning less than 130
percent of the poverty line. Researchers then compared households'
expenditures, by income group, on seven types of food: beef, milk
and other dairy products, bread and other baked foods, frozen meals
and other frozen prepared foods, eggs, fruits, and vegetables.
These seven were chosen to include items from each of the major
food groups, along with a popular type of convenience food-frozen
entrees and other frozen foods. In total, these seven food types
account for about half of what a typical low-income household
spends on food for at-home consumption.
Statistical models of the relationship between a low-income
household's income and its spending on each of the seven foods were
then estimated. If a statistically significant relationship between
spending and income were found, the researchers concluded that
households will allocate some portion of a small increase in income
to the purchase of that food. Foods receiving a portion of any
increase in income were considered spending priorities for
low-income households. Statistical models of food spending by
higher income households were also estimated to determine whether
households allocate more resources to foods, including fruits and
vegetables, once their income reaches higher levels, and if these
levels are much greater than 130 percent of the poverty line.
Finally, the study reviewed focus group and food consumption
studies to understand why certain foods may be priorities for
low-income households, such as for reasons of taste or convenience,
and to corroborate the study's findings.