Is healthy eating a luxury? Locals reveal cheap tips to eating right

By Emily Hoover |

Photos by Robert H. Heinrich

Graphic by Kendall Braccia

For St. Augustine resident Sarah Alarcon, healthy eating is a luxury.

Because she said she lives on a small budget, and does not have a car, everyday expenses like housing and bill payments often come before eating nutritious meals. As a result, she said she worries about her health.

“My health situation is often terrible,” Alarcon, 21, said. “After I pay my bills, that change is how I get taxis to go to the store to buy food. Sometimes, that leaves me with $30 [for food shopping.]”

Alarcon, who is from New Smyrna Beach, Fla., said she spends her limited funds on fresh produce, but also finds herself buying low calorie frozen meals she can microwave.

“I can go a month on Ramen noodles, but I would love to have kale on a regular basis,” said Alarcon, who works at the Conch House on Anastasia Island. “When all I can buy is iceberg lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers, as a meat eater, sometimes I feel like my body is dying.”

Graphic by Victoria Van Arnam

According to a study released by the journal Health Affairs, eating right and staying healthy is expensive. While this study called for more potassium, dietary fiber, Vitamin D and calcium in the average American’s diet, it also said adding these items can add up to $380 to a consumer’s budget, per year. Consumers who have more money to spend on food meet the dietary requirements for healthy eating, but those who spend less eat a diet that is rich in added sugar, sodium and saturated fat, the study said.

Alarcon said she is feeling the effects of the economic recession.

“The way things are priced, it blows my mind,” she said. “The price of milk is outrageous. It costs more than a gallon of gas. I honestly feel for the middle class.”

However, Nick Baine, a business major at Flagler College, said he believes the economy is only part of the problem. For Americans who work full time or attend classes full time, finding the time to purchase and prepare healthy food is even more difficult.

“People who work can’t find the roadside stands and they don’t have time to go to the Farmer’s Market on Saturdays [at St. Augustine Beach],” Baine, 21, said. “It’s a lot easier to get a 99 cent hamburger at McDonalds than to cook a healthy meal when you’re beat. If you’re writing a paper, you’ve got even less time.”

Alarcon, who said she was taking classes at Daytona State College before taking some time off, agrees. She said she and her husband, Edwin, who works at Acapulco Mexican Restaurant, are often too tired to cook after a long night at work.

“A lot of nights, Five Star (pizza) is all that’s open,” she said. “But Five Star is as far as I go; I don’t eat fast food. Sometimes, I just grab a piece of bread or a [peanut butter and jelly sandwich].”

But Flagler College English and philosophy major Phil Grech said lack of time is just a way for people to rationalize unhealthy eating habits.

“If you say you don’t have time, then you won’t be healthy,” Grech, 29, said. “Options do exist, if you take the time to find them.”

Grech, a vegetarian, said although he works 30 hours per week at Make Me Social, a local marketing company, as well as taking classed at Flagler, eating “healthy crap” is a way to avoid unhealthy habits.

“If I do eat out, I try to get tofu or black beans,” he said. “If I’m at the student center, I just grab a power bar. Sometimes, I go hungry for a few days, in between paychecks, but I try to get as much as I can with my budget.”

Katie Taylor, a communication major, agrees.

“Sometimes, when I’m busy, I don’t want to go to the gym,” she said. “But it’s all about willpower. I bring snacks to school, so I don’t need to grab something bad at [the student center.] Find foods you like and would enjoy eating. Don’t let your schedule overwhelm you.”

Taylor said she works a part time job at a local tanning salon, but said she is grateful when her parents can help her financially.

“I grew up with my mom making all my meals,” she said. “My mom is a stick figure and is really healthy and fit. I’d rather put $20 towards groceries than go out to eat.”

Photo of Sarah Alarcon contributed by Gena Anderson

However, Alarcon said it is not always that easy.

“I eat healthy a lot of the time,” she said. “But when you’re looking at peppers in Wal-Mart and three [different types of peppers] cost $6, it’s ridiculous. There was a time when I was using meal replacement shakes to get the nutrients I need and fill me up.”

Yet, Flagler graduate Chuck Riffenburg said it is best to shop around.

“Diane’s [Natural Food Market] is there and I also go to Whole Foods in Jacksonville,” he said. “I’ve gone to Scratch & Dent Discount Groceries a number of times.”

Baine said when buying produce, he tries to buy what is local and what is in season.

“Buying local is cheaper,” he said. “It is a regional and local thing. Here, we’re lucky because we are so close to farm communities. If I go to roadside vendors or Stewart’s [Market] on the island, I can pay 99 cents for guacamole—versus Winn Dixie, where it’s $3.99 for a singular avocado.”

However, Alarcon, who said she walks to the Conch House from Lincolnville, said her lack of transportation keeps her in the downtown area.

“My bike is broken and I need a whole new tire on the back,” she said. “Plus, it’s really hard to stabilize yourself when you’ve got groceries on a bike. I walk to Winn Dixie with my backpack, but they need to put a market right here.”

Alarcon said although she enjoys the close proximity of Carmelo’s Marketplace on King Street, she said she has trouble finding the fresh produce she wants and does not like paying for convenience.

“The people outside Carmelo’s ask me for change,” she said. “But I’m like: ‘do you have some change you can give me?'”

Yet, for Bryant Loeffler, one of the chefs at Local Fare produce, delivering local food to customers who may not have the means or time to travel to the grocery store is a key component of his business.

As a chef for 15 years, Loeffler said he has “done everything” from dishwashing to cooking. After working at a restaurant in Savannah, Ga., that also had its own farm, he said harvesting and preparing local food has become a passion of his.

“We moved down to Florida because there are a lot of farms down here,” he said. “It was a great opportunity for us to step out of the kitchen, harvest on Monday, and deliver fresh and local food to the people who can’t get to the farmer’s market and can’t get to the restaurant.”

Loeffler said in addition to receiving a bag of seasonal, local produce for $25, Local Fare also includes a few recipes for preparing the food and couples these recipes with instructional videos from the company’s website.

“Sometimes when college kids [and young people] go to the farmer’s market, they don’t know what to do with all the produce,” he said. “They think: ‘It’s a hassle; I’ll go grab a burger.’ The key is to give it to them and give them direction.”

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