Vail’s $5 challenge |

Vail’s $5 challenge

Cassie Pence
VAIL CO, Colorado
Special to the DailyVisit Slow Food's website ( for tips, tricks and recipes for low-cost, healthy meals.

Time and money are America’s biggest hurdles in eating a healthy diet. At least this is our perception, and these are the two most common excuses you’ll hear for buying convenient foods instead of making a meal from scratch.

No one will argue that cooking takes a lot longer than picking up a Happy Meal. But is it really time and money that stop Americans from sitting down to a home-cooked meal with family? Or has food fallen off our priority list? Have we become lazy or is there just more to do, like video games, Facebook, skiing and soccer practice? Or are we just so accustomed to the big taste prepackaged food delivers that we don’t want to eat anything else?

A collection of recent data and separate studies show that Americans – although we feel more hectic than ever – actually have more free time than ever. Data presented by the Economic History Association shows lifetime work hours have decreased since the data were first collected in 1880 and will continue to decrease up until 2040, when the projection stops.

In a separate study, two economists Mark Aguiar (at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston) and Erik Hurst (at the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business) constructed four different measures of leisure and found that the amount of time that working-age Americans are devoting to leisure activities has risen by 4-8 hours a week.

So with all that extra time, why aren’t we cooking? Studies suggest it’s a matter of choice. Simply, we are choosing to spend our time elsewhere, not in the kitchen.

Healthy food, like fresh fruit and vegetables, does cost more, according to a study by the University of Washington. Calorie per calorie, the study found high-calorie junk food cheaper than low-calorie food, which is often rich in vitamins and minerals. Adam Drewnowski, director of the Center for Public Health and Nutrition at the University of Washington who headed the study, estimates it would cost 100 times as much to get the same amount of energy from fresh raspberries as from a typical packet of cookies.

Part of the reason junk food is so cheap is the government subsidizes corn, and most of those tasty snacks, like Dorritos and Oreos, are filled with corn derivatives. Fresh fruits and vegetables are inherently more expensive to grow, ship and store. So until the U.S. government starts subsidizing apple farmers, Americans will most likely continue reaching for the Cheetos, and the obesity levels will continue to rise, too.

We know junk food costs less, but is it really price deterring Americans from buying whole foods? According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, Americans spend only seven percent of their income on food (four percent eating in and three percent eating out.) In 1949, Americans spend 22 percent of their income on food. The French, who are generally healthier and less obese than Americans, currently spend 14 percent of their income on food.

“I think the biggest impediment is convenience, not price,” said Todd Rymer, director of Colorado Mountain College Culinary Institute who launched the school’s new Sustainable Cuisine program. “I suspect most people would prefer precut melon pieces and a can of corn over having to slice a far superior melon and shuck, cut and cook the corn.”

Slow Food USA, a nonprofit that strives to make it easier to access real food that is “good for us, good for those who produce it and good for the planet” is launching The $5 Challenge to make Americans question these time and money food perceptions. On Saturday, Slow Food, along with its local chapters, including Slow Food Vail Valley, is encouraging people across the country to cook slow food that costs no more than $5 per person, the cost of a typical fast food “value meal.”

“Right now, we have policies that make it harder to feed our children fruit than Froot Loops. But everyday, against the odds, people find ways to cook real food on a budget. We need to make cooking and eating that way a possibility for everyone,” said Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA. “If you know how to cook slow food on a budget, The $5 Challenge is a chance to teach someone. If you want to learn, it is a chance to get started. And it is a chance for us all to unite and begin pushing for the change we need.”

On Slow Food’s Web site (, members and budget foodie experts weigh in with tips, tricks and recipes for low cost, healthy meals, like cooking a whole chicken instead of boneless, skinless breasts. Rymer suggested choosing fruits and vegetables that are grown locally and in season.

“Food in peak season tastes best and is freshest because it doesn’t have to travel far, reducing our carbon ‘foodprint,’ and it’s most nutritious and costs least,” Rymer said. “A great $5 meal, $20 for a group of four, can be produced for less than that by featuring great products like Rocky Ford Cantaloupe, Olathe corn, Colorado potatoes or quinoa and Palisade peaches. Meat tends to be the most expensive item in both price and environmental and social costs, so having meatless meals is a good idea.”

Dried beans tend to be the low-cost favorite among Slow Food Web posters. Two teachers from Encinitas, Calif., took on a month-long challenge to eat on just $1 a day and blogged about it on Beans and rice, along with better planning and buying in bulk, were their main strategies. The couple even mixed and rolled their own tortillas at a cost of six cents a piece. “If you have the time,” $1 a day blogger Christopher Greenslate was quoted, “It’s definitely worth doing.”

For Americans looking to eat healthier on a budget, perhaps the better advice is “if you make the time,” a $5 meal doesn’t have to be served through a window.

Cassie Pence is a freelance writer based in Vail. She is also a co-leader of Slow Food Vail Valley. Contact her at

Support Local Journalism