GRAHAM COUNTY — Fresh produce is healthier than preserved food, and now a new study suggests the price gap between the two is shrinking.

Experts have long suggested people should eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, but lower-income families have had a hard time budgeting for healthier alternatives when lower-priced snacks and fast food are readily available.

According to a recent Agriculture Department report, however, food price data for unprepared fresh fruits and vegetables have remained stable relative to desert and snack foods, such as chips, ice cream and soda pop.

The Arizona Farm Bureau Women's Leadership Committee is helping promote information on how people can put nutritious meals on their tables while still sticking to a tight budget. Learning to use grocery dollars wisely helps ensure nutrition isn't neglected, according to Sharla Mortimer, chair of the Arizona Farm Bureau Women's Leadership Committee.

"Fruits and vegetables — along with whole grains, low-fat dairy products, lean meats, fish, beans, eggs and nuts — are an important part of a healthy diet," Mortimer said. "Buying fresh produce when it's in season and costs less, while buying frozen fruits and vegetables when they're not in season, is a smart way to stretch that dollar."

To celebrate the 15th annual Food Check-Out Week, the Arizona Farm Bureau Women's Leadership Committee will deliver 90 apple pies and visit with Arizona legislators on Feb. 21. The apples in the pies were grown by Apple Annie's in Willcox.

In the Gila Valley, a recent push has been made for people to develop the ability to grow high-value specialty crops.

Locally grown food is fresher, tastes better and has less of an environmental impact while at the same time promoting food safety and variety, preserving green space, creating community and supporting the local economy. Recently, the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences — in conjunction with the Graham County Interfaith Care Alliance Collaboration — provided a foundation for those interested in learning how to grow and market their own food through its Beginning Farmer Program.

Included in the program was a hands-on class on how to build a hoop house to increase the growing season. A hoop house is the most basic form of greenhouse and utilizes a PVC frame with a sheet of clear plastic for a skin. The hoop house was built at the Care Alliance's Our Neighbor's Farm on Oct. 6 and was constructed in one day. The hoop house is 14 feet by 80 feet and cost an estimated $1,000 in materials to build.

Our Neighbor's Farm is an example of what the Beginning Farmers Program was designed to help others achieve. In addition to providing locally grown food, the farm grows its food in a water-conscious way by using drip tape irrigation and an aquaponic system to grow fish and vegetables while recycling water. As effluents from the fish accumulate in the water, it is sent to feed the plants, which filters it out and utilizes the nutrients. The cleansed water is then recirculated back to the fish. The farm also utilizes the land very intensively and frequently rotates crops. As soon as one crop is harvested, another type of crop is planted in its place.

Our Neighbor's Farm began planting its first crops in June 2012, and, through the care of manager Max Crain and a plethora of volunteers, has proved to be a success. Food from the farm is trekked all of 30 feet to the pantry and given to the needy. GCICA provides monthly food boxes to about 2,100 people living in poverty in Graham County. Also, because the food is produced locally, the carbon footprint of the program is greatly reduced, an example of acting locally to affect things globally.

With the addition of the hoop house, the farm is attempting to produce enough food to sell to local businesses in addition to what it provides the pantry to help sustain the program, according to Hank Slotnick, the driving force behind Our Neighbor's Pantry and Farm.

The Beginning Farmer Program was spearheaded by U of A Agriculture Cooperative Extension Graham County Director Bill Brandau. He said the program gave instruction on how to grow and harvest foods as well as business planning to assist new farmers succeed in their endeavors. Instruction was hands-on and conformed to the needs of the community. Brandau said one of the reasons he promoted the program was that the Gila Valley has a history of agriculture that needs to be revisited.

"There were lots of vegetables grown here," he said. "We need to tap into that heritage."

How to eat healthy on a budget

• Limit red meat in favor of healthier and less expensive sources of protein. Eat fish at least twice a week, especially fish high in omega 3 fatty acids that are good for the heart, such as salmon, trout and herring. Unsalted nuts and beans have a lot of protein also, but make sure you review the salt content and eat appropriate portions since nuts tend to be high in fat.

• Enjoy frozen vegetables and fruit. They are just as satisfying, and typically just as healthy, as fresh produce. Make sure to check the nutrition facts to confirm no extra sugar or salt was added.

• Avoid eating out as most restaurants offer extra large portions and extra large price tags. Options at fast food restaurants are also typically loaded with excess fat, salt and sugar.

• Eat before you go shopping. Going to the grocery store on an empty stomach will leave you more likely to buy on impulse.

• Grow a garden. Not only will you save on vegetables like cucumbers and tomatoes, but you'll stay active with this new hobby. Regular exercise is another important part of managing type-2 diabetes and heart disease.

• Scout your local newspaper for coupons before you go shopping. The price of the newspaper is easily exceeded many times over by the savings in coupons it contains.

• Shop for seasonal produce — fruits and veggies are less expensive during their peak growing times, and they're also tastier.

• Look for the generic brands. The ingredients are usually the same as the brand name versions, but they're much more affordable.

• Make your own prepackaged snacks by buying a large container of raisins, unsalted nuts or popcorn (no salt or fat) and separating them into individual portions yourself. By checking the nutrition facts on the food label, you can gauge how many to eat at one time based on the fat, salt and sugar content.

• Plan your meals each week. By planning ahead, you can check the nutrition facts of a meal before you decide to make it and create a detailed grocery list for easy shopping. Planning also helps avoid impulse shopping.

Source: American Heart Association

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