Skip to content

Hard Choices: Compromises in Quality Nutrition

Photo Credit: Peter Menzel, Hungry Planet (used with permission)*

One of the current emphasis in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) is improved nutrition particularly for pregnant or nursing women. While the observation of malnutrition and under-nutrition are accurate and well documented, the question remains to what extent does this represent lack of knowledge and need of massive training effort, versus unaffordability, with a need for improved minimize wage, or drudgery relief so these people can afford or produce more healthy diets. Thus, when funds or labor are limited what are the rational compromises impoverished people make in purchasing and allocating food for their families. Thus, the following hypothetical exercise might be undertaken. It should take about an hour or two, but provide a realistic idea of the compromised choices people have to make and the need for extension/education versus other perhaps more effective interventions. It is based on an exercise used for in-class students, on-line participants, and workshop participants. Those who completed the exercise have always found it enlightening, if often disturbing.

The Exercise

Boundary conditions

  1. State the casual labor daily wage for the referenced country or region and provide the exchange to US$ for comparisons.
  2. Determine how many members of the family will be earning wages and total wages earned.
  3. State the maximum percent of the income they can spend on food, making allowances for other essentials such as cooking fuel, oil or batteries for light, rent, etc. and compute the food allowance. I typically use 80%.
  4. State the hypothetical family that needs to be feed from this food allowance. This should include husband, wife, and children, and note if wife is pregnant or nursing.


  1. Purchase the food your hypothetical family can afford according to your estimated food budget. This could require a visit to the local market to collect food prices. Please consider the open market prices instead of the super market, as the prices are most likely cheaper in the open market. It usually only takes an hour to collect the food prices. If you are not on assignment and don’t have access to a host country market you can use the data on consumer prices from the website, but emphasis the US$ values as being more stable than the local currency. The link is: .


  1. Using calories, protein, and whatever other parameters of interest, analysis the nutritional value of the food you provided.
  2. Allocate the food purchased to the different family members.
  3. Were you able to provide a balanced diet? What compromised did you have to make in feeding your family?
  4. If the diet was inadequate, was this because of limited knowledge or affordability?
  5. In making the allocation to the family members, was sufficient priority given to the wage earner(s) to make certain he or she would be able to undertake the work needed to maximize the affordable food? If not, how would this impact food security?
  6. Remember that most likely someone in the family will have to earn the money or produce the food and this will mostly likely be obtain from arduous manual labor requiring 4000 kcal/day or more. Estimate basic metabolism at 2000 kcal/day and calories exerted at 300 kcal/hr. representing 80 kcal for basic metabolism and 220 kcal for work energy. See:
  7. If you need assistance with the nutritional data please visit the USAD nutrition website at:


  1. Incrementally increase the food allowance in 10 or 15% increments until you can afford the balanced diet desired. How will that impact the food choices?
  2. Should this become the minimum daily casual wage for your reference country?

That basically concludes the exercise. I hope at least results are appreciated, as differentiated from liking the results. How important is an exercise like this to understanding the dietary limits of beneficiaries and the extent they need training compared to other innovations? Please visit the webpage on the Ethiopian diet, it was done by a food scientist attending a workshop, for which the assignment was a small group exercise. Were you able to come close to his results? What would be the results for the Chad family photographed at the top, with the food consumed shown below**?  If an exercise of this nature is not undertake is most of the nutritional programs more academic than practical?

Could this exercise be easily adapted to a survey of intended beneficiaries with the iterations indicating how their diet would improve if additional resources were available? Would such an iterated exercise demonstrate the basic knowledge beneficiaries have of quality nutrition and how extensively they need to be trained vs. looking at alternatives innovations that will more easily allow them to obtain a balanced nutritious diet? Would this knowledge be based on education or natural craving and other mechanism the body naturally undertakes to show discontent?

How do the beneficiaries priorities compare with the professional nutritionists and are the rationales for the differences appropriate?  Similarly, would it make an effective workshop exercise on improving nutrition?

While for simplicity this exercise is based on casual wages, it could readily be adapted for smallholder farmers, but it is harder to get the same quality of information based more on crops produced and labor exerted. The starting point would be asking about subsistence stock of stable foods being held for personal consumption, etc. This typically comes to about 2000 kcal/day, at least from the limited interviews conducted, but would not represent all the caloric energy available, perhaps 75% of it.

For those interested, you are welcome to send me your results and I will post them on a webpage linked to this page, similar to the list of consumer prices. My email is

Thank you.

** A coro is approximately 2 liters, one liter holds approximately 950 grams of dry good such a grain or dried vegetables. Similarly a gal would be 4 lit with each lit holding 910 g oil.

*Complete Photo Caption: The Mustapha family in their courtyard in Dar es Salaam village, Chad, with a week’s worth of food. Gathered around Mustapha Abdallah Ishakh, 46 (turban), and Khadidja Baradine, 42 (orange scarf), are Abdel Kerim, 14, Amna, 12 (standing), Nafissa, 6, and Halima, 18 months. Lying on a rug are (left to right) Fatna, 3, granddaughter Amna Ishakh (standing in for Abdallah, 9, who is herding), and Rawda, 5. Cooking method: wood fire. Food preservation: natural drying. /// The Mustapha family is one of the thirty families featured in the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats (p. 68). Food expenditure for one week: $18.33 USD. (Please refer to Hungry Planet book p. 69 for the family’s detailed food list.)

Contact CSU Equal Opportunity Privacy Statement Disclaimer

2018 Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado 80523 USA