The USDA Thrifty Food Plan (TFP) represents the lowest cost of a healthy budget-conscious diet that meets dietary guidelines while respecting existing eating habits. In 2021 Congress directed USDA to re-evaluate the TFP based on current food prices and food consumption patterns. In the protein foods category, the TFP gave priority to poultry, which was viewed as less costly than red meat. However, the red meat category used pooled prices for both pork and beef.
Our goal was to replicate the TFP 2021 optimization model after separating fresh pork from beef. The goal was to show that the lowest-cost healthy and practical diet could be achieved using pork (rather than beef or chicken) as the only source of meat.
Five TFP models were developed using the same quadratic programming optimization algorithm as had been used to develop the revised TFP 2021. Weekly “as-consumed” food costs and amounts were calculated for a family of 4 and for 8 age-gender groups.
The proof-of-concept Model 1 showed that we could replicate the TFP 2021 exactly. The meat category was then separated into fresh pork and beef. TFP Model 2 showed that once pork and beef were separated, fresh pork was selected preferentially over beef. TFP Model 3 showed that the healthy budget-conscious diet that met dietary guidelines could be achieved with fresh pork alone. Model 3 increased fresh pork to 3.4 lbs/week for a total cost of $187.81/week for a family of 4. Replacing beef and poultry with fresh pork in TFP Model 4 maintained nutritional value but led to a modest decrease in the weekly cost of protein foods. By contrast, using beef as the only source of meat other than fish in TFP Model 5 led to a major increase in weekly costs. All food plans were adequate in nutrients, met the definition of healthy diets, and respected existing eating habits.
Our TFP 2021 modeling showed that healthy food plans on a budget could be generated using pork as the only source of non-poultry meat. We also found that pork could replace poultry while maintaining diet quality and cost. While all five food plans met nutrition and practicality criteria, fresh pork had the price advantage.
These modeling data suggest that pork ought to be separated from beef in other studies also. In addition to monetary cost, pork and beef differ in terms of their impact on the environments, greenhouse gas emissions and water and land use. Future modeling studies will take these considerations into account.