A study conducted over 50 years ago found that a grown man could subsist on $40 a year for food (August 1939 prices). The resulting meals might not have been very palatable, but they certainly were economical.
Trying to come up with a well balanced meal for a family of four is a difficult task in itself. Trying to come up with well balanced, nutritional, economical meals for patients in a hospital, for prisoners, for school populations, or for nursing homes is very difficult. The menus will also determine equipment and personnel. Hospitals (among other institutions) have constraints on the different limits for fat, cholesterol, sodium, and special diets. Cycles of meals are also a factor in determining the meal to serve. Coming up with a proper menu that keeps cost to a minimum can be costly and time consuming. With the advent of linear programming and the computer, the task has become simplified. CAMP (Computer Assisted Menu Planning) is a program used to help simplify a seemingly overwhelming task. One such program, used in a hospital, had over 30 nutritional constraints, and there were minimum intake levels of 29 nutrients. Also, food preferences needed to be considered. Menu cycles and costs are important. Even color, flavor, and texture can be constraints. An all pale yellow meal (fish, mashed potatoes, squash), while being nutritional and cost effective, may not be appealing. The CAMP program was also able to pick up nutritional requirements for a later meal if a previous meal did not meet the requirements due to other constraints. Though the variables and constraints seemed endless, the program ran successfully and cut food costs by over 10%.
The USDA uses linear programming to set costs for family food plans. This serves as a basis for food stamp allotment.