As many Americans continue to feel the economic squeeze, they might be eating out less and preparing more meals at home. So, itís more important than ever to grocery shop smart and buy healthful food that fits within a budget.

Public health experts fear lean economic times could mean an already-overweight public will resort to cheaper, high-calorie foods, which can lack important vitamins, minerals, fiber and other nutrients. With a little knowledge and planning, though, this doesnít have to happen.

Helping Americans learn how to stretch their grocery dollars with healthful, nutritious food is the theme of Farm Bureauís Food Check-Out Week, Feb. 17-23. Americaís farmers and ranchers are committed to producing safe, healthful and abundant food. And they share concerns when it comes to putting nutritious, budget-friendly meals on the table.

According to a recent public opinion survey conducted by the American Dietetic Association, 52 percent of consumers are looking for practical tips, and thatís just what Food Check-Out Week provides. More than 70 percent of American adults donít do more to achieve a balanced diet because they are satisfied with how they eat and donít want to give up foods they like.

Recent U.S. Department of Agriculture food price data show that prices for unprepared, readily available fresh fruits and vegetables have remained stable relative to dessert and snack foods. Translation ó the price of a more healthful diet has not changed compared to an unhealthy diet.

Learning to use your grocery dollars wisely helps ensure nutrition isnít neglected. Fruits and vegetables ó along with whole grains, low-fat dairy products, lean meats, fish, beans, eggs and nuts ó are an important part of a healthful diet.

Buying fresh produce when itís in season and costs less, while buying frozen fruits and vegetables when theyíre not in season, is a smart way to stretch that dollar.

Consumers in Kansas and across this country see a wealth of food products every time they step foot in their favorite supermarket. Yes, todayís shopper is fortunate to reap the benefits provided by Americaís farmers and ranchers.

Crop and livestock producers are proud of their profession. Nowhere is this more visible than the Midwest and our home state of Kansas. †

Our farmers take great pride in producing the cleanest, most abundant crops including wheat, corn, milo and soybeans. In addition, Kansas ranchers produce some of the best cattle, hogs and sheep.

Kansans also are proud that Food Check-Out Week is an idea that originated with Kansas Farm Bureau in 1997. Neosho County Farm Bureau member Linda Reinhart, former chair of the Kansas committee of Farm Bureau Women and the American Farm Bureau Womenís committee, thought the concept was important and saw it through to completion.

The story of the American farmer and rancher is truly a success story. Our producers are the most productive in the world. Remember to help celebrate this story and the most healthful, safest food anywhere on the planet Feb. 17-23.

John Schlageck is a Kansas agriculture commentator.