Friday, May 25, 2007

Can you feed yourself with $3.00 a day?

The challenge is one millions Americans face each day - feeding themself and their family with just $3.00 per person, per day.

Patt Morrison wrote of her experience trying to do shop with $21 for a week as a vegetarian in the LA Times.

In the long run, it takes money to eat thin and healthy. For $3 a day — which is what you get when you divide 30 days into the $155 monthly food stamp allowance for one person — you wind up on the fatty-salty-sugary-canned-processed-bottled diet. Get heart disease on $3 a day! Ask the government how! [empahsis hers]

She highlighted that "Several members of Congress took the food stamp challenge, and now two of them, a Missouri Republican and a Massachusetts Democrat, are trying to make the food stamp fund a little bigger and to guarantee that combat-zone pay doesn't knock military families off the food stamp eligibility list (yes, there are food stamp debit cards in the pockets of U.S. military uniforms)."

Which led me to The Congressional Food Stamp Challenge, a blog detailing the experiences of two members, during the week May 15 to 21, as they lived with a budget of just $3.00 a day to feed themself.

As congresswoman Jan Schakowsky noted in her reflections of the week, "Living on food stamps is not just about the food. It takes a lot of planning ahead to live on a food stamp budget, and still, even if you get the calories you need, you can’t get the nutrients. Maybe some nutrition expert can figure out how one can eat healthily on a food stamp diet, but I can’t see how it’s done. Fruits and vegetables, especially fresh ones, are very expensive relative to foods like pastas and bread."

The Washington Post featured the experiences of Representative Tim Ryan, who found "He made some poor choices when he shopped for the $21 worth of food, and the country's food stamp program is not sufficient for the 26 million Americans who rely on it."

What started the challenge was two representatives, Jo Emerson (R-MO) and Jim McGovern (D-MA), calling on their colleagues to join them in raising awareness of hunger and what it's like to live on just $3.00 per day. Only two members joined them - Tim Ryan (D-OH) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) in the challenge.

"I've been a little low on energy, but I feel guilty about complaining about anything," said McGovern, who took the challenge with his wife; each lost about five pounds. "For us, this is an exercise that ends Tuesday. For millions of people, this is their life."McGovern said he faced down many temptations at several receptions and fundraisers -- the duck rolls, the crab cakes, the red wine.

"Every time I thought, 'I wish I could have that scallop wrapped in bacon,' at the back of mind I thought, 'Why are you complaining? This is the way people live every day,' " he said.

The Southeast Missourian featured Jo Emerson's experience, "Most people on a day-to-day basis don't think about the fact that there are millions of people in this country who have to make a choice every day about how much they're going to spend on food," Emerson said.

And, who knew? "I'll save over a dollar by blowing my low-carb diet," Emerson said.

Which got me thinking, what would I do if I only had $21 for the week to feed myself?

What would be more important - satiety or nutrient-density; could I manage both?

More importantly, would I be able to feed our family of three, with just $63 for the week and still feed my child a nutrient-rich diet?

What compromises would I make in my diet to assure his diet was healthy?

I'm up for the challenge, as is my husband - later today, with just $63 in my pocket, I'll shop for a week of groceries, commited as a family to only eating what we're able to purchase with that sum next week.

We'll begin this evening, and continue through lunch on Friday next week.

In doing this I hope to learn even more about nutrition and provide my readers with insights about how possible it is to maintain a controlled-carb diet while on a tight budget.

I'd like to invite my readers to join me and use the comments section to share ideas, tips and frustrations as we journey together through the challenge.

Before you agree, here are our "rules" for the week:

1. The budget for food, all food, is limited to just $3.00 per person in our households each day ($21 per week, per person), so if you're single, you have $21....a couple has $42....each child adds $21. One major caveat - we cannot use anything during the week we already have in the house unless we deduct the cost of it from our budget - so if you're using chopped garlic in a jar already in your refrigerator, deduct the price from your budget for the week! Same goes for spices, cooking oils, and such since it's unlikely we'd have a stocked pantry if we were living life routinely on $21 a week per person!

2. We can shop for, prepare and cook whatever we want to eat, but cannot eat free food at business functions, meetings, work, or other places; but we can sample from tasting stations in grocery stores, and eat at parties we attend, hosted by friends or family (but not business functions!)

3. If you have a child in school, buying school lunch, the cost of the lunch is part of your budget....or you can pack their lunch for the week to buy more groceries. Or you can opt not to include your child in the budget and only do this yourself (and/or with your spouse).

4. We can eat out, but any cost to eat out must come from our $21 a week per person, so if we plan to eat out, we need to plan the cost and keep it within that amount when we do eat out. Friends and family cannot pay for us to eat out during the week, nor can the business expense account pick up the meal.

5. The budget does not include paper products, cleaning products, or non-food items available at grocery stores (lightbulbs, batteries, etc.); the budget does include alcohol, so shop wisely if you want a drink with dinner or use wine in cooking!

6. The budget does include condiments, spices, supplements, and anything you'd consume as part of your "diet," but does not include over-the-counter medications or prescription medications.

7. The challenge includes preparing and eating what you are able to purchase throughout the coming week, and any meals eaten out, since it's one thing to have to shop with a limited budget and another to live with it for a week.

Who will join me this week?

Those participating in the challenge are encouraged to email me photos of their groceries for the week, along with recipes and meal ideas and insights about your experiences during the week. I'll highlight them here on my blog next week and open discussion about the various challenges we all faced, and the things we learned along the way!


  1. Anonymous11:41 AM

    "how possible it is to maintain a controlled-carb diet while on a tight budget"

    That part (energy and low-carb) is easy: buy bulk nuts (walnuts, almonds, etc.). (This issue came up on the Eades blog a while back.) For example, 25lb of walnuts is about $80, and contains about 80,000 calories, which a 2,000 calorie a day guy could live on for about 40 days, at about $2 per day.

    The harder part is getting the rest of the nutrients (including a bit more protein) you need at a good price (and agreeing on what these should be!).

    1. Anonymous5:44 PM

      Its $21.00 for a WEEK , not $21.00 a day, go out and just look at what things cost, do you really think your going to live on walnuts, at a dollar store walnuts are 1/2 a handful for a buck!!

  2. I read the article about Emerson trying this just recently. I thought it was an interesing experiment.

    I've been putting together a series of posts concerning low-carbing on a budget. We aren't on food stamps, but we are on a very tight budget. I have to buy groceries for my family of four on about $100 a week. It's tough sometimes. Especially if I want to splurge on fruits and veggies we don't normally have,or if I'd like some grilled shrimp now and then. It's just cheaper to serve everyone pasta, rice and sandwiches. With my husband and myself both being on a low-carb diet it can be daunting. We also try to control the carbs and sugar our children eat as well. So far the biggest help has been meal planning, which I'll highlight in my first post.

  3. Previously (before I knew much about lowcarb), I went through some occasional poor times. Like maybe 3-5 days of having close to zero money or food. After my little girl and I would scrounge for every coin we could find, we would go to the wonder bread outlet nearby and get a bunch of loaves of ultra-cheap sliced bread, and to the store and get a big tub of the cheapest margarine, and we would live on toast. Fortunately it was only a few times for a few days, but I am sure horrified in retrospect.

    A lot of money problems are more one of bulk than overall allotment. Sometimes it's less expensive to buy bulk at a big warehouse store but you need $ for membership and gas/car to get there and drag it all home. It's less expensive often to buy a big turkey, for all the meals it can make and stock as well, but it does take some money up front.

    What amazes me is that even in the lowcarb world, even when the subject of money comes up, nobody talks about gardening. Why IS that? Anybody who thinks the medical industry is frighteningly conspiratorial should never look into the issues with food seeds, which is as bad or worse. It does not take much to grow a few plants. Peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes, some peas and beans and salad veggies, see "square foot gardening" for a way to grow a lot of stuff in the smallest amount of space, soil and water.

    I realize 'plant a garden' is not always possible, not even in a box. Obviously it solves zero problems "right now". (Although some salad veggies are 2-3 weeks to harvest.) But it's a super important thing. A century ago much of the country would not have dreamed of NOT having a garden -- nor would they have had enough money to buy all the food they needed. As long as we continue to foster maximum dependence on the JIT inventory of our local walmarts, rather than what people can grow nearly free at home and vastly healthier, I don't see us ever getting out of that trap.

  4. Anonymous2:27 PM

    Eggs would also have a cost per calorie similar to the walnuts, and provide additional nutrients, along with more protein, while being very low-carb. Seems to me, the problem (from a nutritional pont of view) is basically one of building a high good fat, lower-carb salad with a complete set of nutrients: nuts, eggs, veggies, a bit of oil, and some meat/fish.

  5. Anonymous6:30 PM

    You forget that people on food stamps can't spend them in restaurants and their children (in our state) are automatically eligible for free or reduced priced lunches and breakfasts during the school year.

    We have a garden and we still have some venison left from last winter but I don't intend to try this. I don't think I would be able to stick it out and I know DH would fold the first day.

    This is an interesting link to a google post. This vegan spends less than that on food, she estimated $40/month, not counting cat food or her vitamin supplements.
    If you google her posts you would see she bakes her own bread and makes her own soy milk. She uses the okara from the milk for extra protein. She buys canned goods and dried beans in bulk and cooks in bulk, storing individual meals (in reusable generic plastic containers,) in her upright freezer, which she considers some of the best money she ever spent.
    It amazes me but I couldn't live like that, either.

  6. Foods stamps are not intended to be the only source of food for those with low incomes. The stamps are a supplementary source.

  7. PJ is right. I was thinking of doing this challenge with a twist - since I'm a major cheapo stockpile shopper, I figured I'd just add up the cost of each meal for a week. I've kept track of my grocery spending off and on, and I can easily keep it under $160 Cdn per month for the two of us. But I guess that wouldn't be a realistic reflection of what it would be like to depend on food stamps.

    I accept the challenge, but what if all family members aren't LCers? Should we only include ourselves?

  8. kudzu6:57 AM

    There's usually at least one grocery store around each week that will put chicken (whole, or the legs, thighs, etc) on sale for less than a dollar a pound. Pork is often cheap too, if you get the sirloin chops. And of course, eggs are a great nutritional bargain! I stock up at Wal-mart on frozen veggies for around $1 per bag.

  9. A interesting experiment, but i think there are a couple of things that should be noted. First, if you qualify for food stamps, then your kid is eligble for free breakfast and lunch at school. Two, most states and counties have assistance programs on top of federal aid that distribute "surplus" food. This normally includes peanut butter, cheese, eggs, dried beans , rice, margerine, some type of fresh fruit, and canned vegetables. Around here in the fall it also includes fresh venison donated by hunters. Not to mention all the communtiy outreach programs that provide food pantries, and dinner once or twice a week. for needy families. While three dollars a day isn't much, its a mistake to assume thats **ALL** they have to eat.

  10. Anonymous7:07 AM

    I work as a church secretary, and get calls from desperate people daily. In this city one of the main problem food stamp users have is transportation. Yes there are food pantries, and soup kitchens, but you'd have to hit all of them every week to make do, and the people I talk tor don't have the transportation to get to all this "free" food.
    OR out of necessity they have shown up so many times that they are banned from the giveaway for a month or so- agencies keep track of who they give to, and they dont' give to the same people over and over. Sometimes they will only give food to an individual once every 3 months or so. So you have to keep track of which places you have asked, so that you don't waste valuable gas or bus fare to go to an agency that will refuse you after you stand in line for an hour.
    (thats a whole nother issue- time. Everyone wants poor people to work, but food giveaways happen from 9 until 5- working hours for most people- so you have to skip work to get food?)
    I thank the cosmos every day that my family is comfortably middle-class and can afford to eat right. And yet- I'm also fat!

  11. Anonymous8:16 PM

    I know $3 per day is difficult but it was never meant to be the only source of food income. Food pantries, church run centers, etc. Plus every kid I know whose family is entitled to food stamps also has free breakfast and lunch. Many of us also grow our own vegetables and trade with others who grow different ones. It is not fun but it is doable.

  12. I agree with this completely, thanks for the post.

  13. Anonymous3:10 AM

    $155 / 30 is $5.16

    But your attempt at math was admirable.