Could you eat on less than $5 a day?

Recently, a lot of people did — and some of them didn’t even have to.

They took part in the Food Stamp Challenge, to experience what it’s like to live on a food stamp budget.  Here in New York, several people involved with Catholic Charities blogged about the experience.  It’s eye-opening.

The ground rules:

1. Each person can only spend a total of $31.50 on food and beverages during the Challenge week – this translates to $4.50 per day, or $1.50 per meal.

2. All food purchased and eaten during the Challenge week, including fast food and dining out must be included in the total spending.

3. During the Challenge, eat only food that you purchase for the project. Do not eat food that you already own (this does not include spices and condiments).

4. Avoid accepting free food from friends, family, or at work, including food at receptions or coffee in the office

5. Please keep track of receipts on food spending and take note of your experiences throughout the week.

6. Share your Food Stamp Challenge by writing an op-ed for your local newspaper, blogging, sharing a reflection on the Fighting Poverty with Faith website, advocating for feeding programs, and more.

7. Donate the additional money you would have spent on food during this week to a local food bank or anti-hunger advocacy organization (optional).

One man’s discovery:

It only took a few days of painfully bland but carefully rationed canned soup dinners to (1) realize that I was depriving myself of energy and (2) understand why obesity is more prevalent among the poorer American population.

Yesterday, after my banana-and-yogurt breakfast, I went to the gym – and approximately 20 minutes into my workout, I flat out ran out of gas.

I was getting used to subduing my hunger, but there was no trick to get around the fact that my body was not ingesting enough calories to sustain myself. With barely $2 left for “emergency” food, I darted into the nearest Burger King.

Over the past few days, my caloric intake was barely getting past 1000. And yes, that is partly my fault for not properly strategizing my grocery list. Looking at the calorie counts on the menu board, it was easy to find single items with two times the calories I was now used to ingesting. I dove into a whopper and fries and threw up my white flag for the day.

Then I looked around, and saw a number of families with children also feasting on their meals. I saw a number of elderly folks as well.  The place was packed and it wasn’t even noon. This can’t be right, I thought.

When you are hungry, the last thing on your mind is nutrition. And when you are poor, fast food is a cheap remedy for an empty stomach. It’s largely by design that so many fast food chains are in poor urban areas.  I know how bad fast food is nutritionally, but when I was hungry, with little more than spare change in my pocket, there was no way I could pass up a Whopper.

Read more. With Thanksgiving next week, I can’t think of a better time to look more closely at what we have, and what so many others don’t.

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33 responses to “Could you eat on less than $5 a day?”

  1. Am I missing something? $31.50 per person, for a week would be almost $300 for a week’s groceries for my family. Some weeks I spend close to that, but most weeks not that much and sometimes only half that much. I know other large families who are much more frugal with their grocery money than I am. But I live in the rural midwest so our food dollars likely stretch quite a bit farther than a large city.

  2. The only way to do it is to cook. Instead of yogurt, he could have had an egg, toast and the banana. Instead of canned soup, he could have cooked dry beans and had them with rice; that’s two or three meals. A head of cabbage, a bag of carrots, and a few potatoes would have made at least three meals. A little meat can go a long way towards seasoning and adding fat, calories, and flavor.

  3. This is an awesome post. Thank you. For some reason people always see food stamps as a generous handout. Those people are fat, they eat too much, right? But the thing is you can’t buy healthy food on so little.

    Food stamps also helps the working poor. My dear friend finally gave up trying to feed her children on 20 dollars a week (while both of them had full time jobs) and applied for FS. She felt so enormously guilty. It was so sad (yes, I helped her, bought her bags of food, slaughtered my chickens for her) but how does a mom and dad, full time workers, deserve a guilt trip when there’s just not enough $? It’s not right that people work so hard and can’t feed their kids. Especially in a bountiful land like America. It’s not a culture of life.

  4. There is economy of scale at work in larger families when cooking at home and the large investment in staple ingredients is spread out over many meals when we calculate meal costs. For an individual or very small families it’s often cheaper to eat fast food than to buy small, less economical portions and invest in cook-from-scratch staples, especially if you have no stable address.

  5. OK…I went through the SNAP benefit estimator using the following data:

    Family of 4
    Adults age 35
    Children age 6 and 7
    Rent payment $250/month
    Father income $500/month
    Mother income $400/month
    One car value $2500 with nothing owed on it, used for travel to work

    My estimated benefits under this scenario were $658 to $668 per month.

  6. Precisely. Also, cooking presumes access to appliances and utilities, which more and more families lack these days.

  7. If he is homeless where would he refrigerate the eggs so they would last? Where would he cook the dried beans and rice. Where would he have stored them to keep rats/mice from getting into them? For those of us with housing, utilities and cooking utensils it is much cheaper to cook meals as you describe, and much healthier. For a homeless person, or one who is living in a home that has had utilities shut off, cooking is a luxury they cannot afford.

  8. My understanding here is that we are discussing the working poor, not the destitute homeless. I agree that home cooking from scratch is the only way to make this budget work, but would like to know: What’s wrong with hat? Given access to a simple kitchen simply equipped, it’s quite possible to eat for less than $5 per day.

    What people need to give up is restaurant food, convenience store snacks, and prepared foods. Sorry to sound cold-hearted, but nutrition problems among the poor are too often the result of cultural habits and lack of (or indifference to) life skills, including knowledge of how to shop for, prepare, and store food.

    Yesterday, apart from the glass of wine I had with dinner, I ate for less than $3. Meatless, but very satisfying meal of pasta and sauce. Tonight I’m having red beans and rice costing about $1.50, with (optional) sausage that adds about a buck to the tab. For lunch I had canned soup that cost $1.30, and a few spoonfuls of all-natural crunchy peanut butter. My dinnertime wine and maybe a piece of chocolate will push today’s tab past $5, but those are optional luxuries (which I give up during Lent).

    I’m not saying $5 is easy for families, but it’s a long, long way from impossible for those who aren’t enslaved to corporate models of food delivery.

  9. I might try this exercise together with my husband (but not Thanksgiving week!). When I was a stay at home mom I used to cook from scratch a lot more; now that I work full time I do a lot of “almost homemade” which costs more (but saves time).
    Just an aside about the fast food places; they have the bad rep for being calorie and fat-laden heart-attack and obesity kits. But they’re actually not as bad as some of the full-service chain restaurants. Hard to find anything on their menus less than 1000 calories each (if you can even find the nutrition info online). Not that poor people are going to eat at those places. It is actually possible to eat somewhat healthy at the fast foods; since people are going to do it anyway at times, maybe charities could publish a “cheat sheet” for making healthy choices, or at least less unhealthy ones.
    A lot of workplaces give employees turkeys for Thanksgiving. Since we’re not hosting Thanksgiving this year, I took our turkey down to St. Vincent de Paul, they were glad to get it. Beats having it get freezer burn until I finally remember to use it up, might make someone’s holiday a little brighter.

  10. I have a friend who doesn’t have a working stove. He’s got a microwave and a hot plate. He has to work with these restrictions when eating. For families that live in transitional housing, they may not have an oven or 4 burners on a stove.
    I also have starting making soup from scratch, except I didn’t have many of the spices so the first pots were very expensive as I had to invest in things like spices and a big pot.
    Also, what do you do for lunch if you are working? When I worked retail it was either sandwiches or fast food because the company did not have a microwave or fridge for employees.

  11. There’s nothing wrong at all with the notion of advocating for “slow food” as it is sometimes called. However, you need to remember that with the working poor you are sometimes talking about folks who work irregular hours, sometimes at two jobs. Crock pots make a big difference, as do microwave ovens. But it still takes time to prepare a meal, and in some cases the working poor do not have that time.

    The school district where I work has a very high percentage of our students who qualify for free and/or reduced meals at school. We also have one of the higher levels of children living in poverty in the state. I see a lot of families where both parents are working low-paying jobs, in some cases two jobs each, and lack the time to prepare a meal such as what you enjoyed. For these folks a frozen meal is usually what they have to resort to in order to feed their families, since not only can they not take time to cook, they can’t afford the gas to run into town to get fast food.

    Poverty comes in many flavors. Not all of them fit into easily managed molds.

  12. My father went blind in mid life. There were three children my mother had to take care. We needed papa’s disability, welfare, and food stamps. We never went out to eat. But that was ok. I didn’t really know better. We always were able to put food on the table. It is not easy, and I do think we can plus up what we give the poor today, especially through food stamps. But it can be done and managed.

  13. It’s really quite easy and cheap to eat well cooking from scratch. It does take what you might call a front-loaded learning curve, but once you are passed that, it’s easy.

    I have a well-stocked pantry, but with $15-20 I can supplement the pantry stock with fresh produce for a very healthy menu. Meat can be expensive, but you can get eggs or canned tuna for about 35c a serving.

    A typical breakfast is a bowling oatmeal, milk and a banana – I buy steel cut oats in bulk and cook a big batch for the week, rehearing as needed. All items are organic and breakfast costs less than $1.

    A week’s worth of black bean soup costs about $10.

    The problem is that folks don’t want to change their lifestyle. That it takes too much time to cook at home from scratch. I say bunk! In the time it takes anyone tomrun through the fast food drive thru, I can open the six cans it takes for my black bean soup (2 each of chopped tomatoes, beans and broth), chop an onion, turn the crockpot onto low and I’m out the door to work. I season it when I get home and I have soup make for the week.

    Tomorrow I’m going to cook a $2 pumpkin that weighs 4 pounds, add the package of gnocchi I splurged on and will have a whole bunch of meals for about $1 a meal.

    It’s not hard if you put a little effort into it.

  14. I’m sorry, I didn’t realize homelessness was part of this particular scenario. You’re correct, that is a different situation.

  15. Having lived through the depression in the 30’s, we would have loved to live this well with this much given to us for nothing. It is good to have safety nets in place and also good for people to think about those who are trying to get along on far less as this excercise suggests. However, I also think that those who get this from the government should also think about those who are working and paying taxes and at times be greatful for all the help they do recieve. Also remember that there are many places that hand out food as well for the poor. Our parish has support programs and there are other locations which supply things besides food. Going into Thanksgiving, I think we all, including the poor in this country, should show our appreciation to God and to our fellow citizens for everything we do receive.

    The answer of course to the problem of food stamps is to get people working and hopefully not looking for ways to make a permanent class of unemployed with higher benefits. I think we need a new president and administration filled with folks who know how to get the economy going again as the current group only seem to know how to grow government jobs.

  16. Our economic problems have been coming for the past 30 to 40 years. We have been losing jobs overseas and not educating our children, among other things. Any economic solution, that is not superficial, will take much time, effort, and cooperation.

  17. Another limitation to consider for the poor is the difficulty getting groceries home to cook them. Many don’t have cars and have to rely on public transportation or taxis which can be expensive and take a lot of time. If you are disabled or a single working mother with young kids you have to take along to the store how can you get more than one or two small bags at a time? It would take a tremendous commitment of time and money and effort to cook at home if you have to go to the store several times per week. Sometimes I see elderly and disabled people using a taxi to take groceries home and I feel so sorry for them because taxis where I live are few and very expensive. I would hate the expense and I’m not on a fixed income. I wonder at what they have to give up to be able to pay for the taxi.

  18. Nothing like petite-bourgeoisie concern trolling. Could food stamp benefits be more? Sure. Is the idea that people are living high on the hog on food stamps ridiculous? Yes. Are people going hungry under the present benefits? No. The only people I’ve heard of being food insecure on stamps are those with teenage boys.

    For the poor, the greatest problem is housing expense. For the poor not eligible for medical aid, health care is the greatest problem.

  19. Exactly. And they may not live in an area with an actual grocery store. There are areas in the city where I live that don’t have grocery stores. The only places to get food are places like 7-11, which doesn’t stock a wide variety of healthy food.

    I had to move back home. I’m trying to move back out, but I discovered that my dad gave away all of my kitchen stuff. At this point I can’t cook from scratch because I don’t have anything to cook with and if I did make a week’s worth of soup, I’d have no way to store it…

    I’m not making excuses but the solution isn’t as simple as just cook from scratch.

  20. I should add the other poor concern is transportation. The average commuting expense is $8000. Certainly the poor will be helping to the lower that average, but it is still pretty close to $8000. At $10 an hour, that car is costing you 800 hours, or 20 weeks of work.

  21. The problem of losing jobs overseas is not going to change for a long time. The problem is that our labor rates are way higher than second world rates. Unless Americans are willing to take less salaries and/or benefits (and just look how we keep trying to increase healthcare coverage) than developing world countries can make things for less. That’s just the way it is.

  22. Sometimes a salary from a job is just not enough, especially when there are many mouths to feed. Most of the salary of the working poor goes to rent — in most areas, at least $600. In urban areas, it’s even harder.

    Here is how one working woman feeds her family on food stamps. This is a very eye opening video, even for a person like me, who works in the social services field. I urge you to check it out:

  23. We all have a choice to buy US made and let US companies who use foreign labor know why we don’t buy their product.

  24. But most people in the inner city don’t have the ability to purchase these resources you have. They can’t get fresh food, they shop out of bodegas, they have two burner stoves, they ahve no cars to get them to a farmer’s market. Getting their hands on a pumpkin is beyond their ability and then knowing how to roast it?’re talking about teaching people to fish, but first they need to be BY the water…

    Poor rural America and poor inner city are two totally different hings.

    When you look at them and assume they don’t want to change their lifestyle, that’s shortsighted. They may not be able to.

  25. Mari, watching that was horrible. What mother wants that for her kids? How do people assume that these ‘foodstamp’ moms want such an existence for their children?

    So, so sad. Thank you for posting that.

  26. So, Manny…how much are you going to tell your boss to cut your wages for next year? After all, if high wages are the problem, are you going to help with the solution?

  27. $31.50 a week per person is more than $120 a week for my family of four, including two teens. I rarely spend that much on food. It takes home cooking, shopping sale items, and a commitment to planning ahead … none of which I think is unreasonable to expect of a person receiving taxpayer largesse. Don’t insult me by throwing the homelessness red herring at me. Specific examples: the man’s yogurt-and-banana breakfast is not adequate for most people … it lacks protein, which he could get by eating an egg instead of yogurt, which would also be cheaper than the yogurt. Another example, I often buy a whole chicken on sale, which I roast (aka baking) … this provides 3 meals worth of chicken for my family, including the teens, remember … it’s just that I have to think ahead and process the leftovers appropriately. Once again, let me state that I do not think it is at all remotely unreasonable to expect people to plan meals and cook at home, following the store sales to get the best prices. Maybe part of the program for receiving taxpayer money should be an education program on proper nutrition, how to achieve that in the home kitchen, and how to shop sales to maximize one’s nutrition per dollar.

  28. Here in SE Iowa there are some places available for $250 a month. They aren’t very nice, but they are dry, warm, and (sometimes) safe.

  29. FYI, 1 cup of milk has more protein, carbs and calories than 1 egg and doesn’t have to be cooked. It is more expensive but perhaps still quite cost effective for the amt of nutrition.
    I was just at the grocery getting my nearly free 20 lb turkey with purchase of $100.00, a typical weekly shopping trip that I bring home conveniently in my car. I usually pick up several like that during the holidays plus several large bone-in hams that are on special and they last me the rest of the year. That’s because I have a nice deep freeze and a vacuum sealer to keep leftovers, including big pots of soup from the bones, nice and wholesome for as long as I want.
    Most people on food stamps couldn’t afford the investment it takes to get the free turkeys nor are they likely to have the means to keep large volumes of cheap food even if they have the means to get it home in one trip. I think many of us forget how much we rely on our investment in other things besides the actual food to cook cheaply at home. Have you ever tried to cook family meals on a stove with one working burner and a broken oven – or with only a couple of pots? Or wash a bunch of pots and dishes in the shower stall because the kitchen sink is busted? That’s typical for many poor people living in ‘cheap’ housing.
    I don’t think anyone will starve or even be undernourished on food stamps if they have the means and knowledge to cook at home. But it’s not nearly as easy as some make it out to be.

  30. Having worked in a city where there is a high concentration of people on Food Stamps and now working is a poor rural area there are couple of problems with your solution nitnot
    1. In many inner cities there are no grocery stores – so even if the folks follow the sales – there is nowhere to go to take advantage of them
    2. Ub rural areas the distance to stores is daunting and makes a trip to the store an event that happens few times.
    3. Planning ahead require the appliances to store and prepare food – have you examined the cost of a stove, refrigerator or freezer. Odds are if you need food stamps you can’t afford them.
    What is remotely unreasonable is when you apply your advantages to what you expect of others.

  31. This sounds like the ramblings of a woman who has been around awhile—but I do remember when my husband and I could go out to eat and to a movie with about $5.00 and come home with change. He and I have been very fortunate and have not had to worry about our next meal for ourselves or our children in our 46 1/2 years of marriage. With prices as they are now, I can’t imagine trying to eat on $5.00 a day.

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