Who Am I? Why Am I Here?

Monday, February 9, 2009

Okay, so here’s the deal.

I am a food-oriented person. I come from a food-oriented family. Everyone in my family loves food. I grew up eating really good food, and I have continued to eat really good food throughout my adult life.

For the past 10+ years, I’ve spent between $80 and $90 a month on food. (This makes me not a foodie. Foodies are way too picky to eat for $90 a month.)

[And to clarify, that total does not include restaurant meals, just food from grocery stores/farmers’ markets/gas stations with really good local tomatoes. Eating out is a separate budget item, but I don’t eat out much—a few times a month. I’m telling you that not because I think anyone really needs to know how much I eat out, or that anyone cares, but just so you don’t think I spend so little on groceries because I eat out all the time.]

In November 2008 I read a New York Times article about how “bad” food (i.e., highly processed junk food like chips and candy and soft drinks) is cheaper than “good” food (i.e., fruits and vegetables) and how the economic downturn is likely to exacerbate Americans’ health problems by forcing them into diets that are even worse than their current diets (if that’s even possible, I’m not sure).

The New York Times article referred to a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association [Volume 107, Issue 12, Pages 2071-2076 (December 2007)] that tracked 300+ food items in Seattle-area supermarkets. The authors of the study determined that high-calorie, low-nutrient foods are cheaper on a per calorie basis than nutrient-dense, low-calorie foods. Which totally makes sense, a 16-ounch bag of potato chips has 2400+ calories and costs less than $5.

But I’m not sure if that study is really meaningful, because people don’t shop for calories, they shop for meals. In my experience, healthy whole foods like rice and oats and carrots are much less expensive on a per serving (or per meal) basis than nutritionally bereft, highly processed foods like cookies and potato chips. If you ate two cups of rice and a pound of carrots, you’d be stuffed, but you can eat half a bag of chips without hardly even noticing. (Well, except you might feel sick for the rest of the day.)

I know I’m defintely in the minority on that opinion, and the belief reflected in the NY Times article is so widespread that I’m not even going to argue about it. I just wanted to start with that so everyone knows where I’m coming from.

In addition to info on the study, the article talked about a couple in California who were trying to raise awareness of poverty by eating for 30 days for exactly one dollar a day and blogging about it.

I clicked through to their blog and started to read and quickly started pulling my hair out and making Dilbert-esque GAAAHHHUGGHHH noises for the next half hour.

I totally respect their project, and after getting linked to the NY Times, their hits went through the roof and they were all over the mainstream media and they managed to raise both a lot of awareness and a good chunk of change. Good for them.

But as I read their description of what they ate, and how they felt, and what they thought it all meant, I really felt like they weren’t all that creative with their food and ate a limited selection of not particularly filling combinations. Like for instance they went for three weeks before making soup, and had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch every day.

They said they appreciated some things about the project (shockingly, they discovered that meals cooked at home from whole ingredients are cheaper and better for you than prepackaged and frozen items—who knew???), but by the end were extremely anxious for it to be over and proceeded to each spend $20 on food their first day off the project.

It seemed to me that many of their problems were caused not by having only a dollar, but by not knowing how to cook good food for not very much money. (Also they’re vegans, which as far as I’m concerned makes things tough even if you’ve got all the money in the world.)

I thought they were probably people who had never really tried to economize on food, or to see what they could do for less. (This was confirmed on Day 20 when they said that before the project, they spent around $150 a week on groceries.)

It was like they read about people running a marathon and said, “Wow, that sounds really hard. I’m going to try that.” And then they ran a marathon, without doing any training, and when they were done they said, “Wow, that was really hard. And my feet hurt.”

Well duh.

In the NYT article, one of them was quoted as saying “I challenge anyone in America to eat fresh food for a dollar a day.”

I knew I should have finished pulling out the rest of my hair and moved on, but that line just reached right out of my computer and grabbed me. And it wouldn’t let go.

I didn’t know if I could manage to eat fresh food for a dollar a day (and I think that might depend on how you define “fresh food,” he didn’t give details), but I was pretty sure I could do a better job than they did.

But spending $30 and buying food for 30 days was not particularly appealing to me because it would be tedious and you would have to eat the same foods over and over, and also, to do it the way they did it—eating exactly one dollar worth of food each day—involves a fair amount of math to figure out exactly how much it costs for a teaspoon of this and a tablespoon of that. Which is not at all interesting to me, plus the whole thing starts to feel really artificial, because your unit cost totally depends on how much you buy, and poor people don’t weigh and measure their food to make sure they’re eating exactly the paltry amount statistics say they eat.

I tried to stop thinking about it but I couldn’t, and eventually came back to an early idea I had of starting with nothing and getting one dollar each day with which to buy food—an idea that when I first thought of it was immediately dismissed as being completely impossible by the (small) part of my brain that tries to stay grounded in the real world. But then the rest of my brain, which doesn’t worry at all about the real world, wouldn’t let it go, and I realized the reason I found it appealing was for that very reason: because I didn’t know if I could do it.

I’ve been thinking about the project since November, but between the holidays, prior food-related commitments, and work travel, this was the earliest I could start.

So here we go. Tuesday, February 10, it’s on.

24 Responses to “Who Am I? Why Am I Here?”


  1. Wow — I look forward to seeing how you do. Thank goodness for RSS feeds!

  2. Jake Says:

    I find this project really inspiring, thank you for doing it! Good luck, not that you’ll need it. =)

  3. Deacon Andrew Ciccaroni Says:

    I would like to inquire about not this, but how you spend $80 a month on groceries. I work wit many older people in my ministry and do some shopping for them and if I could share some of your money saving ideas with them, perhaps they could make better use of there fixed income. I saw your story in today’s NY News and was so inspired by it that I needed to ask.

  4. Fernando Diaz Says:

    Hi,

    I see you have gone a long way, but I just found you, so I’ll start at day one. I got here not thru the NYT but throug a friends blog, a mexican blog. So you are being read in a lot of places now. I’d say, 1.15 a day is, for you living in USA, not a lot of money. In other countries, that may be enough. Here, in my home town I can go, buy a steak (.70), soup(.40), tomatoes(.30) an avocado(.30) and tortillas(.20) and eat pretty well for about 2 dollars. So I think eating up with 1.15 wouldn’t be such a chalenge here… and still it is, because nobody really pays atenttion to what they spend unless you only have that amount of money.
    Anyway, Im going to read all, I think I could use some of your ideas and give you back any if Im lucky to give you a good feedback. Thanks for doing this kind of stuff.

  5. CherylK Says:

    I’m impressed. Very impressed. I’d have to get my husband on board (I think…but maybe not), but I’d sure like to give this a go. Love your blog and plant to follow it.

  6. tammy Says:

    Wow I am mightily impressed with your innovative cooking and dedication. Boyfriend and I eat on about $100 bucks a month. Sometimes 3 meals a day, less when he is working a lot. He’s a sound tech and that means eating at the club where he works. Fortunately, the music room is attached to an upscale restaurant owned by the same company.
    I buy a ton of reduced food items and I use coupons to help manage our food budget. I bake bread and biscuits and make dumplings and stews. I bake cakes for deserts and we have puddings and fruit quite often.
    We have delicious, well balanced meals built around what I find on sale. Seems to really work for us!
    Good luck to you – i am really really enjoying this blog. I found you through Frugal Dad.

  7. Lisa Says:

    I have always said the same thing. Healthy food is not necessarily more expensive than junk, in fact it is often less expensive. I’ll be following you so you can ‘prove my point’.

  8. Wendell Says:

    You seem to be doing very well, I am impressed more by your resolve than the fact you can eat healthy on $1 a day. I think you have ten days to go, best of luck.


  9. Good luck and I hope to learn a few things. It’s a great exercise in self control and determination.

  10. Joyce Says:

    Just wondering. Do you mind sharing your height and weight and any changes in weight since you started this project. What you doing is very impressive. I would love to this with my whole family but doubt they would go along. It would be too hard to do it alone whenI have to cook for everyone.


  11. Wow, you are an inspiration!

    I have been trying to cut back on my food spending lately, with the economy sucking at all. So when I first heard about that other couple I thought, “hey, that’s great! Let me see how they did it.” But it was so depressing. I don’t want to eat oatmeal and peanut butter every day of my life.

    But your approach is so much more reasonable and sustainable.

    A month wouldn’t be long enough to grow all your own vegetables, but that would be a great way to add fresh produce to your diet. I have been compulsively saving seeds from all the vegetables that I buy so I can plant my own vegetables this spring.

    Maybe I’ll try this for a month too.

  12. Liese Says:

    Heard you on The State of Things UNC program, so I came to read about your adventures. My husband and I are pretty frugal, were able to pay off our mortgage within a couple of years, usually question purchases, have no debt – good thing husband laid off in Dec. I work from home so between work I bake bread 2x week, all meals from “scratch”, have a small garden, a few hens for eggs. We never eat out … it’s too disappointing, I consider myself a foodie! Definitely as vegetarians we can easily eat for $3 day, with wine our grocery budget is $140ish a month in the winter for the 2 of us, half that in growing seasons. A good book is ‘Your Money or Your Life’ concerning the concept of “enough”. We always look at what we have rather than what we don’t, maybe not watching a TV might have a part in being able to feel this way. We were raised to pursue the American Dream … we call it the Nightmare now and are much happier off the treadmill. Good luck to you in your future endeavors.

  13. Liese Says:

    To Christine about saving seeds from veggies – if store bought they’ll mostly be hybrids and won’t grow true from saved seed. Avoid disappointment and buy non-hybrid seeds, then save from those plants. Happy gardening!

  14. Mercedes Says:

    Deacon Andrew Ciccaroni asked above how you were able to eat on $80 to $90 a month, but I didn’t find a reply.

    I am personally very interested in your reply, but it may also help others, especially people on fixed incomes.

    Thanks!

  15. lessisenough Says:

    I actually sent a reply directly to him but don’t know if it was helpful. It was kind of long and rambling, and not quite ready for a post. I will try to address this in a future post. I’ve written various things up for various people over the past few years but need to pull it together so it will work here.

  16. Serita Says:

    Rebecca, wanted to say that your creativity and curiosity are inspiring! So well-timed too, in this day and age of financial insecurity… It’s great to read both your thoughts and people’s responses.

    Speaking of, I’ve started a group (on a social networking site to start, with solid interest so far!) and soon on to a proper website (called Humble Feast) on the theme of cooking healthy in a crunch (like Crisis cooking or Recession cooking but with a focus on simple to prepare, affordable, whole and wholesome foods).

    Would absolutely adore your input/thoughts/recipes, especially any that you particularly enjoyed during your experimentation! (Any of your readers are welcome as well! The more the merrier, this is a community project about getting back to the common food sense that I know we ALL possess!)

    Totally understand if you’re bombarded (LOVE all the positive attention you’re bringing to eating right on a budget!!) or don’t have the time, no worries!

    Blessings and happy eating!

  17. Serita Says:

    PS- Posted a link to your (awesome!) blog on the Humble Feast group page- http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=66255194327. Mind if I link again when I get the website up and running?

  18. The Scavenger Says:

    Hi,

    We’ve covered your project at our blog,

    http://scavenging.wordpress.com

    … which was inspired by our new book, The Scavengers’ Manifesto, which was released just yesterday and is about living cheaply and/or for free.

    Thanks and cheers!

    Anneli Rufus & Kris Lawson

  19. angie Says:

    This is really interesting to me. I’m not sure about the idea that a bad economy/less money means people will eat more junk. I’ve actually found the opposite to be true for myself. I buy goodies when I have more money, but when I’m broke I don’t have extra to spend on chips, ice cream or other junk.

    I would like to spend less on food, so I am happy to find this sight. I typically overspend on food because of the convenience factor- I tend to pay more if it means I don’t have to cook, pack a lunch, etc. Old habits are hard to break, but I’m going to make the effort.

  20. Barbara Says:

    Well, I’m inspired by your $1 a Day idea. I see that you don’t get enough food as evidenced by losing weight. While you say the food you had is “good” (as in nutritious) it’s not consistently “good” as in tasty, attractive, satisfying, etc.

    So . . . I am eating on what I’m calling the $2-A-Day Eating-Well Challenge. I have lots of vegetables all day every day. I have interesting, delicious items, including Eggplant Parmesan, Potato Pancakes with Spiced Apple Compote, and many more delectable dishes. I’ve filmed my progress, each meal, each day – and I’ll be posting them all on YouTube, with recipes in a blog or on my website: http://www.KeepItSimpleSweetie.com

    While you chose to “experiment” with $1 a day eating for 30 days. I am finding $2 a Day Eating Well so satisfying that I expect to continue this “challenge” indefinitely!

    Best wishes to you.

  21. lessisenough Says:

    I agree that with $2 a day you could eat quite well — especially if you didn’t put all of the extreme restrictions I put on myself (i.e., starting with nothing, not being able to use spices or anything else in the pantry, only spending a dollar at a time, etc.)

    As I’ve explained in many places on this blog, this project was never designed as a long term one. I’m perfectly happy with my long standing food budget of $80-$90 a month (approx. $3 a day), and the project was undertaken to see if it was even possible to eat starting with nothing and spending only a dollar a day (one dollar at a time, no buying ahead), and also to demonstrate the kinds of healthy foods that can be purchased at very low cost.

    Also I would take issue with your assertion that the food I ate on the project wasn’t “good” — i.e., it didn’t taste good, wasn’t attactive or satisfying, etc. “Good” is clearly in the eye of the beholder, because everything I ate on the project tasted and looked pretty darn good to me. Maybe it doesn’t meet other people’s standards, but it certainly met my standards on the project, and honestly I can’t think of anything I ate on the project that I wouldn’t eat again. Food doesn’t have to be gourmet to be good.

    In terms of the weight loss, I’m quite happy to have lost weight on the project, and would almost certainly have done things differently had I been trying to keep a steady weight. That would have been more of a challenge, but I think I would have been able to figure something out if I had put my mind to it from the beginning. But since I needed to lose a few pounds, I didn’t see the point of that and didn’t try to work that way.


  22. […] support to lose 20 or 30 pounds. But, to continue the conversation, I’ll throw out this link to lessisenough, in which a woman attempts to eat a nutritionally-balanced diet for less than a dollar a day for an […]

  23. lessisenough Says:

    I was going to try to respond to this comment on the originating site but the discussion had gone in a different direction by the time I looked at it, so it didn’t seem like it made sense and I’ll reply here instead.

    First, I’d like to say again that I wasn’t necessarily trying to eat a nutritionally-balanced diet for a dollar a day; I was mostly trying to see if you could eat at all spending only a dollar at a time. I wasn’t sure when I started if it was possible, which is, as I said, one of the reasons the project was interesting to me.

    Also it’s true that the project was time consuming and unsustainable long-term the way I did it. (Though honestly, the blogging component and the media were by far the most time consuming aspects, so I think if you did this in the privacy of your own home without taking pictures and writing about everything you bought and ate, and no one put in a call in to the New York Daily News when you started, you’d be fine.)

    Some of that, however, is because of the way I set up the rules. During the first few days, it made sense to spend a dollar at a time and to shop every day. Near the end when I was wrapping up, I very much would have liked to buy the next day’s food while I was out, so I would have it on hand without having to go to the store the next day, but because of my “rules,” I chose not to. (I kept thinking of Wimpy from Popeye — “I will gladly pay you tomorrow for a hamburger today.”) Regular people would not have to deal with that, they could spend $3 or $4 if they had it and not have to go without food for 3 days to save it up, so that would make things easier.

    Also most people, regardless of how little money they have overall, do not have only a dollar at a time to spend on food. (The possible exception I can think of would be street people, but they don’t have kitchens or running water so my approach wouldn’t work for them at all.) The numbers I’ve seen on government websites regarding food expenditures for various income levels and for things like food stamps are, at the very low income end, in the $3 to $5 range. I spend an average of about $3 a day, shopping usually two or three times a week, similarly to how I shopped on the project, and I’ve been doing that for the past 10 years, so I do think that approach is completely sustainable long term.

    However I too am intrigued by the poverty-obesity link and I am in the process of researching that, and hope to write more about it soon. My opinion is that the cost of food is one factor, but not the most important one. So look for more on that idea later.

  24. Saurabh Says:

    Hi

    I am a student from India. I have been thoroughly impressed by your project and your determination.


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