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.”
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.