Some Notes for New Readers

Friday, March 13, 2009

For people who’ve heard about my project in the mainstream media and are visiting my site for the first time, I’d like to make a few comments.

The first is that the point of the project was not to suggest that anyone could do this, or that anyone should even try to do it, but to show the types of things that are available at very low cost (so low cost that I could get them with only a dollar) and to demonstrate strategies for low-cost shopping and eating that are different from what is usually suggested.

Ironically, one of my “tips” to Good Morning America turned into exactly the opposite of what I’ve been trying to say. When I talked about buying “bulk,” I was standing in front of bulk bins in the Whole Foods and I was talking about buying “bulk food”—i.e., buying from bulk bins where you can get a little or a lot for the same unit price—but they translated that into buying “in bulk,” meaning buying large quantities. Which is an approach that everyone else touts that I don’t support at all. In order to buy in bulk, you need a vehicle to get things, you need space to store it, and you need large amounts of money up front that not everyone has and that also reduces the money available for buying things like fruits and vegetables that you should get every day. I’m a proponent of shopping frequently and buying just what you need to get you through the next few days, while keeping your pantry and freezer stocked with things you use all the time so when you shop you can just get a few things (i.e., meat or other protein source, produce, dairy) and make complete, nutritious meals out of them.

Also I can’t emphasize enough that this project was not designed as the “Rebecca Currie Lifetime Diet and Fitlness Plan.”

It was a self-contained, thirty day project where I attempted to eat for a dollar a day, starting with no food (I couldn’t use any food from my pantry or freezer) and the first day having two dollars available for buying food, and each day after that getting another dollar. Any money I didn’t spend rolled over and could be used on future days. I only ate what I was able to buy—no homegrown, foraged, or donated food. (And no dumpster diving!)

Because of the extreme (and extremely artificial) conditions of the project, there was only so much I could do in terms of my food options, and I wasn’t trying to say that you could be perfectly healthy on a dollar a day (especially when you start with no food and have only a dollar each day, that’s just ridiculous).

I chose to eat a more limited amount of food in an effort to eat more “normal” meals (i.e., things other people might actually want to eat), because I felt fine physically with less food than I expected, and after starting, I decided that was the direction I wanted the project to go in.

The quantities of food I ate were very limited, and therefore the quantities of fruits and vegetables I ate were limited. I wouldn’t want to try to live long-term on a diet like that, and I wouldn’t suggest that other people live on a diet like that even short-term. But I think overall the types of food and proportions I ate were not bad (though not the portion sizes, which were quite small).

Another thing I’d like to make perfectly clear is that I was not trying to tell people specifically what they should do to save money on groceries—it was not designed as a “how-to” in the sense of “you should do A, B, C, and everything will be fine.”

I’m glad that so many people have found it useful, and I did hope that it would give people ideas, but I didn’t intend it as a straight “how-to” and you shouldn’t try to read it as that.

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14 Responses to “Some Notes for New Readers”

  1. I heard about your project on UNC and I think you did a great job. It is sad some people try to co-opt your idea for their own purpose. It was a great idea for a blog and you executed it well.

  2. Johnston Says:

    I’ve been reading since about the second week and I’ve liked and appreciated what you’ve done.

    About “bulk bins.” One thing I’ve noticed is that stores like Whole Foods with those sorts of bins are rarely[1] located in low income and/or largely non-white communities. Considering they were a staple of this blog which exists in response to the widespread idea that “eating healthily and cheaply is hard to do,” I just wanted to point that out. I haven’t read all the comments so sorry if this was talked about already.

    [1] actually never in my experience but I hope there’s exceptions somewhere

  3. lessisenough Says:

    Often bulk bins are found in nontraditional grocery stores like natural food stores. They are definintely not widely distributed geographically, but most cities probably have at least one location. For instance when I was in Washington, DC, I stopped into a natural food store in Adams Morgan to see how the prices looked. Adams Morgan is an extremely diverse area. Also I’m guessing that there are places in New York City and other metropolitan areas with bulk bins. They are also often located in college towns or near colleges and universities, which also tend to have some level of income diversity because students generally don’t have a lot of money.

    I think they’d be very difficult to find in suburban or rural areas.

    However the only thing the bulk bins were really essential for in my project was to allow me to spend only a dollar at a time. Some of the things I got in bulk bins would have been cheaper (on a per pound basis) if purchased in larger quantities elsewhere. For instance, it would have been cheaper for me to buy a 2 pound container of cornmeal than to get it from the bulk bin, however I wouldn’t have been able to start the project with only a dollar.

    So basically I see that as a logistical issue with how I structured the project, but not a fatal flaw. I wouldn’t have been able to set it up the ridiculous way I did (using only a dollar at a time instead of charging myself the unit cost from a larger amount), but I still would have been able to do the project.

  4. Amy Says:

    I just wanted to say, I worked for a time as a cashier at a Hannaford’s supermarket, and I kind of liked the job because I have always been intensely curious about what other people buy for groceries.

    The little old ladies shopped much as you did: a couple of bananas, a pint of milk, a can of soup, etc and several of them knew to a penny what the total was before I rang it up. I think they had old fashioned math skills, tight budgets, small appetites, and not much strength for hauling food home.

    I think most people don’t have a clue what they are doing in the super market, except responding to the marketing and food industry cues. People pile the most curious assortment of items on the check out counter. Almost every one succumbs to some impulse buying, whether its junk food, or some hyped up “health” food. I think we are programmed from birth to look for “treats” at the grocery store, even if we’d be happier saving that money for a non-food treat, like new socks or something.

    Oh, I’ll stop ranting now!

  5. lessisenough Says:

    I love this comment! I greatly admire little old ladies who know exactly how much their groceries are going to cost. (I’m actually a little old lady in disguise.)

    When I first started trying to keep my food costs under control (about 10 years ago), I would add everything up in my head and see how close I was when I checked out, and the more I did it the better I got. Now I’ve basically retrained myself to shop for less, so I don’t really have to do it anymore. But it actually made shopping more fun for me, like it was a game show or something. And it makes the shoppng experience totally zen, because it’s really hard to think of anything else while you’re trying to keep a running total of groceries in your head.

  6. Ann Says:

    I loved hearing that you challenged yourself with making it on less. I have been doing without hot water for almost a year now, as my gas water heater pilot light goes out when it gets to about 100 degrees – restarted at $90, it went out within a week. At first it was annoying, but I learned to heat water on a gas stove as I needed it. It’s been my version of a “tankless” water heater, as I’ve been contemplating spending $$$ on a tankless version. I figured that if my grandmother did without hot water for the first 60 years of her life, I could do without it for a little while. It’s stretched into more than a little while as I got used to it! It’s not a big deal for one person. In the summer the water is naturally heated by the hot weather and I get a warm shower! Glad to see someone else can do with less even though they don’t have to.

  7. Elizabeth Says:

    I don’t see how people could have misconstrued what you blogged as much as they have, because to me you were perfectly clear in all points. I like how you set up your project and it’s taught me quite a bit about how far a little planning and budgeting can go. It’s been years since I went to a bulk store, but I plan to go again and use it for various herbs and spices as well as whole grains that I’d like to try. I particularly like that you shared about where you shopped, because I can find similar places, like a mexican food mart and try to find something new to try as well as inexpensive meal options from things I recognize. The fear of trying something unknown is lessened and my curiousity peaked from reading your blog. Thank you!

  8. Valerie Says:

    I agree–I think you were very clear both regarding your purpose and also in your plan.

    Two things that have been underscored for me are the importance of awareness re: the food I purchase and eat, as well as the importance of basic cooking skills. You knew what to do with basic ingredients, and so many folks I know don’t have even that knowledge. Knowing that you could cook chicken and save the fat from the broth for a simple stir-fry is helpful to know when on a tight budget, but from my experience, a lot of folks either don’t know that kind of thing or don’t want to be bothered with it.

    It would also have been interesting to see how your intake of fruits and vegetables might have been able to continue to expand if you had continued in the same way for a few more weeks. I’m not suggesting you do so, of course, but it was impressive to see the variety of foods expand as you progressed through the month. Thanks!

  9. Maggie Says:

    You may have addressed this in a comment, but I did not take the time to read all of them while reading of your 30 day experiment, so I apologize if my question has already been answered. I noticed that your state has a food tax of 2%, which, while not large, is a regressive tax that hurts the poor more than the affluent. Did you include the tax in your dollar a day allowance, effectively giving you only 98 cents to spend? If so, and you lived in a state with no taxes on food, you would have saved another 60 cents, having $2 left at the end of the month. Or, you could have purchased 60 cents worth of black pepper and oregano from the bulk seasonings area at Whole Foods and had a bit more pizazz in your diet.

  10. lessisenough Says:

    The 2% tax was included in my total, so yes, I did only have $0.98 to spend each day. And I think I would have spent the extra $0.60 on some tangerines or yogurt. You’d be surprised at how good food tastes even without spices when you have only a little bit to eat. (I was suprised by that.)

  11. Kelly Says:

    Congrats on the project, and thanks for documenting it in such an entertaining and informative way.

    I think it’s interesting how several of your strategies are things that seem to come more naturally to Europeans (shop frequently, only for the next couple of days; eat up things in your refrigerator before buying more). It’s kind of a different mindset in some ways, but also (at the risk of overgeneralizing) I think there are some differences in lifestyle and environment that encourage Americans to shop and eat like Americans and Europeans to shop and eat like Europeans. For example, where we live now in Heidelberg, there are 4 amazing markets per week (with fresh, organic veggies, cheese, bread, meats, flowers, etc) within walking distance – so of course I’m going to shop there. And we have a very small refrigerator, so I can’t buy a lot of stuff. Processed foods are harder to find here, and there is a lot less advertising, so we tend to eat healthier, back to basics food. There are farmer’s markets in the US of course, but often they are only on Saturday mornings and you have to drive to them. Anyway, just thought that was interesting.

    Looking forward to your next project! (and to the chicken wings you promised us next time we see you; don’t worry, we won’t forget!)

  12. Len Stanley Says:

    I’ve heard so much about this, but there is no place that I know of to get ‘the story’ now that I’ve missed it on NPR etc.
    I live on Mangum St. & am on the Board of Old North Durham Neighborhood association; where in our neighborhood do you live? I asked on our list-serve, and someone sent you blog, but it’s only this page that I can get.
    FYI, there is a neighborhood potluck on Monday, March 30th, at Calvary United Methodist church, around back & down the stairs. 304 E. Trinity — please come & meet some more of your neighbors, and let us meet you. thanks for doing this – it’s a great awareness event. Len Stanley, MPH

  13. heidi Says:

    What a great idea and interesting blog. Thank you so much for doing this and raising awareness about how processed food isn’t cheaper… that’s been a pet peeve of mine for awhile. I heard your story on WUNC and agree with everything, from bulk bins to using chicken fat to being more aware of food, etc. I also think it’s good for people to know that they don’t have to eat such large quantities of food.
    My only beef (ha! couldn’t resist) is when you talked about the farmer’s market. I agree, the Durham Farmer’s Market is not cheap but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ones that are. When I was in Raleigh last, I stopped by the Raleigh Farmer’s Market. It’s open everyday and the prices were REALLY good. Collards and sweet potatoes and onions and beets were cheaper than they are in the supermarket (even Compare) and it was great to chat with the vendors. (Tomatoes are already there, only 1.49 a pound!) I appreciate the farmer’s market because it brings me one step closer to where my food is coming from and therefore, that much more appreciative of it when I chow down. I’m not suggesting we all drive the 30 mins to Raleigh, but just to know it’s there and plan it into our schedule when we’re in the area anyway makes a lot of sense.
    Again, thanks for this project. Very inspiring and well done. I look forward to reading about your next one.

  14. lessisenough Says:

    I do feel a little bit bad dissing the farmer’s market because in theory I love farmer’s markets but I just can’t love the Durham one because of the prices. (And remember this is coming from someone who shops almost exclusively at Whole Foods!)

    Obviously, if the farmers are charging what they’re charging and they’re able to sell everything, they should keep charging it. That’s capitalism at work.

    But I also think that people should be allowed to say they can’t afford to shop at the farmer’s market and not be looked down on as being anti-farmer or anti-local food. I think that nonlocal fresh food is still better than processed food. And if things are too expensive, they’re too expensive.

    People should also look for alternatives — growing things yourself, community-supported agriculture (usually not cheap either, but you can share with neighbors and might be able to make it work), etc. In the summer, I actually get great local tomatoes at the service station where I take my car (Northgate Express on Club Blvd). They’re about half the price of the ones at the farmer’s market.

    I don’t really like to garden, but I have friends who do, so I have a deal with a few of them that if they give me their surplus produce, I’ll make something out of it and give them half. Works for everybody.

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