Last week my husband and I participated in Food Outreach’s Hunger Challenge. Our grocery budget for the week for two of us was $58. We attempted to eat healthy, nutritious, gluten-free vegetarian meals within this budget. (You can read my pre-challenge post here.)
After finishing our week of the Hunger Challenge, my overriding feeling is gratitude. I’m grateful I do not have to eat 3 meals a day on only $29 a week. I’ve got lots of other feelings, too, hunger is thankfully not one of them. I am worried about how broken our food system is, annoyed that we don’t have ample opportunity to learn how to cook and eat better at a young age, and sad that there are many people going hungry or eating cheap, processed foods because it is what the budget will allow. This was an eye-opening experience. I’m grateful it is not my day-to-day reality. Could I do it? Yes. I hope I never have to.
Our week started out with some really hearty meals. We were excited to have stews and stuffed squash, perfect comfort food for Autumn. My husband said he was hungry at bedtime on the first day, but admitted he was not hungry enough to eat the foods we had available. He was craving a crunchy, salty snack which we did not have. We fixed that by purchasing a $1.40 bag of popcorn the next day.
By the middle of the week, we were tiring of eating the same bean stew. It just wouldn’t go away, there was so much of it and we simply could not waste any food so had to eat the same dish many times. I was also stressing, worried that our little pile of groceries was dwindling too quickly. I found myself eating a hodge podge of leftovers so my husband could eat a larger meal, as he requires more calories than I do. I realized this happens every single day for many people, eating less or not at all so spouses and children have enough to eat. We both made changes to our schedule, skipping social functions that were being held at restaurants. There was no extra money to spend on a drink or light meal out and it would have been awkward to go and have only a glass of water.
On the fifth day, we were both hungry. My planned meals weren’t working out so well. The beans we bought made much more food than I anticipated, yet the rice didn’t go very far. Lots of beans and only a little rice got old really quick. We missed having spices in our food, but tried to focus on the flavors of the food we were eating, which we often mask rather than accentuate with seasonings and condiments. Measuring out peanut butter by the teaspoon full wasn’t enough to insure we had enough to last the week. On Sunday, I skipped having a PB&J for lunch because there wasn’t enough peanut butter for both of us and had another mismatched meal of leftovers. The foods we had left didn’t come together to make a good meal, it was just a mish mash of whatever I had bought on the cheap. With more practice, perhaps I could get better at this. Or maybe not.
Near the end of the week, I started noticing my energy level and stamina while exercising were not what they usually are. I ate peanut butter every morning instead of my usual almond butter. Peanuts cause a mild sinus reaction for me. I considered whining about it, complaining that my nose was running, but realized many people cannot afford to eat foods that best suit their health. Or they don’t have the resources to find a way to do it on such a limited budget. I hear this often from people with Celiac disease and gluten-intolerance. They tell me they simply cannot afford to buy gluten-free foods and therefore don’t stick with the diet that is necessary to save their lives. It can be done, but it took a lot of work. I am guessing for most people, choosing the easy route would be the least stressful. Choosing to buy large quantities of cheap food instead of buying tiny amounts of expensive fresh produce seemed logical to me near the end of the week. It didn’t take a full week for me to start understanding how one ends up eating unhealthy food when on such a strict budget. When you can buy 3 boxed dinners for what one pear costs, fresh produce isn’t a priority.
Speaking of fresh produce, a large chunk of our budget was alloted for our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share from the Karbaumer Farm. It cost $9 or about 15% of our budget. While it is a gamble depending on the harvest and some weeks are more plentiful than others, what we received in our weekly produce box was the saving grace of the week. Color and nutrition were back on the menu!
We got 5 oz. of lettuce, a little more than 1/3 of a pound of fresh okra, a pound of sweet potatoes, 1/2 a pound of green beans, 1 pound of white potatoes, 1 1/2 small onions, 1/4 pound of tomatoes, 1/4 pound of bell and jalapeno peppers, an ounce of baby radish greens, 3 eggs and a bit of basil and rosemary. If we had bought this produce at the grocery store, we would have spent over $12 on conventional produce. What we receive from the farm has not been sprayed and comes from local soil tended by loving farmers. I can place only a market value on it, but it is easily worth more as the produce isn’t comparable to what I can buy at the grocery store.
I still haven’t wrapped my head around exactly how someone on a limited budget would save ahead enough to subscribe to a CSA, but I think in the long run it would be a savvy investment. Supporting local farmers and eating local produce at a fair price makes so much sense, yet I don’t know how to make it happen for those on such a tight budget. Using Food Stamps at the local farmers market is a great option. Surely there are other options out there I am not aware of? There has to be a way to get fresh produce on more people’s tables!
Our grocery total for the week was $57.14. We had a box of black bean soup left over, along with 3 jalapenos, some cooked black beans, a little bit of popcorn, 2 toaster waffles, 2 pieces of bread and some mayonnaise. We probably could have eaten another day on what we had left. If we were planning for a second week, I would have purchased more peanut butter and rice, fewer dried beans and no almond milk. In addition to the foods we purchased, we had salad and cantaloupe for three nights that is part of our job compensation and on the sixth day we each had a couple of cookies leftover from a baking class I taught. We could not have afforded any of these items on our budget.
On the last day of our Hunger Challenge, this article by Mark Bitmann, titled Is Junk Food Really Cheaper? was published in the NY Times. I am a Mark Bittman fan and found many points in this article I agreed with. This line, however, caught my attention: “Even the nearly 50 million Americans who are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) receive about $5 per person per day, which is far from ideal but enough to survive. So we have to assume that money alone doesn’t guide decisions about what to eat.” I agree with this, but just barely. $5 a day is enough to JUST survive, not much more. It is not enough to provide healthy fresh produce in the off-season, however it is enough to provide for over-processed boxed macaroni and cheese and Hamburger Helper style boxed meals.
To sum this up, I learned it is not easy, but possible to eat gluten-free and vegetarian on only $29 a week. I learned that I really like having coffee and tea. I really like having lots of fresh fruit and vegetables handy for smoothies and juice and now realize what a luxury those items are, even though I consider them crucial to my health. I also realized before the Hunger Challenge even started that I have a platform, blogging, that enables me to share how to cook and bake gluten-free on a tight budget. While this won’t become my focus, I do plan to share more budget-friendly recipes in the future. I’m grateful to have had this opportunity.