Can the Poor Eat Healthy?

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For a family of four on food stamps (SNAP), which means they make less than $30,624 gross/year, their monthly allotment is $632 worth of stamps.  I calculate that to be $5.26 per day per person.  Can a poor person eat healthy on that amount?  Interestingly enough, a writer in the WSJ tried just to do just that.   He followed the SNAP challenge that many food charities beg people to try for a few days in order to prove how hungry people are.   As you may know from reading this blog, I have alway thought that the “hungry” label is counterintuitive since most Americans are obese.  In fact, the term has been changed to “food insecurity” because others must have gotten suspicious of this term as well.  Anyway, the author of the article had some interesting observations:

  • Eating reasonably well on $4.30 a day turned out to be a bit like a Rubik’s Cube puzzle: It seemed impossible until I worked out the trick. Then it became surprisingly manageable, if monotonous.
  • I started with a list of don’ts—things I wouldn’t do. I didn’t eat out. I didn’t eat any packaged or processed foods. I didn’t try to live on energy bars. I avoided cheap carbohydrates, like white bread and noodles. Yes, they’re cheap. But they’re empty calories. I abandoned buying coffee out.
  • I said goodbye to “Food Inc.” and took a step back in time—to the days when food was something you prepared, not bought.
  • I looked, first, for good-value proteins. I figured those would be the biggest challenge. I found three which formed the basis of the entire diet: peanuts and peanut butter, eggs, and pulses or legumes, like split peas and lentils, which can cost not much more than $1 a pound.
  • I rarely ate meats or fish. They were too expensive.
  • I then added healthy carbohydrates: oatmeal, whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, baked potatoes and sweet potatoes, and whole-wheat bread—which I made at home and cost a little more than $1 for a 1½-pound loaf.
  • Fruits and vegetables were tougher to work into the budget. But I ate plenty of bananas (sometimes just 20 cents each), and I bought frozen peas, corn and other mixed vegetables for around $1.30 a pound. I took a cheap multivitamin a day.
  • Milk is expensive, but I had a cup—about 25 cents—a day.
  • I live in the city and don’t own a car. I took the subway to the bigger supermarkets. And I hunted aggressively for deals.
  • What’s on sale is what’s on the menu. I found the food aisles at downtown drugstores sometimes had surprisingly good deals.
  • Bottom line? I managed to eat pretty well for less than $4 a day (though I realize this was only a test, not the harsh reality of poverty). I kept this up for six weeks, although I learned most of what was useful in the first couple.
  • I remain in good health. I kept going to the gym for workouts three or four times a week. I was never faint or hungry. I actually put on a couple of pounds—thanks to an overfondness for peanut butter.
  • I discussed the diet with my doctor, who said it was perfectly healthful and probably better than the way most people eat. (She also advised I cut down on the peanut butter.)
  • Later, I reviewed my food intake with Donald Hensrud, M.D., the chair of preventative medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and the editor in chief of “The Mayo Clinic Diet.” “Overall, I think this is excellent,” Dr. Hensrud said. “It’s more nutritious than the way many, if not most, people eat.”
  • No, my diet wasn’t always virtuous and dull. Channeling my inner 12-year-old, I also ate popcorn, toasted jumbo 10-cent marshmallows in the toaster oven, and ate Fluffernutters—sandwiches composed of peanut butter and Fluff, a marshmallow spread. I even toyed with so-called S’mores pizzas—semisweet chocolate chips and Fluff toasted on some dough. These were all inexpensive and fun (but don’t tell my doctor).
  • I am no longer living on $4.30 a day, but my experience has changed how I eat. I am amazed at how cheaply one can eat well—and mortified at how much I have spent needlessly over the years. I suspect I am not alone.

So, the bottom line, it can be done.  I felt the author was not trying to spite the experts in “food insecurity” like I probably would.  He prefaced his piece by pointing out that “those trying to eat on very little money face three challenges: They need to know how, and these days many simply don’t. They need to plan, so they can buy cheaply and in bulk, and work out menus in advance. And they may have transportation problems.”   These things are important. I get it.  At some point, however, there has to be some accountability.   The fact that the SNAP program claims not to have data on what people are using the food stamps for it bogus and just another example of this government not being transparent.  I am all for helping people but that old mantra of “trust but verify” rings loud here.  It is easy to give people the fish but wouldn’t it be better to teach them how to fish?  Wait, someone else said that, right?

Douglas Farrago MD

Douglas Farrago MD is a full-time practicing family doc in Forest, Va. He started Forest Direct Primary Care where he takes no insurance and bills patients a monthly fee. He is board certified in the specialty of Family Practice. He is the inventor of a product called the Knee Saver which is currently in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Knee Saver and its knock-offs are worn by many major league baseball catchers. He is also the inventor of the CryoHelmet used by athletes for head injuries as well as migraine sufferers. Dr. Farrago is the author of four books, two of which are the top two most popular DPC books. From 2001 – 2011, Dr. Farrago was the editor and creator of the Placebo Journal which ran for 10 full years. Described as the Mad Magazine for doctors, he and the Placebo Journal were featured in the Washington Post, US News and World Report, the AP, and the NY Times. Dr. Farrago is also the editor of the blog Authentic Medicine which was born out of concern about where the direction of healthcare is heading and the belief that the wrong people are in charge. This blog has been going daily for more than 15 years Article about Dr. Farrago in Doximity Email Dr. Farrago – [email protected] 

  15 comments for “Can the Poor Eat Healthy?

  1. Troy Fuller
    December 21, 2013 at 10:50 am

    I appreciate this article and the effort made to prove that someone can survuive on $5 a day. I also appreciate that the garbage being passed off as food in most cases is what is purchased with SNAP because of government subsidies, ease of access, brand familiarity, etc. what can I do for a family I serve, however, that consist of a disabled retired vet and his brood of 6? They are on SNAP and he doesn’t work. They are trying to survive on $3.20 per person per day and are surviving off of the cheapest end of the food spectrum. I honestly don’t know how to advise them when they ask.

  2. Bridget Reidy
    December 20, 2013 at 5:54 am

    And don’t forget how women were virtually enslaved, sometimes by violent husbands, before the world changed enough for them to at least try to earn a living on their own. The breakdown of the family is a sad thing, but in America for many it was only a nuclear family with no one to make sure the kids of the dysfunctional would see some functioning adults. Now we do the same thing with ghettos.

  3. Bridget Reidy
    December 20, 2013 at 5:48 am

    May I suggest a book called “Nickled and Dimed” by Barbara Ehrenreich (may have last name wrong), a journalist who tried living on minimum wage jobs. She kept only a functioning car from her previous life, and imagined she’d be living on lentil soup and such, but with insecure housing situations and physical exhaustion just could not do it, I wonder how much this journalist kept from his previous life? a breadmaker perhaps, a kitchen…., Or how many hours he devoted to the project.

  4. T Newberry
    December 19, 2013 at 12:21 pm

    Here’s a different perspective.

    Of the $76 Billion spent on SNAP in 2013, $0 will end up in the hands of the poor. Instead, that $76 Billion passes through their hands and ends up in the hands of the food industry. Individuals ultimately do not benefit because they do not choose healthy foods. But the food industry sure benefits.

    Do not kid yourself – SNAP is corporate welfare, not individual welfare.

    We already know people can’t be trusted. That’s why we give them food stamps instead of cash. So that they have to spend it for the reason we gave it to them. So why not just take it one step further and limit what they can buy with food stamps? This is already done under the WIC program. (Women, Infants and Children).

    The problem, of course, is there is a LOT of money involved and the vested interests have plenty of resources to block change. Kind of like the health care industry, right?

    When you look at this way it is hard to understand why Republicans oppose SNAP and Democrats support it.

    • Sir-Lance-a-Lot
      December 20, 2013 at 8:21 am

      Just a word of agreement:

      Food Stamps was never a program for the poor. It was always an agricultural subsidy program.
      They use ATM-type cards now, but those of us who were on Food Stamps years ago will recall that every larger-than-life dollar-bill-type note said “Department of Agriculture” across the top.

      The fact that Food Stamps can be used to buy potato chips may be horrifying to any medical professional (and I, for one, believe that the program should be limited to nutritious foods, and expanded to include certain necessities, like toilet paper, tampons, soap, and toothpaste), but if junk food were to be eliminated from the program, some VERY LARGE food corporations (such as Frito-Lay, Coca Cola, and Archer Daniels Midland) would be VERY unhappy, and would express their displeasure VERY quickly to their VERY close friends in Congress.

      Allowing Food Stamp recipients to buy high-profit, low-nutrition foods like these is like pouring OUR tax dollars directly into the very deep, silk-lined pockets of the exceptionally rich.

  5. December 18, 2013 at 7:58 pm

    The trick is to eat FOOD, not taste-good, food-like substances which are heavily marketed. Not the stuff our mothers thought of as “convenience food”, and they would have no part of on a regular basis because they were TOO EXPENSIVE and had too much of things which were not good for you. Now, it seems that the notion of making ANYTHING at home, from real ingredients, is considered “exotic”… and ironically “too expensive”. I guess it is if you go to a restaurant. I hear a lot of people saying about my typical after-work meals, which came from a recipe from my grandmother which she made when she’d been shopping all day, and had 15 minutes to get dinner on the table when he came home on the next streetcar after she got home. About a 1/5 lb cutlet of meat, 2 cans of vegetables – one green leafy, one starchy vegetable, a side of mashed potatoes or macaroni, and a slice of bread – or skip the potatoes and eat the cutlet on a sandwich. Such a meal costs about $5 for two. That gives adequate protein and roughage and most vitamins for the day – more if you eat a piece of fruit for desert.

    You eat things like oatmeal for breakfast, a peanut butter or bologna sandwich for lunch, and you’ve got your day’s food for much less than the food stamps get you per day.

    On days when you will spend more time at home, cook some dry beans. Spice them up with things like garlic, onions, and pepper, and it’s hardly boring. Add a little tumeric or curry powder for variety.

  6. tom walsh
    December 18, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    Is the SNAP program designed to cover all a family’s nutritional needs or just suppliment them. Does a family of 4 living in the city with access to a supermarket really NEED an additional $632/month in addition to about $30,000/yr? Easy to see why this program is abused.

  7. Dave Mittman, PA, DFAAPA
    December 18, 2013 at 11:09 am

    I am sorry. This is ridiculous. If you are smart enough and educated enough to figure out how to sustain yourself nutritionally on five dollars a day, you won’t be on food stamps. It takes education to know how to eat well. It takes a job to clear your mind about worry and the energy to plan meals with this precision. I am sure some people actually do-but we have two college educated folks planning meals in my house and hardly know what we are going to eat tomorrow? Or maybe we will just go out for Italian, no, make that Sushi……
    Dave

  8. Sir Lance-a-lot
    December 18, 2013 at 10:12 am

    I count this as part of the “no grandma syndrome,” along with most of the other annoying crap patients do.

    In the old days, there were families, and families lived near each other, and (usually) talked to one another. There was usually at least one grandmother, who had had a bunch of children, who was able to give advice, and who was listened to.

    That grandma was the person who taught the daughters (yes, I know, sexist) how to shop, how to cook, and how to save money around the house.

    That grandma was also the one who said, “The baby’s got a cold, don’t worry about it,” and “It’s just a small cut, put some mercurochrome on it and wrap it up and it’ll be fine,” and “Just eat some dry toast and tea for a day or two and you’ll be fine.”

    Now, for reasons such as families moving all over the country, everyone getting divorced, and, of course, grandmas who are 35 years old, many people have lost this basic knowledge, and so they come to us for every little thing that goes wrong, and also spend their food stamps on chips and soda. They just don’t know better, even, surprisingly, some of the ones who you’d think would be smart enough to figure it out.

    • Pat
      December 18, 2013 at 12:31 pm

      Right you are Lance. It’s a fact of economics that you get more of what you subsidize. For decades family dissolution and bad choices have been subsidized through institutionalized compassion and g’o-olllly…we got more of it.

  9. Robert Bosl, MD
    December 18, 2013 at 9:29 am

    Give a man a fish and you have fed him for a day, teach a man to fish and he stays out half the night drinking beer!

    • Sir Lance-a-lot
      December 18, 2013 at 9:45 am

      I thought it was, “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Send a man to the supermarket to buy fish, and he’ll eat for a year.”

      • Doug Farrago
        December 18, 2013 at 10:06 am

        LOL

    • Doug Farrago
      December 18, 2013 at 10:07 am

      Funny!

  10. Lee Bracy
    December 18, 2013 at 9:21 am

    This can easily be done. Back to the meats is easy if you buy the ‘end cuts’ from the refrig section – they are always there and I get 3 – 4 meals of meat for $1.53 or so – Veggies also have a marked down section – 5 tomatoes was $.67. A little planning is necessary but I can beat $5 a day easily and not be bored doing so.

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