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?