There’s a lot of cheap eating contests out there on the internet right now. In particular, I’m thinking of two that got a lot of media coverage: Less Is Enough and the One Dollar Diet Project. Both of these went for 30 days on $1 a day. Rebecca Currie actually shopped every day and Christopher Greenslate and Kerri Leonard went shopping periodically and bought in bulk, averaging out to the $1 a day. Well, apparently that’s what they did. I don’t know because they didn’t publish their shopping lists or grocery receipts.
The long and short of this is that Currie found it challenging, especially at first since she started with absolutely nothing (not even salt) but succeeded and said she had enough to eat and enough variety in her diet. Greenslate and Leonard ate a diet that largely relied on refined wheat flour and beans, was monotonous, and they did complain of being hungry.
Today I was fine until I got home, but upon entering the kitchen, it took everything I had to not tear open the closest container of food and pour it down my throat. I was not just “hungry”, I was bordering on frantic. After a day of foraging samples from our local natural foods store, and eating half of a no-cheese pizza for dinner (who knew pizza was so cheap to make), I guess my body was just expecting more.
What shocked me the most is that they did not even make soup until Day 21!
They also did not buy condiments:
There’s no reason to buy ketchup, soy sauce or taco sauce; they’re all free at fast food joints.
The only reason to go to McDonalds or Burger King is the free syrup.
Because, you know, they are just stealing from evil corporations, after all. Currie didn’t do that, and our challenge (more on that later) required us to buy soy sauce and pancake syrup, not inconsiderable purchases, but definitely worth it. Again, with no shopping lists or grocery receipts, it’s hard to tell how much food they went through. I believe that they were honest regarding their costs, so it’s not that I need proof of that. It’s possible to eat what they reported on what they spent. It’s this that bothers me:
Will you share your month long menu with me so that I can do this too? No. Everything we ate was posted on the blog at the end of each day in September. We don’t recommend that you replicate this experiment. It isn’t healthy, and could be dangerous.
Oh, come on. If people want to eat on a dollar a day, they can do that. This is about seeing what you did and how you made it work. Saying that you risked all for the cause, man, and then saying “it’s too dangerous for the likes of you” is really condescending. Either that or they are saving it for their book.
I think a large part of their hunger and monotony problem is that they are vegans — omnivores can get more satisfying food for less money. If you’re willing to eat more things, you have more options. Vegetarians can do well because eggs can be had quite cheaply and powdered milk is useful for putting in soups and baked goods. It’s not actually bad to drink, provided you make it ahead and chill it in a glass container. And, of course, regular cheese can be purchased for a lot less money than soy cheese. Vegan substitutes for dairy and eggs are fairly expensive, if you’re working with this little money. In fact, you could say that being a vegan in the United States is a luxury in itself. It requires you to set yourself apart in a way that a truly destitute person would be extremely unlikely to do.
At the end of the project, Currie had a few things to say, some directed at Greenslate and Leonard. She opens up with this:
A friend told me last week that the California vegan folks posted a comment about me on their blog. I finally got a chance to look at it and was saddened to read that they said they didn’t learn anything from my project.
Since the main point of my project was to highlight some specific strategies I’ve found to work well in shopping and eating for less, it seems like I should talk about those things individually, in case there are others out there, like Christopher and Kerri, who might be reading this and not learning anything.
I’m not sure if she’s serious or if that’s smart-assery. She does have a few good pieces of advice.
LESSON #3: Avoid refined flours and sugars, especially those eaten without accompanying fats or protein.
Rebecca used Jiffy biscuit mix which does include fat already. This saved her from having to buy butter or cooking oil, which would have blown her daily budget. The vegan couple’s diet was remarkably low in fat, and I’d really need more protein than they ate as well. From Day Eight:
A villainous laugh erupted from my taught stomach as I surveyed the landscape of my plate. A gentle sloping mountain of refried beans, the jagged ridge atop the mounds and plateaus of my Spanish rice, and canyons upon canyons descending through the depths of my split open baked potato.
You’ve just got to be more flexible if you’re working with so little money. And I think he means “taut.”
This is probably why I enjoyed Currie’s project a lot more than theirs. Currie wrote about the daily ins and outs of deciding what to eat as well as publishing receipts and photographing her meals.
A couple of years ago, some ink was spilled on something called the “Food Stamp Challenge.” Tino and I participated in the $21 per person per week eating cost, mostly because the public servants were doing it wrong. Of course, they set out to fail, and we did not. We didn’t suffer. It was weird for us to eat every meal at home as we don’t normally do that. We were hungry when meal times came, but we certainly had enough to eat. At the end of the eating contest, I even ran the RDA numbers to see if we met them, and we did pretty well at that.
I do want to say at this point that I don’t really have any issues with raising the food stamp allowance. I have many issues with the farm program and the way it’s subsidies work (or don’t), but if we’re going to have a social safety net, a specific food allowance is a good thing. There has been significant inflation in food in the last few years, so an increase is probably needed. I just want to make it clear that I’m not playing the anti-government curmudgeon part here.
One other Food Stamp Challenger, Rebecca Blood, went for the the actual food stamp allowance ($35 and change per week) and ate all organic. This was aided by the fact that she had a CSA box of produce each week which is an economical way to eat really great produce that’s all in season and local. She did it for a whole month, and she and her husband ate quite well. She even had a glass of wine every night, and her husband had a six pack of beer per week as well. Rebecca Blood’s picture links are all broken, which is a shame because they are nice food pictures.
The public servants made bad shopping choices and complained of hunger, spending money on coffee and precut vegetables, for instance, but failure suited their goals since they were pushing for an increase in the food stamp allowance. The California couple made it through but were pretty miserable. Why? Because they set out to suffer, just like the members of Congress. They had an agenda they wanted to prove, and I suppose by their standards, they did.
While doing research for this post, I found a slashfood review by Marisa McClellan (who, incidentally, has stopped writing for slashfood):
The Pauper’s Cookbook. It looks like it might be useful. The book I would really like to have a look at is referenced by Rebecca Currie, Economical Recipes for Small Families. It’s out of print and appears to have been a small edition in the first place.
Slashfood has a lot of posts on frugal eating, and they can all be found here. My long-standing favorite for money-saving tips is the Hillbilly Housewife. That site will give you a shopping list for the week as well as recipes and a “daily work” list so you can schedule what needs done. It’s a great resource. We did use many of her ideas and some things from her shopping lists.
If you’re into eating cheap, there’s some great advice to be found on Get Rich Slowly’s $15 a week plan, which is now a $20 a week plan due to inflation. I have more to say about food and thrift, but that’s going to have to wait for another post.