Friday, June 27, 2008

The poverty diet

For a sociology assignment, I am spending five full days in a row on a poverty diet, meaning I have just $4.25/day to spend on food. This is, apparently, $1.25 more per day than the official poverty food spending amount of $3.00/day.

I thought it would be hard, I thought I'd be starving, but actually, it isn't all that hard to eat well on $4.25/day. I considered putting my entire family on the poverty diet, since that would make the shopping simpler, but decided I didn't want to deal with the complaints. I saved my receipts from the grocery store, and made notes of the prices of things that I didn't need to buy, but had in stock in my house so I could calculate what they cost.

My biggest concern was feeding my addiction to caffeine. I knew that if it came down to a choice between food and coffee, I would have to choose the coffee, but it hasn't come to that. It turns out that a cup of tea with two splenda packets costs $0.13. A cup of coffee (made at home) with a mix of milk & half & half plus three splenda packets costs $0.32. I made pizza from scratch for dinner one night, and discovered that each piece costs $0.36. That's with organic flour, too. I used free-range, locally-raised, grass-fed beef ($5/pound) to make a Moroccan beef dish, that, because the beef was stretched with rice and other ingredients, came to $1.25/serving. Last night's spicy beans and rice cost $0.91/serving. That's with organic beans.

Breakfast on day one cost $0.80. It consisted of one egg ($0.28), 1/2 serving oatmeal ($0.06) made with 1/4 cup milk ($0.06) and one teaspoon sugar ($.02) plus 1/16 of a cantaloupe ($0.25) plus the tea-with-splenda ($0.13).

The key is portion control. I can't have second helpings of anything and I can't afford desserts or sweets or between-meal snacks. I'm not starving, but after some meals, I do feel somewhat unsatisfied, but it's nothing I can't handle. Calories for the day range between 1000 and 1300 which is a tiny bit less than what is ideal for my size, but who was ever harmed by eating *slightly* fewer calories than they need? I suppose a large man or a teenager would be hurting from this diet a lot more than I am.

Another key is knowing how to cook. If I had to buy a prepared pizza crust rather than making one from scratch, my pizza would have been a lot more expensive. Not everybody likes oatmeal, but it is much cheaper and more filling than cold cereal. And that's plain old oatmeal, not the instant packets, which are disgusting, anyway.

Equally important, drinking water with meals rather than some other kind of beverage (tap water) but that's something I have always done. Also, you need to eat whole foods, not convenience foods.

I have two days left on the poverty diet. I hope I don't sound too smug. I can see that without good shopping skills, cooking skills, or organization, living on $4.25/day could be very difficult. If I had to be at work all day, I'd have to give up my mid-morning coffee break because I couldn't afford to buy it, although I suppose I could pack myself a small thermos. Lunch would have to be brown bag, which is something I would do anyway. In nearly three years of working at UVA, I never once bought a meal in the cafeteria, although the food there is so unappetizing, it wasn't much of a sacrifice to do without it.


  1. This is so interesting. I figured it would be hard to stick within the budget. I've always known that cooking from scratch is less expensive, but it's nice to see the numbers.

  2. I remember, before we had kids, the sudden change in our expenses that happened when I went from being a full-time doctoral student to working in a factory to pay off debt. When I was a student with lots of time, we could live much more cheaply because I could hunt down the best deals on everything, including food. When I started working that time disappeared, and the exhaustion drove us to buy more convenience food as well.

    Now that I am a stay-at-home parent, I am aware again of how often we save money by me not working. Apart from the absence of daycare costs, I have the freedom and time to be a very careful shopper. It can make a huge difference.

  3. Eating 1000-1300 calories a day leaves me sluggish. In the moderate short term, I gain weight and my metabolism slows way down. At about 1500 calories, I hold steady. If I want to lose weight, I need 1800+ calories a day in order to sustain a healthy energy level which allows me to walk everywhere, exercise, etc.

    Right now I need a lot more (breastfeeding a toddler).

    We often eat frugally, but we also splurge on good meat and produce. And when our budget's not too tight, we buy gluten-free bread. That's probably our most common convenience food/luxury.

  4. Congratulations! I can see eating on $3 for just myself, but like you, would rather not involve the whole family due to the endless complaints and verbal abuse I'd receive.

    Some other local blogger did something like this last year - I can't remember who he was. He made it sound much harder and seemed to live on beans and rice.

  5. That's a cool experiment. I would have a hard time with it. I'm actually almost afraid to figure out how much my meals/snacks are costing per serving. That would be quite the eye opener.

  6. I really appreciate your sharing this. I love this experiment.
    I wish I had time to cook, or energy or ... whatever excuse I can come up with.

  7. And you're not even eating the cheapest of cheap good meals--beans and rice, pasta, rice with stir-fried vegetables that are whatever was cheapest at the farmers' market at the end of the day. . .I used to brag that I could feed four people on one pork chop (when it was used to flavor a mostly cabbage stir fry with some dried fungus thrown in. The difference between you and me and the people who really are living in poverty is that we are highly functional, intelligent, and resourceful individuals. As Charles Dickens wrote, "This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased." On that cheery note. . .

  8. Interesting study. I cook from scratch too and we are the better for it. I suppose over time the diet would become rather tedious in that you are constantly watching the pennies and are possibly restricted from having more luxurious ingredients.

    Thanks for popping by my blog - thought I'd return the favour!

  9. It is a LOT cheaper to live from scratch food, but sadly, most people in poverty don't have the means to eat that way, and that makes me so sad. I have to say, though, few things are cheaper and more filling than peanut butter on whole-grain toast:)