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Reflections on ending the week eating on $4.50 a day

Ok, it happened! Day 6, I hit the wall! I couldn’t face any of the food I had purchased for the week. So, I changed my strategy for Days 6 and 7.  I figured out how much value remained in the food I had left and I shifted my focus to purchasing food by the day for Day 6 and Day 7. I had saved enough food to actually allow myself $4.50 a day and to keep 1 pear ($.25) and 2 eggs ($.18) from my weekly purchases, just in case.

Day 6: After midnight on Day 6, a friend invited me to IHOP. The idea of food I hadn’t been eating for 5 days was exciting! We agreed to share a meal. My friend ordered pumpkin pancakes, bacon, eggs and hash browns ($5.99 special). I ate several bites of everything and one whole pumpkin pancake. It was absolutely delicious! I didn’t eat the rest of Saturday, except for half of my pear, as I decided our shared meal counted against my $4.50. So for dinner on Saturday I had a $1.25 cheeseburger from Bionic Burger (which was so thin I could have read through it had I held it up to the light) and a handful of fries. Lettuce and tomato cost $. 30 extra each, so I didn’t get any. The burger and fries also tasted incredibly yummy!

Observation: Day 6, I had more “filler food” than nutritious food. Except my half a pear, I didn’t eat any fruits or veggies and almost no lean protein. L

Day 7: I typically have brunch with friends on Sunday mornings. When I arrived at our favorite place I told my friends that I didn’t plan to eat that day as I was going to make it on $4.50 for the whole day. One of my friends stated, “Then you can’t eat out!”… Crickets… After an awkward pause, another friend replied… “Well, that’s not fair. Anyone should be able to eat out at least occasionally”… The first friend replied, “Not on $4.50 a day, you can’t!” “That’s why I just came to hang out with you today”, I said. “I don’t intend to eat. I’m just here to visit”. Another friend said, “Well, then I’m not going to eat either. If they can’t find something you can afford, I’m not going to eat in front of you.” “Ok”, I said! “We’ll ask!” I tried to explain to our server that I was eating on $4.50 for the day and asked what 2 scrambled eggs and toast would cost. She replied, “I don’t know.” She checked with the manager who stated, “We can make you a breakfast for $4.50”. I reaffirmed, “No, $4.50 is for the whole day. I’m trying to find out if there are any low cost items I can purchase.” By this point, I had thoroughly confused the restaurant staff, so I just ordered toast and jam for $1.75. I found it interesting that my friends were much more comfortable with me eating something rather than nothing. They also understood that I would not share food with them. We ended up having a very enjoyable brunch. When I got home, I scrambled my eggs and ate the rest of my pear.

Sunday night, a friend was having a birthday party, so I went. We had pasta with homemade sauce, salad, Italian bread, and birthday cake. I ate a little of everything.

Observation: Day 7, it is really tough to eat out on $4.50 a day – unless your friends have a party!

Insights:

  • It is so much cheaper to eat low quality, minimally nutritious food on $4.50 a day. Healthy food is much more expensive. As a friend noted, “I can get a huge bag of chips for $1 or pay $3.50 for a container of fruit. On $4.50 a day, I’d go for the chips every time. A full stomach is better than an empty one”.
  •  Doing this challenge with someone else might have been easier as together we could have purchased more variety in our food. Food fatigue was one of my worst issues. I simply got tired of eating the food limited food options I’d purchased.
  • Families who use SNAP probably build staples like flour, sugar, salt, pepper, seasonings, etc. over time. We didn’t allow ourselves to count much of that in our efforts.
  • Families who use SNAP are probably better bargain food shoppers than I am and probably have longer term strategies than 1 week which allow them to build more variety in their diets.
  • It’s hard to get enough healthy calories on $4.50 a day.
  • In addition to purchasing inadequate calories, I also ended up having a problem eating the bulk of food I needed to eat each day. What I had to eat to get 1044 calories a day was simply too much food, so I averaged 750-900 calories a day. This was a very different food issue than I had anticipated.
  • Grazing, a couple bites here and there throughout the day, rather than eating meals was a great hunger abatement strategy. I carried my allotment of dried cherries and raw almonds with me and ate them, 2 or 3 at a time, throughout the day (20 of each).

Conclusion:

When I do this again (and I will), I will do it differently. I will try to make meal plans for each day rather than a week plan and work for more food variety. I will also spend more time shopping for the best deals. I did that by focusing on managers’ specials and sale items, but was unable to wait for some things to go on sale.

As I was approaching this effort, I was nervous. I had never tried to do anything like this before. I wanted to eat healthy food AND I needed the food I purchased to last the whole week. This has been an extremely insightful experience. Eating on this kind of budget is not easy. Eating healthy on this kind of budget is even more difficult.

Final thought:

I encourage anyone who wants to recognize the importance of SNAP programs and the minimal level at which they are already funded to try to eat on $4.50 a day. It makes me wonder about the links between low cost/low nutrition food, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. My hunch is that there is a link and that food insecurity likely contributes to these critical public health problems in the most vulnerable Americans.

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One thought on “Reflections on ending the week eating on $4.50 a day

  1. Mayra Ocampo says:

    Deborah this is incredibly insightful. I’m sure there’s nothing like going through it yourself, but just reading your thoughts on the entire experience made me stop to think about:
    -how much food I consume a day. It’s quite a bit. and unnecessary.
    -my persnicketiness when it comes to nutritious food. I want what’s healthy. And I buy it without thinking twice. Your insights made me realize persnicketiness is an extreme luxury.
    -realizing that more often than not I eat for pleasure and joy than for hunger/need.
    -Notice my hypocrisy when I talk about the obesity epidemic. I’m quick to think ‘gosh, people eat so horribly and keep at those McDonalds crap-meals until it’s too late.’ But I realize a more truthful comment would be ‘gosh, people eat so horribly but unfortunately they don’t have a choice.’ As your friend noted, a full stomach is better than an empty stomach. And in those cases nutrition becomes irrelevant.

    Also, as a vegan-ish foodie I’m always looking for ways to stretch ways to cook with beans. If you decide to do this again, try a bag of pinto beans. You can buy 2 lbs for about $3. Boil them and flavor them differently each night of the week for for delicious bean soup varieties. Of course that’s assuming you already have spices and such…

    Like

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