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The Challenge Begins

September 20, 2010

As I wrote in my last post, I’m taking the “Eat on $4.50 a Day” Challenge, thrown down by Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties and United Way Silicon Valley. This isBreakfast Hunger Action Week, and the hope is that people like me who don’t have to struggle to survive will get an idea of how those who do exist on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (the new term for “food stamps”). The average benefit is about $4.50 a day per person.

Following the Spirit of the Rules

There are certain rules to the challenge, but I decided pretty quickly that I would need to adhere to the spirit, not the letter, of the rules. For example, from checking out the Hunger Action Week blog, I could see that some participants were taking their budget total for the week, and spending only up to that amount. Since I’m only taking the challenge for four days, and I’m the only one in my household of three people taking part, my budget is only $18.00. No way could I buy a box of cereal, a loaf of bread or a carton of eggs, since that would send me over the budget. I decided I would break down my purchases by cost per serving. My reasoning was that if I really were receiving SNAP, I would be getting my benefits for a month, not four days, so buying and consuming the items within the month would work. Besides, if my husband and son were taking the challenge, the larger items would have fit neatly within the $54.00 budget we would have been allowed.

One rule I strictly adhered to: I will be eating healthy food, including a lot of fresh produce.

Blessed to Make Certain Choices

Adding to the challenge for me was the fact that I am a pescetarian – a vegetarian who eats fish. I had to see if my normal sources of protein would fit within the budget. I’m well aware that my lifestyle choice – made partly for environmental and ethical reasons, and partly for health reasons – is something I am blessed to make as someone whose family is well above the poverty line (and yes, I know fish isn’t always the best environmental and ethical choice; it’s one of those trade-offs I made for a wider choice of proteins, and I try to be careful about what I buy). That being said, it’s likely there are people on SNAP who cannot eat meat or certain foods due to religious or health reasons.

Lesson Learned

Here’s one thing I learned from this exercise: paying attention to every penny takes time. Between meal and budget planning, and shopping, it took me almost three hours. I shopped at Trader Joe’s and a produce market next door in the same center, and made one additional stop at Whole Foods for my favorite bread, soy taco meat and cereal. That amount of time would be rough if I still had young children, or if I had a job with inflexible hours. Rougher still if I had no car and had to walk or depend on public transit.

Which reminds me of another aspect of this challenge: because I have a car and can afford to put gas in it, I can drive myself to stores with a large array of quality and economical food choices. I live in a part of the valley where within minutes I can buy inexpensive produce, or get good deals on many healthy food items. Some neighborhoods have been classified as “food deserts” by hunger agencies, because there are no supermarkets located there. These deserts may have smaller markets with limited choices and little or no fresh produce, and usually poor quality, but cheap, fast food restaurants.

Day 1 Menu

Here’s what $4.50 buys me today.


Smart Bran Cereal                        .39

Banana                                            .19

Non-fat Milk                                  .18

Soy Breakfast Patty                       .39

Total                                                1.15


Whole Wheat Bread                       .39

Peanut Butter                                    .21

Apricot Jam                                      .12

Apple                                                  .25

Carrots and Celery                          .15 (approx.)

Total                                                  1.11


Whole Wheat Pasta                    .16

Homemade Sauce                        .52

Meatless Meatballs                     .65

Salad                                               .50

Total                                                1.83

I have .31 left over for a snack! Maybe I’ll have another apple.

You’ll notice there’s no beverages in the budget. Also, on the website it said we could use spices and condiments we already have, and I took advantage of that. I also did not factor in the olive oil I use to cook with.

Tomorrow I’ll post how I did today, plus the Tuesday menu.

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