The Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina has issued a challenge for the past couple of years, asking anyone willing to attempt to live on the average FNS benefit for five days. As they put it,
The Challenge will compel you to make food shopping choices on a limited budget, demonstrating how difficult it is to avoid hunger, afford nutritious food, and stay healthy with few resources and low energy.
While living on a food stamp budget for just 5 days cannot come close to the struggles encountered by low-income families week after week and month after month, it does provide those who take the Challenge with a new perspective and greater understanding.
In order to participate, you had to agree to the following guidelines:
- Spend $4.06 per day on food and drink. All food purchased and eaten in this time must be counted in total spending. This includes food already in your pantry (cost it out proportionately).
- You may use condiments, spices and flour already in your possession without counting that cost in your weekly spending. However, if you purchase more during the week of the Challenge, you must add that cost into your budget.
- Eating out is not allowed. FNS benefits are not accepted in restaurants!
- Whenever possible, avoid accepting free food from family, friends and coworkers since these opportunities are not always available to those in need.
- Share your experience on social media and/or fill out our Challenge Participant Survey.
Today is the first day of the challenge. However, in advance of today’s start I had to do some menu and shopping planning. The budget was set at just $20.30 for five days and I anticipated obtaining all food items for the challenge in a single day. I needed to address several questions before the shopping trip, such as what to buy and where to purchase those items. Also, I wanted to see if I could continue my current food shopping habits which includes buying produce at a local farmers market and buying mainly whole food ingredients (not prepared foods). In the end, I was able to maintain that habit but had to visit three different markets/stores to do so (probably not feasible for some and not practical overall).
The first task was to create a meal plan for five days that incorporated a balance of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, dairy and protein, that was diverse enough to be both nutritious and interesting to my palate. As a vegetarian (who eats dairy and eggs) I felt I had a slight budgetary advantage since I don’t normally purchase meats and poultry that would take a big chunk of that tiny budget. The food bank’s challenge web page included some helpful resources, a couple of sample menus and a link to a free e-cookbook designed specifically for the challenge of living on $4 a day. I also consulted a food blog website (Budget Bytes) that costs out meals and gleaned some really good tips (especially the tip for buy pizza topping ingredients from a store salad bar). It took quite a bit of time and research (of prices) to settle finally on a menu, much more time and effort than I would normally spend on this type of chore.
Like most of you, I live on a budget, within a finite income and I do set aside a specific amount of money to spend at the farmers market and grocery store on a weekly basis. But I’m not the best at meal planning in advance of shopping. Typically, I’ll let the farmers market seasonal produce dictate what I feel like eating for the week and make sure my pantry is stocked with staples like whole grains, spices and seasonings, oils, vinegars, flours, etc. that round out a dish. If I decide to make a certain dish one day and find I’m missing an ingredient, it’s no big deal to make a quick stop to pick up that one item during the week. Maybe you’ve developed a similar habit? Maybe you’re much, much better than I am at planning your weekly menu. But the planning I felt was necessary to meet the challenge, and all the math involved, was very time consuming.
Here’s the meal plan I settled on and I write “settled” because I did forgo a few items that were not within the budget. I would have loved to have been able to incorporate a few nuts in the oatmeal and some cheese in a couple of the dishes, as well as more vegetables.
- Steel cut oatmeal with peaches and milk (4 breakfast servings)
- Peach yogurt smoothie (1 breakfast serving)
- Cuban-style black beans and brown rice with roasted tomatoes (4 lunch servings)
- Fried Brown Rice with garlicky kale and a fried egg (4 dinner servings)
- Scrambled egg (or fried egg) on toast (2 servings, to fill in for lunch or dinner)
Since this challenge allowed me to use flour and spices already in my pantry without adding to expenses, I took full advantage. I made a loaf of whole wheat bread but included the packet of yeast (already in my pantry) in the total expenses. Here’s my grocery list, including prices I paid (not including the total tax paid of $0.13 at the grocery stores):
- 1 quart store brand 2% milk – $1.82
- 1 cup store brand vanilla yogurt – $0.55
- 1 bunch green onions – $0.79
- 1 head garlic – $0.50
- 1/2 doz store brand large white eggs – $1.15
- 14 oz (2 cups) brown rice (organic) from the bulk bin – $1.53
- 1 lb dried black beans (organic) from the bulk bins – $1.99
- 8 oz (1 cup) steel cut oats (organic) from the bulk bins – $0.75
- 7 peaches from the farmers market – $5.00
- 1 container of mixed cherry tomatoes from the farmers market – $2.50
- 1 bunch of mixed kale (organic) from the farmers market – $3.00
- 1 packet of yeast (from my pantry) – $0.50
In deciding where to purchase food items for the challenge I felt I needed to consider venues that would accept EBT/SNAP benefits. I knew that a few of our local farmers markets currently accept those benefits (more on that in a later post) and that the farmers market closest to me (South Durham Farmers Market) participates in the Double Bucks program that allows a dollar for dollar match of the first $10 in EBT/SNAP benefits. The $10.50 I spent at the farmers market on fruits and vegetables could have been $20.50 under the Double Bucks program. Having that much more to spend on fresh produce certainly makes a trip to the farmers market appealing, assuming there’s an accessible market nearby.
One unanticipated issue I encountered related to purchasing smaller quantities. I found not every store carries the smaller quart size of milk I needed to stay in budget, resulting in an extra grocery store trip. At the farmers market, I had to purchase a full basket of seven peaches, though I’ll only use five for the challenge (I will use those couple of extra peaches outside of the challenge). I only needed specific quantities of brown rice, black beans and steel cut oats (again, to stay within the budget) which I knew I could obtain via bulk bins. But not every grocery store carries items in bulk. Buying more than I needed as available in larger packages off the shelf would have put me over budget for the purposes of this challenge.
I found this first phase of the challenge fairly stressful because of the additional planning and reworking of meal plans and ingredient trade offs I had to make “on the fly” while shopping, leaving me rather frustrated. Though I’m satisfied with the meal plan over the next five days, I’m not sure what I’ll encounter at the work place, in social settings or how hungry I might feel as the days wear on. I know I’m not alone in accepting this challenge and that it’s only for five days. For me, there’s an end in sight. For many others this challenge may seem endless.
If you’re interested in reading more perspectives from others participating in the challenge search social media websites for the hashtag “406ADay”. Follow the Food Bank of Central and Eastern NC on Facebook and/or Twitter.