Monday, November 14, 2011

Healthy Eating on $4.50 a Day: Not a Snap!

A group of U.S. Congressional Representatives recently participated in "The Food Stamp (SNAP) Challenge" to draw attention to the plight of more than 45 million Americans currently receiving nutrition assistance. The representatives attempted to eat for seven days on a budget comparable to what the average recipient is allotted under SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in their respective states; in California that amount is $4.50 a day.

Inspired by their example but also disturbed by media reports of Congress persons subsisting on canned tuna, lettuce, white bread, pasta and hard boiled eggs, I decided to take up the challenge with the goal of eating a health supportive diet comprised almost entirely of high quality, unprocessed or minimally processed plant based foods.

Although it is not possible and was not my intention to replicate the circumstances of those who live month in and month out in truly challenging circumstances on a highly restrictive food budget, the experience was enlightening and humbling.

The photo above illustrates the typical selection of foods I ate during the seven day trial. By carefully planning, shopping and preparing all meals from scratch, it was possible to consume enough calories to maintain adequate physical energy, stave off hunger between meals and satisfy daily nutrition requirements.

However, it was a shock to discover how quickly I could exceed my daily budget simply by eating an extra piece of fruit, an added serving of peanut butter, soy milk or other snack. Lentils, brown rice and barley with vegetables provided satisfying and nutritious meals at a modest cost, but there was little or no room for unplanned grazing beyond the essentials.

It also became clear that the looming specter of food insecurity dramatically transforms one's relationship to eating. Even under the best of circumstances, the seven day challenge was far from a carefree experience and left me concerned about those for whom this is not an temporary experiment.

Basic food costs:

brown rice, 1 cup cooked $.37
barley, 1 cup cooked $.25
lentils, 1 cup cooked $.67
peanut butter, 2 TBSP $.21
peanuts, 2 TBSP $.24
sunflower seeds, 2 TBSP $.18
green tea bag $.16
plain soy milk, 1 cup $.50
banana, medium $.26
apple, medium $.55
orange, medium $.54
plum, small $.25
green beans, 1/4 lb $.50
carrot, medium $.29
winter squash, 1/2 $.59
arugula, 2 large handfuls $.42
sweet pepper, 1 small $.66

Note: Ingredients such as those used for preparing lentils included small amounts of leek, garlic, celery, olive oil, sea salt and dried herbs; these added little expense and therefore are not noted above.