Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2010/ The $20 Food Challenge

The $20 Food Challenge

Following a publicity stunt held this May in Toronto, 10 people in Waterloo Region are trying to eat like welfare recipients this month. They each get $20 a week for four weeks, which they are supposed to use to feed themselves. (Edit: Holy cow. I thought they had to take the challenge for a month. They only have to take the challenge for a single week! Oh well. I'm not rewriting this essay now.)

Here's the narrative: these well-meaning people will have a terrible time. Unprepared for their budgets, they will make bad food choices and bad cooking choices, documenting the difficulties they face every step of the way. Several of them will be unable to cope and will drop out of the challenge early. A few of them will report less energy. They will all express disbelief that anybody can eat on this amount of money, and will all express a "newfound appreciation" for the challenges that welfare recipients face. They will then relay their sad experiences to argue that we need to increase welfare rates dramatically.

You know something? Welfare is tough. It's so tough that I hope I never touch it; I don't need that kind of soul-destroying experience in my life. But I also have big, big problems with this narrative. First of all, the tone is patronizing. These middle-class people don't do any preparation for their experience. They certainly don't learn much from people who actually live on welfare before embarking on their adventures. Many of them don't know where to shop or what to shop for.

There is a theme of helplessness that runs through these stories, that poor people are poor and that we will help alleviate their poverty by shovelling money at the problem. Instead of discovering how people cope and sharing effective strategies, these publicity stunts are intended to create sob stories via middle-class shock.

The punchline of this is that I live on about $20 a week for food, and I have done so for years. Admittedly, this has been an expensive year for me -- my personal expenses (which is dominated by food, but includes most expenses other than rent) are closer to $27 a week than $20. Nonetheless, every week I start out with a $20 bill in my pocket, and I have to figure out how to spend that in a way that nourishes me well enough to hold down my job.

I am not saying that I am poor, or that I am in the same class of poverty as a welfare recipient. I am relatively young, relatively able-bodied, have an expensive education and a pretty good job that keeps me a few thousand dollars above the poverty line. I am single. Although I have some voluntary dietary food restrictions, I don't have food allergies. I have access to a fridge and a stove and secure storage space. All of these factors matter a lot.

But there are other factors that matter as well: money, time, and information. If you're like these big-hearted middle-class adventurers, you have lots of money for groceries. Then you need less time and information to eat well -- you can go to restaurants and get quick, nutritious meals, or waste money on empty calories at the grocery store and come out ahead because you can purchase a wide variety of food. If you have lots of time you can run all over town looking for bargains, you can spend hours in the kitchen turning basic ingredients into healthy meals, and you can grow some of your own food. If you have information you know what to eat for good health, where to find reasonably-priced food, and how to prepare it effectively.

My budget is limited, and work is sufficiently overwhelming that I don't have an abundance of time. But with $20, three or four hours of cooking time a week, and a fair amount of nutritional and shopping knowledge developed over years, I can get by. Add an additional six hours of gardening time a week (which is recreational as much as work), and in the summer I get access to an abundance of fresh vegetables. I don't eat as well as I should, and I struggle against feeling deprived. But I don't go hungry and I eat well enough to hold down a job.

Enough bragging. If you are a middle-class liberal taking a food challenge, or more importantly if you are facing a tight food budget and need to figure out how to eat, here's one way to make it work. It is not the only way, but it works for me.

I'll assume the following:

All of these are loaded assumptions that do not hold true for some people. But they are true for a lot of us, including many people on welfare.

Although I count five Saturdays between Sept 25 and Oct 25, I will assume we get four payments of $20 (as opposed to one lump sum of $80, which would make certain purchases much easier). Four weeks will be plenty of time to illustrate that you can eat okay.

I will assume current prices at the places I shop, many of which are in downtown Kitchener.

I will assume that you can spend all of your money on food, which is very much not true for me, and very much not true for most welfare recipients. Soap, toothpaste, cleaning supplies, clothes, and other goods cost money too.

Week 1: Getting Established

This is the hardest week, because we are starting with nothing. Our goal is to live on brown rice and beans, which will be our staple for the month (and in fact is my staple food all year round).

Why brown rice? Because white rice (and white pasta, and white bread) are nutritionally barren. Brown rice and whole grains have iron and vitamins that you cannot afford to ignore when you are on a tight budget.

The beans and rice are easy. The hard part is making this meal palatable. In order to do this I use:

The best price on brown rice that I know of is at the Valu Mart at Waterloo Town Square. For some reason they sell 2kg bags of No Name brown rice for $2.29, which is crazy because 1kg bags cost $2.99 . For a few months the Valu Mart came to its senses and raised the price to $4 or something, but the old price is back, and I am super-grateful.

The next best price I know of is at the Valu Mart at Frederick Street Mall, which costs $15 for 8kg. When your budget is $20, that is a much harder challenge to meet (but it is possible).

We'll make two shopping trips: one to the Valu Mart, and one to the Kitchener Farmers market and surrounding shops. At the Valu Mart we will get:

This gives us a total of $13.12, which gives us $6.88 for the other shopping trip.

There are two big losses here: margarine is not a good cooking fat, especially when it is hydrogenated vegetable oil. (It's better than "margarine spread", which is mostly water.) My usual cooking fat is vegetable oil, but unless you are lucky and get it on sale at $5 for 2.5 or 3L, you are looking at $7 or $8 for this alone. If you assume that you already have peanut oil (peanut oil!) then you can avoid this purchase.

The other big loss is salt, which can be had at a dollar store for a dollar. I don't know exactly how much this costs at Valu Mart, but I assume it is more. The other alternative is to get salt at Full Circle foods. You certainly do not need a kilo of salt for a month. At most this would last two or three months, and maybe more.

This easily gives you enough beans and rice for three weeks, although it will be monotonous. You won't go hungry, though. You could easily get by with a single bag of rice, but then you would have to make another trip to Valu Mart next week, and Valu Mart is far enough away that I would rather avoid this.

In general I am rounding up prices when I don't know the exact cost, so I doubt that you will spend more than this. If you are lucky you can get margarine for $1.00 or so, which will free up some funds for later.

Now it's time for our other shopping trip: downtown Kitchener. At the Farmers' Market you can pick up the following:

This is $4.00. It's not enough vegetables, and it is a shame to buy so little during the peak harvest season, but you will get by.

Usually I would not get $1.50 of regular carrots. Instead I would get a $2.00 basket of broken carrots, which can often be had from the Gmach family (the stall near the market's inside entrance, which usually has a lot of preserves in jars). They are local farmers and have good food. Unfortunately broken carrots are not available every week.

You now have $2.88 left. Our final purchase will be at the Bargain Shop, which is bad for getting food but good for getting empty calories:

Let's get one thing clear: the enemy in eating cheaply is deprivation. If you feel too deprived you will either fall into a deep depression or you will splurge, and neither of these outcomes is helpful. Because I have a sweet tooth, I find it absolutely necessary to get some sweets every week. Cookies are not great because I have a tendency to eat too many at one sitting, but even with this habit a box of Maria biscuits will usually last me a week.

You now have $0.88 left. New City Supermarket in Kitchener sometimes has dried chile peppers for $0.79 . Lately they have had a pound of rice vermicelli for $0.79 . This month the Bargain Shop has had a great deal on boxed macaroni and cheese: $0.39 each, which means you could get two boxes. These deals are all transient -- they might be gone by the time you read this. But there are deals like this from time to time at places I frequent regularly, and I snap them up when I can. Let's assume that I buy the macaroni and cheese with the Maria biscuits. That leaves us with a whole dime left over.

This week's worth of food will fill your belly pretty well. It's going to be fine for starches and proteins, but is really low on fruits and vegetables (which is a common theme in reduced-budget diets). There is no meat (which is not a problem) and no dairy (which might be).

In terms of cooking: your main meal will be beans and rice. A cup and a half of dried lentils will get you at least four servings of beans out of your package. (This is probably generous -- you could stretch the lentils further.) You soak a cup and a half of lentils the night before cooking (just throw them in a container and add water), and cook that together with half a bag of brown rice. This gives you enough food for three days easily, so assume that you will cook this twice during the week. You will need a bit of salt and some margarine in with the rice. Remember that brown rice takes a lot longer to cook than white rice -- about 40 minutes. This is actually an advantage because it means you can cook the beans and the rice together.

Along with the beans and rice, slice the whites of one leek thinly and fry them in the margarine. Start the leeks on high, and when they are frying turn the heat way, way down (at half heat or less). Then fry the leeks on this low heat until they caramelize. At some point throw in half the ginger, which you have minced.

In a separate saucepan slice half the carrots into medallions. Add a bit of oil, some salt, and steam them. Wash and chop the greens of your leek coarsely, and add that. Steam them until the carrots are soft.

When the beans and rice are done (I use a rice cooker I got for $20 at XS Cargo, but a heavy saucepan with a good lid works too) then stir in the fried leeks and the steamed vegetables. Refrigerate and eat for the next few days.

If you bought some macaroni and cheese, you can cook it when you feel tired of beans and rice. Macaroni and cheese is especially nice when you have fried onions, but we don't have that this week. You won't have any milk for the macroni and cheese, but you don't really need it. A little bit of margarine will be fine. Eating only one of the two boxes this week would be a big bonus.

At the end of the week you should have some margarine left, two bags of brown rice, half a bag of lentils, and lots of salt. You might also have some cookies left (one package of cookies usually lasts me two weeks) but I won't count on this. It would be good if you had some ginger left, but again I won't count on this.

You might be bored of your diet, but you should have reasonable energy, and you should not be hungry.

Week 2: Addicted to Oil

This week's big purchase will be some vegetable oil. One 2.5L bottle of vegetable oil will last me at least two months and often longer, but oil is expensive. People who are actually doing the challenge are allowed to assume they have oil already; people who are actually living on a tight budget don't have this luxury.

Ordinarily I keep my eyes out for deals on vegetable oil, which pop up from time to time at Valu Mart or Central Fresh Market. Pouncing on deals when they become available can be a good way to keep costs down, provided that the foods you get are either staples (like oil) or treats that you would consume during the year anyways (such as macaroni and cheese, mushroom soup, or special treats). I will assume that we don't have this luxury, and furthermore that oil costs $8.00 .

I do most of my shopping on Saturdays in downtown Kitchener, so we can limit our purchases to that geographical area this week. I usually hit the market first, then New City Supermarket, then Full Circle foods and/or the Bargain Shop. (I usually hit the Rockway thrift store and the Kitchener Public Library too, but let's leave that out of this discussion.)

At New City Supermarket we can get the following:

This works out to $9.75.

The beans are strictly not necessary this week. New City has a pretty good selection, and most types of beans can be had for $1.50 or less. Mixing up the types of beans is one primary way I relieve the monotony of beans and rice. Here are some good varieties to try:

Unlike dried chick peas or kidney beans, all of these beans can be cooked in the same pot as the rice. When I want chick peas I usually end up purchasing precooked canned chickpeas.

As a sidenote: New City Supermarket is an interesting place. I feel hypocritical shopping there because I want to support local food. My tradeoff is that I will purchase dried goods that can be transported by ship at New City, and try to turn to local sources at the Farmers' Market for perishables.

I have a love/hate relationship with the seafood. I don't eat it myself, and I have definite problems with the way we rape the oceans for this fish, and the way they treat the animals (particularly the crabs, which are sometimes left alive in plastic bags) is kind of distressing. But it is good to be reminded that we eat living things, and watching the butchers killing and cleaning the fish serves that purpose.

When people say there is no supermarket in downtown Kitchener I point to New City Supermarket as the counterexample. Although it is a popular destination for the local East Asian community, people of many different ethnicities get their goods at New City as well.

You had a shortage of fruits and vegetables last week, so let's try to improve that a bit this week at the Farmers' Market:

This adds up to $8.50, leaving us with $1.75 for sweets ($1.85 if you saved the dime from last week). Honestly I don't know exactly will be available at the market, so I would wander looking for deals that would maximize my vegetables.

At this time of year you can often get "seconds" of pears for $2.00 . If that was available I would definitely get this, because then you have over a week's worth of fruit. If you have to pay full price for apples you should have at least five apples, and maybe enough to have an apple a day.

If you can get two medium-small eggplants instead of one big one then you are coming out ahead -- use one per pot of rice. In the fall you can sometimes get good deals on peppers -- I especially like the smaller spicy peppers like scotch bonnets. These usually cost $2.00 for a bag, though.

The vegetables are still sparse. I would find myself missing leafy greens for sure -- spinach, kale, chard or even cabbage (which I try to avoid until the winter, when there is nothing else available). If I could get something substantial like a big bunch of kale, I might trade off the carrots for this.

By this time corn will likely still be available, which makes a great snack in the microwave. If you can get fruit cheaply you might supplement with a few ears of corn.

Eggplant can be added to the fried leeks at the end of the process, which will be really tasty (and would be tastier if hot chiles were in the budget).

Finally, we want sweets and treats. Let's go to Full Circle Foods:

I actually would be reluctant to shop at Full Circle Foods without any buffer money, but let's assume that we can measure out the bulk foods there appropriately. $1.50 of chocolate chipits is about half a small (1lb) bag. $0.25 of herbs is maybe a tablespoon. You can do without this, but a small amount of herbs or spices can dramatically change the spices you eat.

Chocolate chips are an okay snack food if you can avoid eating them by the handful. I take a small dish and pour some chipits out, then eat the chipits a few at a time. Individually-wrapped hard candies are overpackaged but even better as a snack food, because you eat them one at a time, and you suck on them for a long time.

This will be a tough week for sweets, so it would have been nice if you had some Maria biscuits left over from last week. Oh well.

Again your main meal will consist of beans and rice, although you can use your alternative supply of beans for a meal (use about 1/3 of a 1lb bag). One difference is that you will fry the leeks in oil instead of margarine.

Before writing out the pricing for this week I thought that the diet would be less monotonous. I was wrong. However, now you have most of the staples you need for the month.

At the end of the week you should still have lots of beans, a bag of rice, lots of salt, lots of oil and some margarine.

Week 3: Pseudo-Lasagna

One of the participants in the food challenge commented that he would likely not be able to have lasagna on his diet. He's pretty much right, but now that the basics are covered there is some room for special meals.

In reality I would likely do much of my Week 4 shopping this week, but getting into the third week of October the fresh produce is starting to dwindle.

Let's make one dish (lasting 2-3 days) lasagna, and the other meals rice and beans this week.

For variety, maybe we can make a trip to Central Fresh Market this week:

This works out to $7.00 . In this the cheese really hurts us the most -- in general there is no room in my budget for cheese. I assume that you can get a bar of cheese for $3.50, but maybe this is unrealistic.

I personally think that cheese is unethical, but I do indulge when I can. It is very rarely available in the budget.

Central Fresh Market is out of the way these days for me, but I will go once in a while. You can get some good deals there, including:

For sweets we can again go to the Bargain Shop:

There are other options: fig newtons, hard candies, or other cookies.

At Full Circle foods you can pick up some Textured Vegetable Protein, which in a pinch will substitute for ground beef:

This leaves us with $10.00. We want some vegetables for lasagna and some vegetables for our beans and rice. Ordinarily I would turn to leeks again if they are available, but for variety let's instead get a 10lb bag of onions if they are available:

Once again we are lacking fruit, which sucks.

Mushrooms are usually available for a dollar. Tomatoes can be good if they are available and cheap. Get seconds if you can.

I think zucchini and other summer squash are long gone by this time.

If you are tired of carrots you can get something else (but I find they add a lot of texture and flavour to beans and rice). You might consider trading off carrots for eggplant, which also adds lots of flavour.

You can make lasagna as your special meal, with the noodles, tomato sauce or paste, the TVP, the cheese, and a good portion of the vegetables (fried onions, thinly sliced carrots, sliced tomatoes or mushrooms, and some of the pepper/eggplant). This is lots of work to prepare, and is risky in the sense that if you screw things up you will be wasting a lot of money. Follow a recipe carefully. I would grate some of the cheese on the top, but not use cheese in the filling. You don't need to use the entire block to get a good cheese sensation in the lasagna.

Personally I think this lasagna would be a fine treat.

In addition to the lasagna you can use half a bag of rice as your other main meal.

At the end of this week you should have half a bag of rice, lots of beans, oil, salt, some margarine, and plenty of onions. If you are good then you might have a bit of cheese left over too.

Week 4: Odds and Ends

Ordinarily I would pick up another bag (or several bags) of rice at Valu Mart at this point. Instead maybe you can look at a few other staples.

Full Circle Foods is a good source of bulk foods, if you know what to shop for. Let's pick up some breakfast food:

This will be more than enough porridge for a couple of weeks. Blackstrap molasses is not sweet, but it is an excellent source of iron, and if your iron is low it will fortify you effectively. However, I would not eat this porridge without sugar (blackstrap molasses are definitely an acquired taste), which we will have to pick up at New City Supermarket unless we make a trip to Valu Mart or Central Fresh Mart:

This works out to $8.50 (I assumed fewer chipits than usual). Instead of getting 2kg of sugar you might get some dried cane sugar from New City, or a smaller amount of sugar from Full Circle foods, or sugar from the Bargain Shop.

The tofu goes very well added to fried onions for your beans and rice. Chiles can be fried with the onions.

Cauliflower is excellent, but it probably is not available. Again, I add this to the fried onions or leeks so it absorbs the flavour.

By this time big bags of potatoes may be available. Potatoes are my go-to starch when I am too lazy to cook. It is bad for diabetics, but more healthy than white bread or noodles or rice. I always eat potato skins.

Potatoes can be sliced thinly and then fried up with some salt and (hopefully) vegetables. They can be microwaved and eaten as mashed potatoes or baked potatoes.

This week, you can have one cooking session for beans and rice, and two or three sessions of preparing potatoes in assorted ways.

Other Regular Purchases

The Hasty Market across from the bus station has excellent prices on fresh bread. I sometimes get whole wheat pita bread for $1.10 there, which I use for wraps or sandwiches when fresh lettuce is available.

Instead of relying on salt exclusively I usually have soy sauce on hand. Real soy sauce is much better than the caramel salt water that passes for cheap soy sauce, but it is not that cheap. I get 1.8L of "Pearl River Bridge" soy sauce for about $5 at New City Supermarket. This easily lasts me two months.

I actually supplement my diet with fruits and vegetables from a couple of community gardens I belong to: the WPIRG/UW community garden and a garden run by the KW Urban Harvesters. These are free for anybody to join. Overall I would not call gardening cheap.

Nutrition and Themes

Basic nutrition is covered fairly well. You won't be deficient in protein. Calcium is in short supply, as are zinc and vitamin B12.

There is no meat in this diet, which is by choice. I also tend not to purchase eggs, but they offer good food value.

The diet is probably too high in salt. It is also starch heavy, which is one reason I am fat. There are by no means enough fresh vegetables or fruits, and instead of eating these fruits and vegetables fresh I tend to cook them, which is a mistake.

You really appreciate vegetables when you eat them in season.

Varying vegetables, flavourings and beans does help relieve the monotony of beans and rice, but the core of the diet does sometimes get monotonous.

At the end of this period you will have lots of staples left over. Keeping your staples topped up probably costs $40 a month.

A big part of this diet consists of learning about local resources, and integrating those places into your routine. Valu Mart is out of my way, so I try to drop by when I am in the area. I try to shop in a core group of stores that are geographically close so that I don't have to spend hours and hours walking from store to store.

I would love to be able to spend $10 more a week without feeling anxious or guilty.

Hard Things

Some of the participants in the challenge worried about whether they should avoid food served when visiting friends. This is a real concern for me -- not so much avoiding food served by friends, but rather being a cheapskate.

A tight budget means that you can't eat out with friends, so when they are going out for lunch I have to make excuses to avoid the expense. Potlucks are another big problem. People are often generous with their food but I don't want to seem like too much of a pig. I like cooking for others, but I want to offer nice food, not beans and rice. Unfortunately potlucks take a big chunk out of my weekly food budget.

I definitely pig out when so-called "free food" is available. This is one of my biggest weaknesses. It is hard for me to turn down desserts or cheeses or pizza or chocolate almonds or any of the other foods that other people take for granted.

The End

Do I think that it is tough to live on $20 a week for groceries? It definitely can be. People who have chronic pain or severe food restrictions have to deal with a lot more than I do.

Do I think that it is possible to eat healthily on $20 a week? Maybe not entirely, but I think it is possible to get pretty close to eating well.

Does living on $20 a week mean you have to live on beans and rice? Not necessarily. If you have more time than I do to cook, you can make a wider variety of foods (for example, Indian foods and chapatis). But my cooking time is scarce, so I cook a few times a week and reheat food the rest of the week, and that makes rice and beans a good fit.

Here's the point: even if you are living on a tight budget, you have options. Learn about nutrition. Learn about what is available in your area. With good information it is possible to stretch a small budget a long way. There's an initiative called Living on a Survival Budget which attempts to spread this good information to those who need it most.

Here's another point: I don't trust that the government will ever want to give people enough money for food. (I am not even sure that this is desirable, but that is another discussion.) There are lots of ways that bureaucratic systems like welfare keep people poor. Getting out of poverty may require supports, but it also requires initiative, and relating these sob stories about how people living on $20 a week cannot possibly live well does a great disservice to those people who are struggling to live within their means and get out of poverty.

I think it is okay for middle class people to do these kinds of publicity stunts. You learn a lot from such exercises. Maybe you develop a little compassion. But let's not pretend that these adventurous exercises are the same as dealing with a tight budget and its stresses week after week after week. It's kind of patronizing, and results in a distorted picture of what it really is like to live on a tight budget.