Lessons From the "One Dollar Diet" Project

When is a spoonful of peanut butter the best treat ever? When you’re trying to eat on $1 a day. In our September e-news, we mentioned that IHE graduate Christopher Greenslate and his partner, Kerri Leonard, were embarking on a “One Dollar Diet” experiment to each eat on $1/day for 30 days. The experiment is over, and we asked Christopher to share about the experience. Read his essay below:

"After working for ten hours, the last thing we wanted to do was come home and roll out tortillas. It wouldn't have been so bad if they were going to be filling enough to make sure we went to bed satisfied. However, the meager portions of homemade refried beans and minimally flavored Spanish rice often left us wanting more. On some nights, if we could afford it, we went buck-wild and had a spoonful of peanut butter to make the rumbling sounds in our stomachs subside.

"Breakfast was always the same: plain oatmeal. Sometimes we could put a third of a tablespoon of butter on it. Either way, for the first few days it was difficult to choke down and by the end, given the option, we would have eaten anything else. The lunch menu was not much more appealing. Peanut butter and jelly on dry homemade bread left much to be desired. Once in a while we would split an orange.

"In May of this year, the two of us were discussing how much money we had been spending on groceries. We knew that a fifth of the world's population eats on one dollar a day. Soon enough we decided to attempt to eat this way for a month, just to see if we could. In September, we embarked upon our quest to survive on a dollar. In order to help guide the experiment, we created five rules.

  1. All food consumed each day must total $1 for each of us.
  2. We could not accept free food or "donated" food unless it is available for everyone in our area (i.e. foraging, samples in stores, dumpster diving).
  3. Any food we planted, we had to pay for.
  4. We would do our best to cook a variety of meals; ramen noodles could only be prepared if there was no other way to stay under one dollar. (We had only six packages.)
  5. If we decided to have guests over for dinner they had to eat from our share -- meaning that guests didn't get to eat their own dollar's worth of food.

"Dealing with work, the stress of trying to figure out what was for dinner, and how much of we could eat led to frustrations on both sides. After the first week, the excitement wore off; it seemed as though dinner couldn't be ready soon enough. Not only did we have to make the food, we also had to calculate the cost and measure portions into affordable quantities. There were tense discussions on almost a nightly basis when we were trying to get dinner ready. It wasn't uncommon for the tension to break into an argument about who was or was not doing what. The validity of the "rules" was debated on more than one occasion. By the time we sat down to eat, we had gotten over our frustration, but the urgent need for food made for many slammed refrigerator doors and several dirty looks.

"We created a blog to document our experience. (We also invited people to “sponsor” our effort by donating money for the Community Resource Center here in Encinitas; we ended up raising $1500.) While we expected to face hardship in terms of feeling hungry, getting bored with meals, and frustration at what we could not have, it didn't take long to learn there was more involved. We realized through our experience and through writing (as well as comments from readers), that there are a variety of assumptions about what it means to struggle to eat, and about poverty in general. While a month-long experiment couldn't account for all experiences concerning poverty, it brought up many important questions. One of the most universal questions to come up was: At what daily cost can people eat well? Not just get "full", but to actually eat well? At the end of our "One Dollar Diet Project," we knew that a dollar a day wasn't a sufficient amount of money to eat healthy meals.

"So, what does it cost to eat healthy in America? We’re going to find out. We are embarking on a quest to discover the answer to this question. We’ve got our ideas and new experiments ready to go, and you can be sure that we’ll share our results.

"In fact, it’s the impetus for our new book concerning the subject. Through a number of new food-cost experiments, and research with professionals in nutrition, economics, and cultural studies, we will bring you with us on our journey. Check back at our blog for occasional updates."

Image courtesy of One Dollar Diet Project blog.

(Reprinted from our November 2008 Humane Edge E-News.)

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