WSJ columnist lives for six weeks as if he is on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and learns something he didn’t expect.

By Brett Arends / Wall Street Journal
Dec. 13, 2013

One American in six is on food stamps this Christmas.

For many, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program will provide only a small part of their daily food budget. But for others it will be more important. They may depend on it for much of what they eat.

The average food stamp benefit today is about $4.30 a day. To middle-class eyes this looks derisory.

Indeed, various food charities urge people to take the “SNAP Challenge” and try to live on this budget for a few days, to see just how little it is. Most who take the challenge say they find it difficult.

I tried to do something a bit more useful. Instead of observing that it was difficult, I tried to work out how to succeed.

Stephanie Convey, a nutritionist and nurse practitioner in Lynn, Mass., says those trying to eat on very little money face three challenges: They need to know how, and these days many simply don’t. They need to plan, so they can buy cheaply and in bulk, and work out menus in advance. And they may have transportation problems.

Many of the urban poor can’t easily get to inexpensive supermarkets, she points out. Those working multiple and exhausting jobs, often with odd hours, face extra challenges, too—although most of the foods I ate were pretty quick and easy to prepare.

So what are your best options? Is there any way you can eat reasonably well, even on only $4.30 a day?

When I started the experiment, friends guffawed. Most predicted I would fail, or I would faint within days. One, who lives in New Hampshire, even offered to scout around for roadkill for me.
Instead, I learned something I didn’t expect.

Eating reasonably well on $4.30 a day turned out to be a bit like a Rubik’s Cube puzzle: It seemed impossible until I worked out the trick. Then it became surprisingly manageable, if monotonous.

I started with a list of don’ts—things I wouldn’t do. I didn’t eat out. I didn’t eat any packaged or processed foods. I didn’t try to live on energy bars. I avoided cheap carbohydrates, like white bread and noodles. Yes, they’re cheap. But they’re empty calories. I abandoned buying coffee out. For my caffeine needs I carried tea bags instead (one cent each from Wal-Mart).

I said goodbye to “Food Inc.” and took a step back in time—to the days when food was something you prepared, not bought.

I looked, first, for good-value proteins. I figured those would be the biggest challenge. I found three which formed the basis of the entire diet: peanuts and peanut butter (which cost around $2.50 a pound, even at Whole Foods), eggs (20 cents each), and pulses or legumes, like split peas and lentils, which can cost not much more than $1 a pound.

I rarely ate meats or fish. They were too expensive.

I then added healthy carbohydrates: oatmeal, whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, baked potatoes and sweet potatoes, and whole-wheat bread—which I made at home and cost a little more than $1 for a 1½-pound loaf.

Fruits and vegetables were tougher to work into the budget. But I ate plenty of bananas (sometimes just 20 cents each), and I bought frozen peas, corn and other mixed vegetables for around $1.30 a pound. I took a cheap multivitamin a day.

Milk is expensive, but I had a cup—about 25 cents—a day.

I live in the city and don’t own a car. I took the subway to the bigger supermarkets. And I hunted aggressively for deals. These are essential to driving down costs.

Sandy Nichols
Sandy Nichols

What’s on sale is what’s on the menu. I found the food aisles at downtown drugstores sometimes had surprisingly good deals.

I am not a great planner, so I quickly learned to avoid buying too many perishables. Dry and frozen foods give you more flexibility. Also, I am not a fanatical chef. I avoided any foods or recipes which would take too much preparation.

Bottom line? I managed to eat pretty well for less than $4 a day (though I realize this was only a test, not the harsh reality of poverty). I kept this up for six weeks, although I learned most of what was useful in the first couple.

I remain in good health. I kept going to the gym for workouts three or four times a week. I was never faint or hungry. I actually put on a couple of pounds—thanks to an overfondness for peanut butter.

I discussed the diet with my doctor, who said it was perfectly healthful and probably better than the way most people eat. (She also advised I cut down on the peanut butter.) Later, I reviewed my food intake with Donald Hensrud, M.D., the chair of preventative medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and the editor in chief of “The Mayo Clinic Diet.”

“Overall, I think this is excellent,” Dr. Hensrud said. “It’s more nutritious than the way many, if not most, people eat.”

He added that he thought the multivitamins were unnecessary, and that I would get plenty of vitamins from frozen vegetables. They are often as good or even better than fresh ones, he said. He also emphasized that it was important to eat a variety of foods.

No, my diet wasn’t always virtuous and dull. Channeling my inner 12-year-old, I also ate popcorn, toasted jumbo 10-cent marshmallows in the toaster oven, and Fluffernutters -— sandwiches composed of peanut butter and Fluff, a marshmallow spread.

I even toyed with so-called S’mores pizzas—semisweet chocolate chips and Fluff toasted on some dough. These were all inexpensive and fun (but don’t tell my doctor).

I am no longer living on $4.30 a day, but my experience has changed how I eat. I am amazed at how cheaply one can eat well—and mortified at how much I have spent needlessly over the years. I suspect I am not alone.

Addendum by Mark Levitt:

    Question: What if this ministry’s supporters each borrowed some of Brett’s tactics to reduce their food intake by $1 per day, ate healthier in the process, and relayed the savings to our work for the Lord?
    Answer: Our budget would double, and this outreach would grow more amazingly than ever. (Plus, donors who didn’t overindulge in peanut butter would be slimmer!)

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