Could you eat healthfully on one dollar a day?

“How much does it really cost to eat a healthy diet?” asks Tara Parker-Pope in a recent New York Times article. Among other findings, she notes:

  • Nearly a billion people, or about 15% of the world population, live on a dollar a day for food. [Note: Obviously the cost of living varies from country-to-country — spending a dollar a day for food in Portland is different than spending a dollar a day for food in London — or in Mumbai. For more on this stat, see this comment from Christy.]
  • The average American consumes about $7 worth of food every day. [Note: Food stamps provide about $3 a day for food.]
  • Energy-dense junk food packs more calories and fewer nutrients than nutrient-rich low-calorie foods, but the junk food is less expensive. (“It's not the food pyramid,” says one researcher, “it's the budget pyramid.”)
  • Junk food prices have been falling, while prices for healthier foods have been rising.

Parker-Pope's story profiles Christopher Greenslate and Kerri Leonard, a California couple who each lived on a dollar a day for food during the month of September.

[They] bought raw beans, rice, cornmeal and oatmeal in bulk, and made their own bread and tortillas. Fresh fruits and vegetables weren't an option. Ms. Leonard's mother was so worried about scurvy, a result of vitamin C deficiency, that they made room in their budget for Tang orange drink mix. (They don't eat meat — not that they could have afforded it.)

[…]

A few times they found a bag of carrots or lettuce that was within their budget, but produce was usually too expensive. They foraged for lemons on the trees in their neighborhood to squeeze juice into their water.

Some people find these sorts of experiments pointless, but I think they're interesting and educational. They not only let participants experience how others might live, but they also demonstrate that it is possible to live cheaply in the United States. (Sometimes we forget just how much food we consume, how much we waste, and how much we pay for convenience.)

To read more about Greenslate and Leonard's “dollar a day” experiment, check out their blog, The One-Dollar Diet Project. They chronicled their food choices for the entire month, starting with the first day. The blog gets more interesting as it goes on, though. On day eleven, for example, the experiment stopped being fun. And on the day after their project ended, they each spent $20 on food.

With supermarket inflation a growing concern recently, processed foods will probably play an even larger role in American diets. Finding inexpensive nutritious food is a very real issue for many people. Here at Get Rich Slowly, we've discussed ways to eat healthy while keeping it cheap several times in the past. I've also shared others' experiments in eating well for less. The USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion publishes a 76-page booklet entitled Recipes and Tips for Healthy, Thrifty Meals (PDF).

Many of the tips in this publication will be familiar to frugal cooks:

  • Use planned leftovers to save both time and money.
  • Do “batch cooking” when your food budget and time allow.
  • Shop with a list.
  • Use coupons when possible.
  • Try store brands.
  • Stock up when certain products are on sale.
  • Compare unit pricing.

The booklet also includes a list of best buys for cost and nutrition, tips for healthy cooking, and fifty pages of recipes. Recipes and Tips for Healthy, Thrifty Meals is also available in HTML format.

More about...Frugality, Budgeting, Food

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Ben
Ben

I often hear how expensive it is to eat healthy and to buy fruits and vegetables, but I dont really believe it is as expensive as portrayed. While vegetables are not as convenient to prepare as pre-processed and ready to eat meals, squash, carrots, zucchini, romaine lettuce, cucumbers, onions, broccoli, and tomatoes are far less expensive than many of the more convenient foods. Frozen vegetables are even cheaper. While I have tried and narrowly failed at the “dollar a day for a month plan” several times this year, I can mix in several different vegetables as sides along with some… Read more »

Deborah Johnson
Deborah Johnson

Food is one area I will not skimp on to save money. Heart disease runs in my family, so eating well and eating healthy is a priority. I shopped at our local farmers markets this year for the first time and was amazed at how much better the produce was in terms of quality and taste. In season produce seems to keep longer, too. In fact, I had such a positive experience at the farmers markets that I purchased a share in a CSA (community supported agriculture) for 2009. It was $500 for 26 weeks, and it’s enough produce to… Read more »

Richard
Richard

“I dont really believe it is as expensive as portrayed…some sort of fruit is almost always on sale for $1 a pound”

The comparison though is calories per dollar. A dollar’s worth of apples (or whatever) may have less calories than a dollar’s of twinkies, Jr. Bacon Cheeseburgers or lard.

If you have only $1 to live on for the day, you need those 2000+ calories. Especially since (and yes, this is a stereotype) you probably have a manual labor job that requires more physical work!

Sakari
Sakari

Finally someone gets it. Yeah, you can buy some apples…and then what? The point is getting enough calories. That junk food gives you those calories. Veggies and fruit do not.

Caleb Nelson
Caleb Nelson

I had a conversation with my father about our different perspectives of food. What was “fast” food to him at my age is like home gourmet cooking to me. Instant mash potatoes and canned vegetables is a norm in my house, while these foods were like “fast” food to him growing up. In my life, I’ve replaced “fast” food with actual fast-food restaurants, providing a cheap and quick, yet disturbingly unhealthy, substitution to the home-cooked meal. And while, canned vegetables aren’t the most healthiest way to consume the goods, it sure beats burgers and fries. I beg the question of… Read more »

Khürt
Khürt

I agree with Deborah Johnson. In our home, we consider nutritional and health first before costs. I have Type 1 diabetes and my wife has fibromyalgia ( neither of these has a cure ). We will pay anything to stay healthy. Like Deborah, we purchase a share in a local organic farm. We have done this for the last three years and sometimes have enought to share with our extended family. The fruit and veggies are always fresh and taste better. “On day eleven… the experiment stopped being fun.” I would not have lasted that long. Health before wealth.

escapee
escapee

This should be on your list:

Join a CSA. I pay $26/week for enough fresh vegetables for a family of four for a week.

Nathan Rice
Nathan Rice

It’s worth noting that if a person had a garden, eating fresh fruit and veggies within the $1/day budget would be no problem.

Supermarket produce is way overpriced … you pay for the convenience. Whereas home-grown produce is the cheapest food you can eat.

mbrogz3000
mbrogz3000

We eat very well mostly because my wife knows how to prepare excellent, healthy meals. I’d say some of our meals, which usually involve chicken or salmon fish, range from $5-$10 total, usually leaving enough leftover for a better lunch or enjoyable ‘repeat dinner’ a day or so later. We pay a little extra for foods that don’t have HFCS and have low-but-real sugar, if any. We don’t buy chips or cookies or sodas. I only eat Kashi Krunch cereals. I try to have 3 eggs on saturdays and sundays. Our bread and english muffins are usually on sale and… Read more »

Melissa
Melissa

The answer for us was yes. My husband and I did this in February ’07. Lately I’ve been thinking that we might redo the experiment again this upcoming February – except this time I’ll blog it more successfully. Well, you can see last times’ sporadically posted blog here: http://56dollars.blogspot.com/ Getting our stomachs accustomed to the new portion sizes was not fun, but I was continually monitoring our caloric intake to make sure we were getting enough. There was a lot of baking, and a lot of beans and rice, but we’re the type of people who don’t mind leftovers, so… Read more »

Christine Groth
Christine Groth

Oh my gosh. I would never consider on not buying quality food ( fresh fruit and veggies) for my family. My health and my families health come first above the cost. What’s the use of all of this if you don’t have your health? If you don’t thave the money then for goodness sake find some. Get a job, start a blog ( like this one) and make money instead of eating scraps and discovering you have cancer 5 years later. Your health should be #1

http://www.101WaystoMagnetizeMoney.com

Christine Groth

Jerry
Jerry

I distinguish between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’. Ir’s good to be frugal when it comes to ‘wants’, but I’m prepared to pay for quality when it comes to ‘needs’. Food is definitely a ‘need’.

Susy
Susy

I also disagree that healthy food is more expensive. Mr Chiot’s and I have been eating farmer’s market produce in season and it’s much cheaper than junk food. Sure I can buy a bag of chips for $2, but I can buy 10 lbs of potatoes for the same price at the farmer’s market. We’re spending much less on food this year and eating much healthier. Beans & rice are cheap & healthy, as is oatmeal. You also have to know where and what to buy to get the most for your produce dollars. Anything that’s in season is much… Read more »

plonkee
plonkee

If you have to buy all your food from regular grocery stores, then healthy is not cheap. If you’re in poverty in the UK chances are you live in a deprived urban area. Without a car there are likely to be only a small number of places where you can buy groceries. In the most deprived areas, these are often likely to be overpriced small stores with little or no fresh produce. Farmer’s markets exist in upmarket areas. You can often add to that general public transport issue relating to schedules, plus full-time work or other responsibilities such as caring… Read more »

Cyllya
Cyllya

I wonder where you’re finding junk food so cheap. Healthy food is too expensive to eat on $1 per day, but processed food costs even more! Which makes sense because you’re paying for the ingredients AND the processing. Well, I guess there’s instant ramen. Though with prices going up, that might even start to cost you more than $1 soon if you have a big appetite. I don’t know why people act like you have to sacrifice money to eat healthy. With food you have these choices: healthy, tasty, easy, cheap… pick three. Pick one to sacrifice. It doesn’t have… Read more »

DaveD
DaveD

I think the whole point of the experiment is to demonstrate that health is directly proportional to wealth. Yes you can eat on $1/day, but not healthily. As the comments above demonstrate, eating healthy costs money.

Janet
Janet

Tang does not replace vitamins. Also, Christopher and Kerri immediately overspent the day after their experiment ended — proving that $1/day lifestyle is not ideal on a long term basis.

I’m with the others — I could not sacrifice my health for saving money. I eat a balanced diet, plenty of healthy food — it’s just a matter of spending wisely and planning ahead. It may not be a dollar a day, but if you have a decent job, you should be able to afford to eat!

elizabeth
elizabeth

I don’t understand the point. First off, I would never do this because my mom would smack me for wasting my health. She lived on beans and rice growing up and was endlessly sick so we see no point in scrimping on food now. Secondly, yes, it’s hard to eat on $1 a day in America. I don’t think anyone thought otherwise. So what are you going to do about it? Are you going to teach classes to poorer people on nutrition? Are you going to lobby for more food stamps? Are you just going to feel an added dose… Read more »

Mike Panic
Mike Panic

I don’t know about a $1/day, I take a multi-vitamin pack that runs $20 for 30/days and that would kill most of my budget, but I’ve really cut down on both the total dollars spent per week and total calorie intake, as I’m dieting. One of my favorite things to make that is super cheap is lentil soup in a crock pot, here’s the recipe: 1/2 pound lentils 2-3 carrots finely shredded 5-8 cloves of garlic (more or less if you liek) 1 Spanish or yellow onion (finely chopped) 1 tablespoon salt 2-3 tablespoons olive oil 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar… Read more »

Frugal Dad
Frugal Dad

Perhaps we could get closer to eating on a dollar a day if we included yield from a garden project like the one J.D. and Kris have put together. My small square foot garden barely yielded enough to pay for itself this year, but now that the supplies are in place, I suspect we’ll come out further ahead next spring and summer.

zgreenwell
zgreenwell

If I had to go on a dollar a day for food I’d probably eat a lot of eggs. You can usually get a dozen for less than a dollar and I would probably eat 3-4 fired every meal. I’d probably see about someone giving me some bacon grease to cook them in. Eating that little I’d need the calories. I might save some money for some canned vegetables so I still got as many vitamins as I could.

Krystal
Krystal

I strongly disagree that eating healthy is more expensive. First of all, if you are on a budget, don’t buy organic. Yes, I am on a budget and I buy organic, but to me that is more important than dinning out, and I have adjusted my budget to reflect that. Also, buy in bulk! Freeze and can goods!! Also, eat lower on the food chain. We are vegetarians (I know that’s not for everyone!) but it’s nice we don’t spend money on fish, mean, poultry, etc. My mother eats fast food 2-3 out of 4 meals a day. She is… Read more »

Christy
Christy

Hi JD, Want to point out a small issue in your post. As it regards the billion folks who exist on $1/day (or less); that statistic relates directly to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. And that $1/day is always related to the local equivalent of $1/day (i.e.: one peso, rupee, etc.). I’ve been part of working toward the MDGs for years now, and while it’s an interesting experiment for folks who are rich enough to read this blog to try living on $1 USD/day, it is reality for others in the world every day of the year. This is… Read more »

elisabeth
elisabeth

I confess I didn’t investigate the original site, so I don’t know if they considered that if you do find yourself in a really bad situation, you have some additional options — in my small city those options would include a local free lunch every day, free breakfasts on a different schedule, and a good food bank. The “freegan” movement also suggests doing dumpster diving behind grocery stores for salvagable fruits and vegetables and other goods…
obviously, these are in no way good choices, but desperate conditions require desperate solutions.

J.D.
J.D.

Thanks, Christy, for the clarification. I’ll edit the post to reflect your correction.

Carla
Carla

It is a good lesson to see how others in this and other countries have to live. For me, because I certain health issues, I cannot skimp on good food. I cannot eat gluten and other grains, legumes, sugar, soy and corn — but they happen to be cheap! I figure that I will ether pay now or pay much more later with poor health and medical bills.

Dave
Dave

One point to make is that when you’re eating healthy, unadulterated foods, you don’t have to eat very much. Eating too much is the biggest problem Westerners have in terms of both spending extra money and, of course, fat. And God help you if you’re some kind of gourmet; you’ll never get there. But the fact is, the human body is capable of living, for the most part, upon breath and light alone; just look at concentration camp survivors. There’s a saying that at the conclusion of a meal, a yogi’s stomach should be half full of food, one-quarter full… Read more »

Laurie | Express Yourself to Success
Laurie | Express Yourself to Success

It’s an interesting experiment. I agree that it would be quite difficult to live on a $1/day food budget, but eating healthy doesn’t mean $20/day either. So what is a reasonable healthy food budget? To be honest, I don’t know how much I spend per day because it varies so much…maybe I’ll experiment with various amounts per day and see how low I can ‘reasonably’ go.

PS. Mike Panic – thanks for the lentil recipe.

Ann
Ann

Did anyone see the episode of “30 Days”, Morgan Spurlock’s documentary series, in which he did something very similar, living on minimum wage for a month? It was really interesting and eye opening — it was basically impossible.

Richard
Richard

“It’s worth noting that if a person had a garden, eating fresh fruit and veggies within the $1/day budget would be no problem.” To everyone who keeps saying that it’s no problem, you might be right IF you have other infrastructure in your life. If you’re a blue collar worker who lives in a housing project, where are you going to plant enough veggies to get your costs down? How far are you going to have to travel to get food from your CSA? Me, I’ve got a garden, I’ve got a big enough house to buy beans, rice and… Read more »

Susy
Susy

I agree with Dave. When you buy as unprocessed as possible it’s much cheaper. I can buy whole oats for .60/lb. I figured it out and it costs us roughly .05-.07 for our breakfasts. We also assume that what we hear about calorie needs are accurate (which I doubt). Also eating less would be good for all of us. Calorie restriction is actually good for your health. I also second the eggs for cheap protein, I buy local free-range eggs for $2.25 a doz. But that’s still cheap eats compared to other protein, and it’s healthy protein. I also agree… Read more »

Momma
Momma

I do believe you can feed a family of 4 for $120 a month here in the United States. We have started doing this, and it rocks! Check out our post at http://www.engineeradebtfreelife.com/2008/10/feed-family-of-4-for-only-120-month.html for more info!

Momma
Feature Blogger at Engineer a Debt Free Life (lots of money saving and frugal tips, plus bargains and freebies!)
http://www.engineeradebtfreelife.com

deb
deb

Cabbage for vitamin C. Chop it up as a salad with cheap apple cider vinegar or saute it and add it to beans and rice. Then you can get rid of the Tang. Compare it with the price of Tang – cabbage is so much cheaper and can be found even in the inner city in the tiny ethnic markets.

plonkee
plonkee

I’m talking about the most deprived council estates in England. Research found that they suffered from extremely poor access to infrastructure, including shops, doctors, hospitals, post office, transport etc, etc.

I’m sure there is low demand for fresh produce, but it’s just forming a vicious circle. Not everywhere is easily accessible by public transport, and not everyone has a car. Plus if you or someone you care for has difficulties getting about…

Studenomist
Studenomist

All I want to say on this topic is that there is a common misconception that healthy food costs more. It does not cost more TECHNICALLY, it just requires more time and planning. If you are able to buy groceries the night before and prepare a day’s worth of food, then you will ultimateley save money and enjoy your food more.

Jane
Jane

Regarding J.D.’s comment about planned leftovers, my husband recently bought a cook book that lays out 6 or 7 days of meals that will save you both time and money each week. The goal of this book was to be able to make healthy meals in less than 10 minutes (not including the first meal which takes longer, since it is setting up for the rest of the week). For instance, we had meat loaf last night. We made a large amount, and half of it will be used for another meal (not meatloaf but just the ground beef “recycled”… Read more »

goldsmith
goldsmith

Regarding the one dollar/day issue: Four years ago, in 2004, I had the opportunity to hear Michael Herrmann of UNCTAD speak about this, and he said that even corrected for exchange rates and cost of living, those currently living on one dollar a day would need at least ten dollars a day to achieve the Millenium Development Goals. He made his contribution in response to a report from the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty.

Cathy
Cathy

I started an experiment about 2 years where I kept track of the approximate cost of my home prepared meals versus eating out or prepared foods. The difference was staggering to me. Home prepared was significantly cheaper. Most of my meals average less than $3 for a complete meal with vegetables, starch and protein. I could buy prepared food for the same amount of money, but with a whole lot less nutrition. A ‘gourmet’ home prepared meal with grass fed steak, gravy, potatoes and a side of green beans sauted with butcher bacon bits is less than $5 a plate.… Read more »

Steph
Steph

I think living on about $3 day is the lowest you can go in the United States and still have a healthy diet. However, the rate might go down if you’re feeding a family rather than one or two individuals. It could go up depending on the size and activity of the individuals, too. I lived at about $3 day for a couple of years, but one of the ways I did it was to work at a small grocery where I got free produce that wasn’t nice enough to sell but not actually rotten and was defintely edible (i.e.… Read more »

partgypsy
partgypsy

I read their blog, but I’m not sure if it was intended, but they “failed.” They both lost significant percentages of their body weight, were obsessed with food, and ate an unhealthy diet, their diet was practically the same thing every day: oatmeal, pb sandwich, rice and bean burritos. I disagreed with their reasoning where they refused various accessible free food by convuluted reasoning, such as avoiding a teacher’s meeting where lunch was provided for the teachers (she was a teacher). So normally she would have had eaten that free lunch but didn’t this month for a moral point??? Also… Read more »

Penny
Penny

I follow a diet with restricted carbohydrates, which has done wonders for my physical and mental health, but makes keeping to a tight food budget far more challenging. That said, our family of three — including a voracious teenager — spends less than $10/day on food total. I buy whatever fruit and veggies are around $1/lb or below, meat that’s been marked down for quick sale, and store-brand dairy products. We have some splurge items, but everyone knows that those won’t be purchased without a sale and/or coupons. We’ll lower the cost further by growing more. Our small garden was… Read more »

Dave
Dave

The worst part of living on processed foods to fit in a budget (as my wife and I did for four years of college) is the hidden costs to your health. I went to the doctor 3-4 times per year in college, usually for sinus infections and other illnesses, and despite taking vitamins. Now, I haven’t eaten junk food in five years, and I haven’t been to the doctor during that time either. There are also health costs down the road. Looking back, there were healthier alternatives we could have afforded, but we just didn’t take the time to see… Read more »

icup
icup

at first I thought $3 a day was pretty easy, but then I realized I was thinking $3 per meal. I can do $3 per meal no problem. I could probably do $3 per day if I really had to. I don’t think I could do $1 a day without skipping a lot of meals or picking from the garbage or eat alot of rice and ramen or something. I think as it stands now, my wife and I average $5 per day per person, because we only spend about $300/month on groceries give or take, and we don’t really… Read more »

kick_push
kick_push

a dollar a day? i’m sorry but that is damn near impossible

Cathy
Cathy

I might be able to get darn close to a healthy $1 per MEAL per day, but I could not do $1 per DAY.

sally
sally

It sounds like people are saying that eating healthfully on $1 a day may be possible if food is accessible, you’re good at meal planning, have the time and desire to prepare foods from scratch, are willing to eat a limited set of foods, possibly have a garden or other free food available, don’t have any pecularities in their dietary needs, and want to undertake such a project as a personal experiment or hobby. There are a lot of people for whom these factors would not obtain. I guess I find these experiments somewhat interesting from the perspective of “what… Read more »

PDXgirl
PDXgirl

Funny, I’ve been thinking of starting a blog with recipes that yield $1/serving meals.

I just made a turkey Meatloaf that comes dang close ($1.01) and is super filling for lunch.

$1/day sounds extreme for an extended period, but I do think that it’s always good to be aware of just how far you are capable of cutting back if you need to. Eating on $1/day for a month won’t hurt you if you’re otherwise healthy, but is could definitely be illuminating.

susan
susan

It’s interesting that no one picked up on the associated health costs until the 41st post by Dave. Ill health costs way more than good health; good food is necessary to good health. Most of us are unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices in time & lack of variety to achieve good diet/low cost. One turkey-generally one of cheapest meat-based protein sources-can provide many meal ingredients for two people. The meat can be consumed alone, or used as an ingredient in casseroles, the carcass can be used to make soup stock–but who wants to bother? Beans are another nutritional powerhouse,… Read more »

slowfit
slowfit

Fascinating. I’m wondering if some cheap meat might fit in here too in terms of low cost per calorie. I’m starting to track my food expenses and I think I live on about $350 per month, some of which is eaten by friends. Probably I could get that to $250 without too much pain. Lower than that would require some real changes.

Cathy
Cathy

Better nutrition has lowered my health costs considerably. I used to get sinus infections, bronchitis twice a year, and had gingivitis. I haven’t had a sinus infection in years, and I only see my dentist for routine cleanings now. It’s already saved me money with doctor and dentist bills. I’m only paying for preventative care, instead of secondary infections which are much more costly. I attribute it to better nutrition and losing weight. I enjoy eating a well prepared meal with servings of vegetables, fruits, protein and starch much more than a doctor/dentist visit! I suppose it does take more… Read more »

Nick
Nick

For a short period of time, I think this could be done, but over the course of weeks or months, no thanks. There are things to sacrifice to save money on, and food isn’t really one of them for me. I’m not necessarily talking in quality, but variety, and taste, definitely. I buy generic items, produce at farmers markets, use coupons, etc., but I still don’t come close to eating at $1 per day. To do so would sacrifice a joy of my life (yes eating good food brings me joy), which is not worth saving a marginal amount of… Read more »

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