Eating on Less Than $5 a Day – Continued

by on May 12, 2017 · 3 comments

in Ocean Beach

Editor’s Note: Local OB writer, Dave Rice, decided to take the challenge of eating on less than $5 a day. On May 10th we posted his first installment on this journey. Today is his latest.

By Dave Rice

Sunday night, the eve of the impending CalFresh Challenge, where my family will join more than 100 people across San Diego County in learning what it’s like to live on the average budget for area food benefit recipients – $4.18 a day.

Earlier, I’d planned to ride my bike up to the local market, advertising boneless skinless chicken breasts for $1.97 a pound. It rained all day, so I ended up driving, a luxury not available to many CalFresh recipients, and snagged three breasts for $4.69.

In my last post I’d mentioned a lunch dilemma – I had nothing planned. My wife Christina suggested turkey sandwiches – every day. She loves turkey sandwiches. I’m not so hot on them, but the numbers seemed to make sense, so I went along. In addition to the loaf of bread ($1.25) I’d already bought, I then returned to Vons for a pound of processed turkey ($3.99) and a bag of shredded iceberg lettuce to add some fake sense of substance to these sandwiches (99 cents). From my shopping yesterday, I’d received a coupon for a free bag of potato chips, so I grabbed those too (a judicious use of coupons plays a significant role in my budget, as will become apparent).

As I grab the chips and essentially nutrition-free lettuce, the words of San Diego Hunger Coalition executive director Anahid Brakke ring in my ears from a conversation we had last week.

“Remember, empty calories are cheap, but nutrition is expensive.”

My bankroll, previously at $16.52, now stands at $6.85. The week hasn’t started yet and my margin of error is already razor-thin.

Making our daytime meals for tomorrow before bed, I think back to our last pre-challenge meal. It’s Chris’ specialty, shrimp ($6 for one pound, bought on sale and frozen) sautéed in butter (63 cents, one stick bought on sale and frozen) with tomatoes ($1.50 for one heirloom organic) and jalapeno (9 cents) served over a bed of rice pilaf ($2 for one box) and topped with sour cream ($1.50), bacon ($2), and chives ($2, organic). At $15.72, I’d normally consider this a pretty decent, frugal meal – but in challenge terms it’s already busted the bank for the whole day for my family of three. At least for now, though, I’m fat, full, and happy.

Day One

Breakfast: Dave – 1 banana (31 cents), Chris – 1 mango, 1 Greek yogurt ($1.39), Kenzi – school hot meals ($0)

Lunch: Dave – turkey sandwich and chips (67 cents, with coupon for free chips), Chris – same, Kenzi – school hot meals ($0)

Dinner: chicken bake with butter, green beans, carrots, potatoes, onion (approximately $5.70)

It was a long day at work – 9 hours of digging into clay soaked by yesterday’s rains, setting cinder blocks, driving rebar with a 10-pound sledgehammer, hauling and pouring 60-pound bags of concrete. When some company advertises “20% extra bonus, free!” you should hope it’s not a concrete vendor who’s decided 50 pounds of lung-staining dust mixed with gravel isn’t enough to heave in one go, repeatedly, for the duration of an afternoon…good workout, though!

Lunch actually wasn’t bad, in the sense that I wasn’t jealous of the $2 hot-dog-and-soda deals my colleagues went to 7-Eleven for (and which I’d usually be eating if I had $2 for lunch – I’m not going to lie and say that I’m in any way a healthy person), but I’m hungry and nibbling on carrots as I chop veggies.

So far, so good. I’ve also got enough green beans and carrots left to steam as a side dish for another meal, though I’ve written their cost (98 cents and $1.27, respectively) into tonight’s dinner. I’ve even got a loaf of French bread (free with coupon) that I’m adding half of, along with a sprinkling of cheese, to supplement tonight’s dinner. But I’ve got to sell myself a stick of butter ($1, considering a CalFresh recipient probably didn’t have the free cash to snap up 4 pounds like I did when it was on sale), bringing me down to $5.85 in spending money for the week.

A side note on cheating the challenge: we’re not supposed to eat anything that wasn’t purchased with our budget for the week. That said, I’ve been poor, and poor people have condiments. Oftentimes during my teens and early twenties (and for a period in the early 2010s after my layoff benefits ended and before I found stable work writing), that’s all we’d have – an empty fridge with the door full of condiments. I didn’t have three kinds of mustard or six different hot sauces as my current relative affluence allows, but chances are I’d have had some store-brand yellow and a 99-cent bottle of Tapatio on hand pretty much all the time.

For the sake of the challenge I’ve used my budget to purchase some things in this vein (99 cents for a Tapatio bottle, naturally, plus $1.04 for some granulated garlic and 95 cents for Mexican seasoning), but since I am paying for more of some of these things than I need, I’m also allowing myself the use of salt and pepper and other basics. My sad, sad turkey sandwich would’ve much preferred sweet-hot mustard to yellow, though…

Day Two

“We like to say that hunger is a root cause of hunger,” Brakke told me before the challenge began, emphasizing the need for programs like CalFresh.

“We believe in food first. It needs to accompany other programs like education, workforce development, but food is one of the most critical means of helping people get ahead.”

The program, she says, is quite effective.

“99 percent of SNAP benefits across the nation go to eligible recipients. A less-than-one-percent error rate is better than any for-profit organization has for their programs. It’s incredible how low the fraud is, how well it’s monitored.

“And yet these kind of fraud stories turn into folklore,” she laments, going into the too-familiar refrain from someone who claims to have followed a food benefit recipient from the grocery store to see bags being loaded into a new Mercedes. “Our job is really to help people understand that food stamp benefits are actually quite low – it’s not an incentive to keep people from working. In fact, 75% of people who are on CalFresh do work,” she says, adding that nearly 90% of SNAP recipients have incomes placing them below the official poverty line.

Anyhow, my family’s meal plan pans out something like this…

Breakfast/lunch: same as yesterday ($3.04)

Dinner: pasta with red sauce, salad, French bread ($4.09)

Said, one of my co-workers, must have been inspired by my lunch yesterday – he’s brown-bagging it for probably the first time since we’ve been on the same crew. Kenny, who lives nearby, runs home to reheat leftovers when neither of us will join him on a 7-Eleven run. I still don’t like turkey sandwiches, but by skipping breakfast and saving my banana for lunch I’ve got a pretty filling meal.

Dinner is a coup de grace in couponing. The Vons online app had a coupon for a free jar of pasta sauce, which I’m supplementing with a 59-cent can of plain tomato sauce. I also had coupons handed out at checkout the previous week for the bread (already mentioned), and for one 16-ounce box of store-brand pasta. Figuring I’m shaving about 50 cents off the $4.62 block of cheese ($2.99/lb), my major cost is $3 for a pre-fab salad kit.

Even without the freebies, this dinner would be cheap, which is why so many challengers seem to fall back on pasta – the noodles themselves would’ve only cost $1 on sale, and for $2 I’d have been able to buy two cans of plain tomato sauce to spice up myself with a few cents’ worth of garlic, salt, and oregano.

My bottle of water mix-in, however, is a caffeinated energy drink variety – no good for drinking in the evening. Nor is the sugar bomb from the juice concentrate I’ve got as an alternative. And I’ve re-acquainted myself with the fact that San Diego tap water is nigh undrinkable without filtration or something to disguise the taste. I run up to the water store with a couple of empty gallon jugs and come back 90 cents poorer – the emergency fund now stands at $4.95, but I’m writing with a full belly and got compliments from the kid on my spaghetti.

Day Three

According to Feeding San Diego, the region’s largest food bank, nearly half a million people in areas served by the group (including San Diego and Imperial Counties) face episodes of ‘food insecurity’ at some point during each month. That includes 153,970 children – San Diego County alone is sixth-worst in the nation in this statistic, with more than 100,000 children dealing with food crises every single month.

“1 in 5 children in San Diego are struggling with hunger,” says Vince Hall, Feeding San Diego’s CEO.

Despite wasting more than 500 million tons of food every year, county residents are forced to miss 71 million meals annually.

Adds Diana Aviv, CEO of Feeding America, Feeding San Diego’s parent association:

“It is disheartening to realize that millions of hardworking, low-income Americans are finding it increasingly difficult to feed themselves and their families at the same time that our economy is showing many signs of improvement, including a substantial decline in the number of people who are unemployed,”

I need more bread. It’s occurred to me that, despite pledging to live a week off of turkey sandwiches by day, I still plan to serve tuna sandwiches for dinner tomorrow. And while there are usually good store-brand bread deals available, the $1.25 special might not be available tomorrow, when the new store ads kick in. I run in after work to pick up another loaf.

Damnit. Grocery store specials run from Wednesday through Tuesday. Whole wheat bread now costs $1.79, 54 cents more than it did yesterday. And I foolishly bought a bottle of iced tea ($1.92) while on the road in my work truck, my lunch and water left in my other car at the job site. I’m down to $1.24.

Breakfast/lunch: more of the same ($3.04)

Dinner: blackened chicken with Mexican spice, pot of black beans, seasoned rice, shredded cheese (approximately $7.25)

Dinner is, so far, the highlight of the week. My experiment with making Mexican rice using just the seasoning I’d bought earlier this week is a flop – it turns out bland, begging for the leftover sliver of my stick of butter that I slathered on the second half of my French bread loaf last night. But the black beans ($1.27 for 0.85 lb, bulk) actually turned out good with just a bit of garlic powder and salt – and after soaking all night and simmering for two hours I’ve got the equivalent of 4 or 5 cans’ worth. With all that and a few pieces of chicken left over, Christina and I will have the makings of a rather enticing reheated late lunch (after a morning of labor I’m in the office for the afternoon in my other, other job in real estate sales and finance).

The journey continues, and even though I’m on the verge of broke we’re so far not just surviving, but thriving. A host of both reasonable and unfair advantages have brought us here, though, and I’ll revisit all of them in closing later.

For now, I’ll remind everyone that we’re fundraising to help connect people in the community with the CalFresh benefits they deserve – again, can you spare a buck or two for a good cause? I’ll double match (two of my dollars to every one of yours) all donations received by 8 p.m. PST on May 12 (the last day of the challenge).

To be concluded…

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar sloanranger May 12, 2017 at 5:47 pm

Just a clue, go brown.
Wise people of the low-income variety know all about brown rice and beans, lots of beans. Seasoned w/onions, garlic, carrots & celery- nutritious & you won’t even miss the meat. 100% whole wheat breadstuffs or any whole grain & or mixture is a necessity too. (This includes pastas).
Read your labels, buy EVERYthing on sale & in season, scrub – don’t peel -and continue using your head. You may just end up healthier.
PS: Most nutritious things are very cheap or even free – nature provides & prepares it that way. Parsley (50 cents-$1) dandelion greens from the grass outside (free & gourmet salad).
But the over arching theme of your article is real, it ain’t easy being green, or eating cheap if you don’t know how: )

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avatar Dave May 13, 2017 at 10:56 pm

Actually some excellent points here, that I’ll hit in my conclusion piece – and of course, as mentioned above, the beans and rice with simple onion and garlic seasoning were the highlight of my week, even better the next day. Thanks for reading!

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avatar nostalgic May 13, 2017 at 11:27 am

Where were you this morning when the rest of us were at Big Lots, shopping for groceries?

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