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Difference Maker

Dining on a dollar a day

A California couple’s experiment in extreme food budgeting taught them a lot about how the poor eat.

By Correspondent / December 29, 2008

Cheap eats: During their experiment in low-cost eating, Kerri Leonard and Christopher Greenslate blogged and helped raise money for charity. They bought in bulk to meet their budget of $1 a day apiece.

The San Diego Union Tribune/ZUMA


Encinitas, Calif.

Encinitas, Calif.

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At first glance, there’s nothing extraordinary about the kitchen in Christopher Greenslate’s house: plenty of cabinets, colorful tile countertops, an island in the center with a few stools, and the requisite KitchenAid. It’s not until you see several green bins with bright orange lids lined up against the wall labeled “cornmeal, $.51 per lb. 1 cup = $.19” and “rice, .51 per lb., 1 cup = $.22,” and the large sacks of potatoes, onions, flour, and pinto beans, that you realize something unusual is going on.

Those bins and bags – as well as a handful of clear plastic storage containers inside the cabinets – are what remains of an experiment Mr. Greenslate and his partner, Kerri Leonard, conducted in September. The couple, who are both teach English and social justice in southern California high schools, tried to live for one month eating no more than a dollar’s worth of food a day each. (That required buying in bulk; hence the green bins.) Although the project ultimately raised the public’s awareness of poverty and hunger, it started out as a way to lower the couple’s food bill.

“Kerri noticed it was pretty high, about $100 to $150 a week. We were buying prepackaged foods, frozen foods, soy milk, lots of organic fruits and vegetables,” says Greenslate. (He and Leonard are vegans and do not eat animal products.) When they compared their own food costs with the international poverty rate – $1.25 today, according to the World Bank – Greenslate says they were astonished. “Here we were spending all this money on food every week, and the contrast between that and what those in poverty live on was stark. I wondered if we could actually feed ourselves on a dollar a day,” he says.

In September they began eating less and blogging about it on their website. In the beginning, Greenslate was hungrier than Leonard. But after the first three or four days, “I had more energy, and my appetite decreased,” he says.

By the second week, however, it had become much harder. “There were days where I would hold onto my lectern in class because I felt too lightheaded. It became harder and harder.”

Leonard daydreamed about food. “I would look through my cookbooks thinking, ‘I wish we could have that tonight.’ It was like window shopping,” she says Greenslate lost 14 pounds that month; Leonard lost five.
Preparing meals could take hours. Almost everything had to be made from scratch, including bread, tortillas, refried beans, and wheat gluten steaks.

These “steaks” are a meat alternative, about the size of a sand dollar, made from flour, water, and a splash of white vinegar. Leonard opens the freezer and takes a lumpy steak out of a plastic bag to demonstrate. She and Greenslate would fry them in water and soy sauce, with chili flakes and chopped onion.

Many people who heard about their experiment mistakenly believed the two were actually eating more healthily than before, because of the lack of processed food. “No way,” says Greenslate. “We were eating from the white group: white flour, white rice, potatoes. There’s no diversity.”

They could not afford fruits and vegetables. Other than some lemons pilfered from a neighbor’s tree, the only fresh fruit or vegetables they ate came from Costco, and that only after a heated 20-minute debate about whether they could shop there, because it requires a membership fee of $50.