Dining on a dollar a day
A California couple’s experiment in extreme food budgeting taught them a lot about how the poor eat.
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“How do you calculate that into the price of food?” asks Greenslate.Skip to next paragraph
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In the end, they bought a six-pack of romaine lettuce hearts for $2.79 and a 10-pound bag of carrots for $4.49. To stay within their budget, the couple could eat a “salad” each day consisting of a quarter of a heart of romaine and a quarter of a carrot.
Greenslate says the producers asked them to go to Smart & Final, a warehouse grocery store where they shopped while on the diet, and re-create what they did in September. “It felt a little silly,” says Leonard. “We were pushing the cart down the aisle looking for food we’re not buying anymore.”
Their story took hours of filming, including an in-depth interview about poverty, but ended up as a short segment inserted amid stories about Britney Spears’s birthday party, a Victoria’s Secret fashion show, and a walrus playing a saxophone. Yet any publicity about poverty is good publicity, Greenslate says, and the couple’s project has inspired others to try to live on less, to shop more wisely, or to give more to charity. One of Greenslate’s students decided to forgo showering until he raised $1,000 for the homeless. The comments on their website – which has had more than 700,000 visitors – are overwhelmingly positive. Many continue to share recipes and money-saving tips.
There are some critics, of course. One chastised the couple for living off peanut butter and Tang (which they drank for the vitamin C) when they could “forage for really wonderful things” instead. “Pine needles are a better source of vitamin C than oranges, which are everywhere!”
On a more somber note,“Carleeny” wrote, “The only thing that disturbs me about this is the idea that you think this is ‘inspirational’ and ‘new.’ I’ve been living off about $20 a month for food. It’s called ‘welfare.’ ”
Carleeny has a point. Greenslate and Leonard may have tried living in food poverty for a month, but they did not live in true poverty, says Susanne Freidberg, an associate professor of geography at Dartmouth College who studies the political economy of food.
“They were able to do research and then get in their car and buy a 25-pound bag of cornmeal at the right store for the lowest price. I think if you are that poor, you are buying one cup of flour, an eighth of a head of cabbage, and a little baggie of vegetable oil. On that scale, you’re not getting the food as cheaply,” she says. In many poor countries it’s not just the food people cannot afford but also the fuel for cooking, says Freidberg. “There is such a vast variation worldwide in terms of how people live that ‘eating on a dollar a day’ isn’t really meaningful.
“If you live on a dollar a day and you have land and enough hands to work it and the rains are good, the dollar is irrelevant. If you live in a city and depend on the market for food, then you are really suffering.”
Undeterred, the couple has moved onto their next project, a book about the cost of eating well in America. Research will involve a series of experiments including eating on $1.50 a day. The last one, says Greenslate, will involve meeting with a nutritionist and devising a diet that permits him and Leonard to let go of budget constraints and eat whatever is good for them.
As for the experiment that started it all, they say it has changed their relationship with food. “Overall we eat less now. I realized I was raised to overeat my whole life. Now our meals are much smaller than they used to be,” says Greenslate. “And so are our grocery bills.”