Dining on a dollar a day

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

The San Diego Union Tribune/ZUMA
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.

Encinitas, Calif.

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.

“How do you calculate that into the price of food?” asks Greenslate.

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 and Leonard have gotten a fair amount of media attention in the past three months, even appearing in December on the CBS television show “Inside Edition.”

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.”

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