Eating on $7 per day

I mentioned last week that this week I was participating in the United Way Hunger Challenge, and this morning it officially began. The goal of this challenge isn’t to go hungry… it’s to raise awareness of low income families and the struggles they face when trying to feed themselves and their families. Low income families can qualify for up to $7 per day in food stamps for a single person (more on a graduated scale for families). This is intended not to cover all food purchases, merely to supplement them. In reality, however, it often does come down to a trade off between food and other necessities, leaving just the food stamps to cover breakfast, lunch and dinner.

As I started this challenge, I had high hopes of planning out each meal and meticulously documenting each step of the way. Well, it’s now Monday evening, and I’m afraid I’ve already blown that part. Although I have a rough idea of what I’ll be eating the rest of the week, I certainly don’t have what you’d call a plan. Not like many of the other participants. But, I do feel like I’m well on track for eating basically like I normally eat within the budget.

The day started out with my normal West Coast macchiato. I know, it’s a luxury, but it’s one that I can actually fit in the budget. Because I roast my own beans, my espresso only comes to about 20 cents and I only use about 2 tablespoons of milk. Don’t worry… I’m not fooling myself. I can only afford to make coffee that inexpensively because I have a crazy number of home appliances. I do have a nice espresso machine, burr grinder and even a coffee roaster that I would be very unlikely to have if I had been living below the poverty line for a significant period of time. Rules-wise within the challenge, using any home appliances is ok, although Cam and I have had several discussions about whether that’s truly living up to the spirit of the week. Finally, we agreed it was my one luxury item and called it good at that.

The other thing I should point out is that one of the rules was to not use any food you already had in your house. To me, this rule made no sense because one of the things that you’d have to do to make a budget like $7 per day work is to buy things like bags of flour and decent sized bottles of oil and vinegar (or bags of green coffee beans). Things that would be hard to go through entirely during the week of the challenge. I posted a comment to the UW hunger challenge blog asking if it was ok to use things that were already in your house if you accounted for them appropriately. The good news that came back was yes, it was fine to do that as long as you assigned everything a fair value. So, unlike some of the other participants, I’m not going to be showing a big pile of groceries that I bought for my $35. Instead, I’ll account for everything dish by dish in the portions used. Of course, I’ll also say that for me, I have a whole arsenal of bulk products that could make for a very diverse week of food… I’ll try to stick to the basics to keep within the spirit.

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For breakfast, besides the macchiato I also baked up a 1lb loaf of bread and ate a couple of slices. Plain, no butter or jam. Just the bread… and you know what? It was awesome. I had picked up the “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day” cookbook the other day and I have to say, despite my first cynical inclination to poo-poo it (it’s not really 5 minutes a day), I am now a huge fan. Although I do actually like to knead my bread, I also love the idea of always having bread dough at the ready in the fridge, building flavor, and ready to go at a minutes hours notice. Yes, it’s true. You do need at least an hour to go from the refrigerated dough to the lovely, crisp crust and custard center… but really, that’s not asking for much. The bread is really good and I still have dough for somewhere between 4 and 5 loaves humming away nicely that can wait up to about 14 days. The thing I really like about the bread (which is basically the same as the no knead bread recipe that has been around the net for forever now) is it is something that anyone can do. It doesn’t take much fancy equipment (a pizza stone of a cast iron pot is nice, but not a requirement) or special ingredients or even very much active time (most of the time is spent just waiting around for the dough to do it’s thing). The author’s have a blog so you can get even more insights to their recipes.

One thing I’ll say as I was baking up the bread… bread baking can be a tricky thing. And, on a budget, that can be rather intimidating. What if something went wrong and the bread was just a big hard lump? I don’t get to just “do over” without giving up something else. Living on a tight budget means being careful of risks, something that I realized I have a luxury of whenever I cook. If the dough doesn’t rise or the veggies get burned or the dog eats the chicken… well, I just start over.

OK. On to lunch. (really, you are still reading! Thanks!!!) I don’t normally eat lunch (or breakfast beyond my coffee for that matter) but instead just nibble away at things as I pass in and out of the kitchen. A bag of nuts on the counter. A piece of fruit or cheese. A leaf or two of arugula as I pass it in the garden.

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Today, I decided to stick with the rules of the challenge and make a simple salad. I had a head of butter lettuce from my CSA (btw – anyone need anything from a CSA this week? Because I can’t eat most of it within budget… tweet me and let me know) and used about 1/2 of it, along with some shredded carrot and a simple vinaigrette of shallot, lemon juice, salt, pepper and grapeseed oil. Another slice of bread rounded it out, and I enjoyed it all while sitting in the sun on this beautiful day in Seattle. Yum! Maybe I’ll have to try this whole eating lunch thing more often. I got so excited about the whole sitting down and eating lunch thing, I decided to make a dessert of lunch as well… simple caramelized apples.

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Simply cut an apple in half, scoop out the seeds and dust it lightly with sugar. Normally, I’d use a bit of cinnamon too, but that starts to make the budget math even harder so I left it out this time. Heat up about 1 teaspoon of butter in a small frying pan and place the apple cut side down and place it in a preheated 350F oven. Cook for about 10 minutes in the oven, and then move it to the stove top. Cook on medium high until the cut side is a lovely and caramelized. I left it off this time, but I like these with a little squeeze of lemon juice.

Of course, I still have dinner ahead of me. I’ll post about that (along with total $ of everything from Day 1) tomorrow. It’s also not too late to join in! Even if you can’t do the whole week, trying for a day or two to help raise awareness is great.

  • http://www.familyfriendlyfood.com/ Nurit – 1 family. friendly. food.

    to make challa bread and that’s what I have baking in the oven right now. I’m also taking the challenge and found that even though I tried to plan ahead carefully for our family of 4, I did not have enough money left to buy my favorite artisanal breads. And I love to shop at Whole Foods, so…
    We are not big breakfast and lunch eaters either. But dinner is another story. This week they are still going to be good but more modest, mainly less variety.
    I’ll check back again.
    By the way, which bread is the one in the photo? It looks so good.
    Nurit

  • http://www.cookandeat.com/ L

    Hi Nurit – Challah is delicious. Hope yours is delicious!

    My bread is just a super basic rustic loaf. All purpose flour, yeast, salt and water. It really needed to rest a while longer… the crumb was pretty dense. But, I only had so much time before I had to take my daughter to school this morning.

    Good luck with the rest of your week!
    -L

  • http://hecooksshecooks.net Brittany (He Cooks She Cooks)

    This should be a good exercise for you and readers. I’ve actually been terrible about keeping track of how much I spend on food daily. I’m a college student, and almost always eat dinner with friends so we take turns whose house we go to, bring ingredients for each other and generally share everything. It’s not calculated, but it always feels even. Anyway, this got me thinking that I really ought to pay more attention. I look forward to hearing more about your experience.

  • http://junglefrog-cooking.com Simone (junglefrog)

    I think this is really a great exercise. I’m going on a vacation this week to Italy so there is no way I’m going to be able to do the challenge during this week, but I think this is something worth doing regardless of the challenge week. At some point it becomes so easy to be able to buy things that you forget that it’s not so easy for everyone. Plus with the crisis going on there is still a good chance that it might be happening to us too. What better way to be aware and prepare ourselves then this challenge?

  • http://joannasfood.blogspot.com Joanna

    Interesting project … and I like your response to it. Making delicious bread, the staff of life, after all. And you are quite right about the risk of cooking. On the other hand, I learnt to cook decades ago when I had no money – it sharpens your responses. Just one thing – I’m less worried about the luxury of making coffee how you like it than I am about your turning on the oven so much …. what about a bit of batch cooking, to save energy, as that comes into the equation when you’re truly on the breadline

    Looking forward to the rest of the week’s posts
    Joanna

    PS LOVE that thing with the apple

  • http://www.agnespterry.deviantart.com jill

    I told my mother about this challenge and she looked at me sideways like I was crazy. “It’s not that difficult to eat on $7 a day, we do it all the time.” Which is true: we make a lot of food and eat leftovers for lunches, I always pack lunch to college instead of ordering out, and we manage to stretch food a lot with stirfries, soups, chilies, not to mention homemade bread (which is not that hard to make, exceptions being artisan French Bread and sourdoughs). While the initial cost of purchasing food can be expensive, one has to take into account how much is eaten per meal by each person, and the cost is defrayed.

    Also, we get to buy all our spices from a Mennonite bulk food store, so the cost of that lessens too. Fruits, vegetables, and meats are the most expensive part of any diet, but canned beans and tomatoes (or dried beans) and seasonings easily stretch the meats which should be purchased when they are on sale anyway.

    I’ll have to try the apple desert. It looks really good!

  • http://foodonthebrain.wordpress.com Jessamyn

    This is an interesting challenge, but I personally have sort of a “been there, done that” feeling about it. When I was in college I spent hardly any money at all on food, eating mostly beans, potatoes, cabbage, and homemade granola. It was monotonous, but very very cheap.

    I definitely agree with your point about using food already on hand. I buy staples in bulk, and always have spices and baking ingredients on the shelf. It would cost rather a lot to have to buy everything just for a particular week.

    Eating lunch is one of life’s great joys, aren’t you glad you’ve discovered it?

  • http://www.cookandeat.com/ L

    Joanna – energy costs are definitely one of the other aspects that I feel that I am “cheating” on by not factoring in the costs… especially with the rising costs of fuel. As you pointed out, there are all those appliances that get turned on and off… but there are also costs like trips to the store (I really like to buy my fresh stuff on the day I need it… but it’s not very often I do it by pedal power).

    Jill – Your mom is right, that it isn’t that hard once you start and get into the right patterns. However, if you aren’t, it is amazing how quickly you can exceed a budget, even when you aren’t buying junk food. The can of tomatoes that I like to use in my pasta sauce (San Marzanos) costs $6! Sure, it makes more sauce than one person can eat, but as I’m watching what I cook this week, I suddenly realize how much I really never noticed about our food costs.

    Jessamyn – I think one of the things I’m trying to do is to watch my budget and somehow manage to keep the food choices interesting. I think it is possible… it is definitely do-able on a longer term than a single week where accounting for spices can be challenging.

    Thanks all for your comments!

  • http://www.mattikaarts.com/blog matt wright

    bravo to ya lara. Certainly not an easy challenge, but certainly an important one. I am really interested to hear how you fair for the whole week, and what magic you come up with in the kitchen.

    I am with you about lunch, mainly for me it’s a time thing. Recently thought I have been making a big batch of lentils vinaigrette and an olive tapenade at the weekend that lasts all week – especially with a simple salad, cheese and bread.

  • http://foodonthebrain.wordpress.com Jessamyn

    Lara –

    You’re right, it would be much more of a challenge to eat both cheaply and interestingly. I already use the freezer a lot, make my own stock, grow my own herbs and garlic, eat leftovers for lunch, shop sales, and am generally a tightwad by nature, but I’m fairly sure it’s been years since we spent less than $150 a week for the two of us.

    Best of luck!

  • http://superchef-mirchmasala.blogspot.com SuperChef

    you are off to a good start here and you managed to make caramelised apples as well!! wow!!

    Im in the challenge as well and it is interesting to see what everyone is coming up with. Will keep visiting :)

  • Ira Sacharoff

    For those who don’t own a coffee roaster, you can roast coffee easily and evenly using an automatic bread maker and a heat gun. Yes, the thing that’s used to remove paint. I’ve been roasting this way for a couple of years after my coffee roaster died, and it’s every bit as good.

  • chef monsta

    I love this post. What a great way to be recession conscious while still making healthful food choices. Keep up the good work!

    http://www.chefmonsta.blogspot.com

  • http://thestonesoup.com jules

    great idea L. good luck with the rest of the week.

  • Sylvia

    My husband and I did a similar challenge a while back, we tried to feed our family on $10 a day for a month. Not only did we do that, but we made a rule that we couldn’t repeat a meal! We had to get really creative, but it was fun to see what we could come up with. The budget thing is really hard too!
    -Sylvia

  • http://www.crunchylettuce.com Jennie

    Great idea and thread. I’ve kept up a raw food blog for several months now, but I’m about to start a new blog where I eat under $10/day vegetarian. Although I’d LOVE to be able to get down to $200/month or $7/day. Glad I found this thread! I think it’s doable.

    And one guy’s comment about olive tapenade and lentils vinaigrette has me interested in finding recipes for those. Sounds right up my alley!