Healthy Eating on $4/Day in a Food Desert. Is it Possible?
This has been an extremely eye-opening experience already and it has barely begun. For the next month, I will be journaling my experience here in Bankhead. The journal will be my personal journal that is open to the public. For the most part, you’ll read things just as I am feeling them but I’ll write in a manner that lets you into the community and fills you in on the details you’ll need to understand everything that’s going on.
First off for those that don’t know I should tell you what I am doing. For one month I am staying in a neighborhood of Atlanta called Bankhead. My project is to eat on a budget of $4 per day along with my girlfriend Cheryl. That is $120 per month. ($4/ day for each of us) I chose that amount because that is what the average person in the USA receives from SNAP/ food stamps. The idea is to see if I can eat very healthy with this amount of money and to share my experience with others. I’ve written more extensively on this at The Food for All Tour and Eating Healthy in a Food Desert. So if you want to learn more I encourage you to read those articles. I simply want to help people eat healthy when cost and accessibility are issues and to help people overcome the barriers that stand in the way of eating healthy. I strongly believe that every US American should have access to quality, healthy food and I hope that this project helps people who are striving for this. I’m not telling anyone here or anywhere what to do, rather I am creating tools for people who want to eat healthy and could use the inspiration, information, and motivation to do so. I want to break the myths that prevent people from eating healthy. I know that there are massive barriers standing in the way for many people but I believe the greatest barrier plaguing the people of the USA is the myths and preconceived notions surrounding food.
Bankhead is a community where there is very little access to healthy food and many of the people living here have very low income. For many of them, it’s a challenge to be able to afford food at all, whether it is healthy or not. So the idea of being in Bankhead is that if I can learn how to eat healthy here then I can be of assistance to most anyone throughout the USA that is having trouble eating healthy due to accessibility or cost. Although I am in a very low-income neighborhood with low food accessibility the tools that I create over the next month can serve anyone who wants to take back their health. College students on a low budget, busy families with children, single mom, people who can barely afford food, and multi-millionaires will be able to benefit from what I’ll be sharing over the next month. I do want to say again that I am aware of the barriers that people deal with and I am only here to help people overcome those barriers if they want to. I’m not here saying that if I can do it then you can do it because I know that I have a different life from many people. I wrote about this more in the links above so if that is on your mind I encourage you to read more there.
I arrived in Atlanta on July 6th and spent the first 2 nights with Giselle Malluche. She is the founder of a local nonprofit, Change to Humanity and invited me to Atlanta when she learned about the project that I was intending to do. She has the same desires as I do and I’m very excited to be working with her. Giselle set me up with someone who could host my partner, Cheryl, and I for the month and yesterday morning she brought us over here. I had done very little research into the neighborhood and all together had very little knowledge about what was going on here. All I knew for sure was that it is an area where food accessibility and cost are huge barriers to eating healthy. The night before arriving I went on Google and typed in the address to my host’s house. I won’t give the exact address but if you type Bankhead, Atlanta into google maps you’ll see where I am. I’m staying on Donald Lee Hollowell Pkwy.
Before arriving I Googled supermarket and grocery store and quickly saw that where I was going was definitely what people call a “food desert”. One common definition of a food desert is “an urban area in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food.” In an urban area if there is not a grocery store with fresh food within a mile it’s usually considered a food desert. What I saw on the map is that there is not a single grocery store with fresh food in the neighborhood and the nearest are 2.5, 3, and 3.5 miles away, Walmart, Save-A-Lot, and Publix respectively. I did look to see if there was public transportation to one of those stores and was happy to see that there is and it is 20 to 30 minutes to all of them. So it looked like for me I’d be able to get to the stores without too much hassle. I’m guessing that’s not the case for many people and I’ll learn more about this through the people I meet this month.
Here’s a screen shot of typing in supermarket in google maps:
(Note: The place I’m staying is next to the blue M, which is the public transportation stop. Also, the nearest markets that pop up on both of these, I’m pretty sure are just convenience stores with nothing fresh)
And here is the screen shot of typing in grocery store:
We arrived at the house around 11:00 and hadn’t eaten anything yet today so we were quite hungry. After meeting our host James, Cheryl and I walked over to a Family Dollar that we saw on the way over. It was 1.3 miles away, about a 25 minute walk for us. Along the way, we saw a few food marts and gas stations which characterize neighborhoods like this. I’ll explore them more later but I knew I wasn’t going to find anything healthy in there so I stuck to our plan to go to the Family Dollar. I was hoping and sort of assuming they might have some fresh produce (by fresh I mean not in a can or frozen but of course not truly fresh as it would surely have been shipped from a huge farm in some far-off place). When I walked in I asked a man stocking the shelves if there was any fruits or veggies and he said no. I asked if they had any frozen veggies and the answer was also no. After a short conversation, he realized I was trying to find healthy food and he told me I’d have to look really hard to find that.
I looked through the 6 or so aisles and managed to find some of what I was looking for. Rice was the most important thing and I was pleasantly surprised they had whole grain brown rice and it was actually the same price as the white rice. I was hoping for dried lentils but instead found dried Pinto beans and Great Northern beans. Not bad, this would give me ample calories and a fair bit of nutrition. I settled on a can of spinach and a can of beets. Along with that, I got extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, popping corn, and peanuts. The peanuts were mostly because we were really hungry by now and had to have a snack. The really good news is that these foods didn’t have a single chemical ingredient or preservative in them. In fact, they were all only one ingredient except the canned vegetables had just 3 ingredients- the vegetable, salt, and water. We really did have to search the shelves and 99% of the food items (or “food-like substance”) had chemical ingredients and preservatives in there so I was pretty happy to have a fairly nutritious bag of food to walk home with. It’s not top quality food but it’s far more healthy than most options out there.
The total was $17.26 which is over 2 days of our food budget but most of this food will last us much more than 2 days.
This was my first time ever shopping at a Family Dollar:
We ate peanuts on the walk home and then made lunch- rice, spinach, beets, olive oil, and salt.
My reaction was “this is gross.” I quickly gained one of my first understandings. A lot of people think vegetables taste gross and I’ve had a hard time understanding that. But this spinach was mushy and the beets were mostly void of flavor. I understand how people could think vegetables are nasty when this is their experience with vegetables. They don’t even compare with the taste and quality of fresh vegetables, especially vegetables that are local and fresh. I haven’t had canned vegetables in quite a while so this was a bit of an awakening for me.
Most of the rest of the day was spent cleaning our room and the house. Before James lived here, the house had not been lived in for 5 years and he’s living here temporarily so it’s not that important to him to have the place clean. 5 hours of cleaning went a really long way though. I took the plastic bags off the windows which let light in and used a crowbar to pull off the wood that was boarding up some of the windows.
Between the room, kitchen, bathroom, halls, and backyard I was pretty amazed at the transformation in just one day. This is where I learned another great lesson. A messy living setting can easily cloud up your head and make it very hard to be productive and accomplish daily tasks. A clean kitchen is so important for anyone who wants to enjoy cooking and stay motivated. It was so important to put in all that work on the first day to have a comfortable setting for cooking healthy at home. Fresh air in the house and keeping dust and mold to a minimum are such important aspects of great health. I encourage anyone who wants to live with more clarity to de-clutter their house and get rid of all the unnecessary possessions. By getting rid of stuff you won’t be missing out as you’ll gain so much more in freedom from materialism and clutter. Here’s a list of 10 things to get rid of today.
The room when we arrived:
The kitchen where we’ll be making all of our meals:
Because the entire day was consumed by cleaning we didn’t have time to get to a grocery store to get fresh produce or other food so we ate the same thing for dinner as we did for lunch, plus beans.
I must say that the canned veggies were more appealing the second time. When Cheryl and I calculated the cost of day 1’s food we were truly blown away. It was just $3.34 for both of us. That’s $1.67 each which is way below our $4/ day budget. It wasn’t nearly as healthy as I would wish for everyone to eat but I’m quite excited that we managed to not consume a single ingredient that is unrecognizable as food, a single chemical, or any heavily processed food. And for people that say it’s impossible to eat healthy and that McDonald’s and soda are cheaper I’ve already seen that to be totally incorrect. $1.67 is less than 2 items on the dollar menu at McDonald’s. And a 2-liter bottle of soda at Family Dollar was 8 cents more than our whole day of food at $1.75. I won’t draw any conclusions from just a day but I’ve already broken down the idea that it’s cheaper to eat unhealthy in my mind. I believe this is a myth and I am out to dispel this myth.
It was over 90 degrees today and the windows don’t open in the room so I was sweating like crazy while cleaning. I didn’t pay enough attention to my hydration so I was very dehydrated and along with breathing in all the dust was pretty dizzy at the end of the day. It’s so important to hydrate.
Today we used James’s pot but tomorrow I want to go to a thrift store to get all the tools that we need to be able to eat truly healthy. I want to see if it is possible to get everything I would need to cook healthy at thrift stores for under $100. I will be sharing this list of necessary kitchen supplies in an upcoming blog. There will be no fancy tools and over the next 30 days I’ll be sharing how you can eat healthy at home on a tiny budget including cooking videos, recipes, and knowledge to break free from corporate food and toxic foods.
What a day, what a day! It was a slow start because I had a lot of work to catch up with in the morning. I just released episode 1 of my 5 episode Sustainable Living Series and that’s been really time-consuming.
Then in the late morning, I had a few interviews, one for Tea Moderna, a magazine in Macedonia and a sustainable living podcast as well. By the time I had finished all that up it was 2:00 and we hadn’t had a chance to go out and get fresh groceries so it was more rice and canned spinach with olive oil and salt for lunch.
In mid to late afternoon Cheryl and I headed over to the bus station to catch bus 26 over to one of the nearest grocery stores, a Publix. We’re lucky to have a main bus stop just 5 minutes walking from the house and a route that stops about 100 feet from the front door as well. I’m surprised with the extent of the public transportation so far. With that being said the bus only came through every 40 minutes today and we got there minutes after it left. So with that wait, the 25 minute bus ride, plus the walking to the bus and then to the store the trip was probably an hour and fifteen minutes or so. Timed right it could be as little as 40 minutes but definitely a decent chunk of time.
It would have cost $5 just for the round trip ticket to the store which adds a pretty good chunk to the grocery bill but we bought a week unlimited pass for $23.75 which is pretty reasonable if used. I’ll go more into that later. Here we are with our cards to ride the bus and train.
After yesterday’s $17.26 spent we have $222.74 between us for the rest of the month. I hadn’t done much research before heading to the store but I was sure that I’d be able to get most of what I need at a reasonable price. I have always strived to eat healthy on a minimal budget to set an example of what others could do but I have never done anything to this extent. To see what I normally strive to eat you can check out From Clueless Consumer to Real Food Dude. It shows what I normally try to eat now as well as the transformation from when I used to eat a lot of junk food and really never thought about what I was putting in my body. I had a good idea of what I would buy at the grocery store but it was definitely new territory for me to really count the dollars and cents. We spent 2 hours in the store and walked down almost every aisle in the store. With the average grocery store in the USA stocking about 40,000 items it’s no simple task to see it all. All went well for the first hour or so of getting the dried goods I had in mind- rice, beans, lentils, oats, wheat flour, flax seed, sunflower seeds, apple cider vinegar, and some spices. I was able to find mostly everything I wanted and these items are pretty inexpensive just about everywhere in the country. Things got a little trickier when I got to the produce section though. Looking at the fruits and vegetables I became a little overwhelmed because I didn’t know if I could really afford it. Sure I could afford some for the week but I didn’t know what I could manage to buy that would work into a budget of $4/day for the whole month. I hadn’t done any calculations so I was a little bit in the dark in the produce section.
The sure bet that I knew I could afford was potatoes, onions, and garlic so I stocked up on them first. Ultimately we settled on kale, broccoli, bananas, apples, crookneck squash, zucchini, green cabbage, red cabbage, and ginger. I really am not sure if this will fit into my budget in the long run but I didn’t buy enough to derail me in anyway if not. There was the option of frozen veggies which may be cheaper but I really wanted fresh veggies. I’ll do the math and see what the difference is at some point this month. Because this endeavor was pretty lengthy we bought a box of cereal to eat while shopping. It was a splurge but not anything unreasonable.
The total bill rang up to $75.82 which is 31.6% of our budget for the month, or just under 1/3rd. Here is the receipt:
And here is a photo of everything we purchased (except for the apple cider vinegar which we forgot to put in the photo).
Besides the cereal and the curry powder everything we purchased is just one single ingredient. And everything is also very healthy except for the sugar which will only be used to make ginger beer. Not bad at all! I’ll talk more about the sugar in the upcoming days but what’s important to know for now is that in the process of making ginger beer the sugar is consumed by the fermentation process so we won’t actually be consuming it. I don’t recommend refined sugar to anyone who wants to eat healthy.
Leaving the store I decided to check my receipt to make sure I wasn’t overcharged for anything and sure enough there were three items that were more expensive than I had thought. This was the black beans, apples, and sunflower seeds. I went back inside and the black beans turned out to be correct but both the apples and sunflower seeds were charged at $4.99 instead of $3.99. I went to customer service and because of the mistake he gave me both items for free. I’m still going to include them in the cost though. So the bill was $73.92 after the correction. With yesterday’s groceries the total spent is up to $91.82 and we have $148.18 left. One of my tips to eating healthy on a budget is to always check your receipt to make sure you weren’t over billed. This happened to me when I was in New Orleans a few weeks ago so I’m wondering how common this might happen to people. I’ll be writing out a list of tips for grocery shopping in the upcoming days.
Even though we’ve already spent 38% of our budget I feel comfortable since we are really stocked up on staples. Plus some of what we’ve bought, such as the salt and spices, is actually a multiple months supply. Tomorrow I’ll do the calculations on what we’ll be able to afford for fresh produce. I’ll also be looking into options for fresh produce such as farmers markets and local gardeners.
By the time we got home it was 7:30 which meant that it took over 4 hours to get to and from the grocery store and go shopping. This was an educational experience so it didn’t have to take that long at all and I’m in general a pretty slow moving guy but I can see how a trip to the store for people who take public transportation can turn into a pretty long trip. Then again it can be pretty long for people who live out in the country or people who drive in areas with a lot of traffic too.
Upon arriving home Cheryl got to cooking and I began the project of cleaning out the fridge. It was pretty dirty and I wanted to get it nice and clean before putting any food into it. The fridge was transformed in under an hour and then Cheryl and I were eating a dinner of potato and onion in olive oil, pinto beans and onion in olive oil, and a salad of kale, apple, crookneck squash, sunflower seeds, apple cider vinegar, and the rest of the canned spinach.
I didn’t get in all my servings of fruit and vegetable today but I hope to be on track with that within a day or so once I do the math on whether we can afford it. (Correction: I actually did get over 5 servings of fruits and veggies. I’m just used to eating a lot more I guess) All in all the food we ate today cost a total of $9.87 which is $4.94 each. The cereal that we ate at the grocery store was $3.30 of that so without that we’d have been under the budget. Cheryl went pretty heavy on the olive oil today too, 7 tbs at $.13 each. We’re getting adjusted though so it’s OK that we went over today. Between the two of us we consumed about 5,160 calories or 2,630 each which is probably a fair amount more than needed. I probably ate more like 3,000 to Cheryl’s 2,000. 1,300 of the total calories came from the cereal so without that cereal again we’d have been solid for the day. I’m not normally one to count calories and it’s not something that I necessarily recommend but I am doing it this month sheerly as a measurement of the amount of food that we are putting into our bodies to see if we are able to afford enough to meet what a person tends to need.
I’m really excited to start fermenting foods as this adds an incredible amount of nutrition to food. I’ll be making sauerkraut with the cabbage, ginger beer with the ginger root and sugar, and sourdough bread with the wheat flour. I’ll be writing more about that soon and will be posting videos on how to make your own fermented foods within the month.
I’m feeling very hopeful with what I am seeing so far but I have so much more to learn and to see here in Bankhead. I will be posting a blog a few times per week so stay tuned if you want to learn more.