Now that Lent is over and we’ve experimented with different ways of doing the Food Stamp Challenge, here are some things I learned:

  1. It’s possible to eat nutritiously enough on $4.50/day. It’s not easy, but it is possible.
  2. It’s no fun – unless you consider constant calculations, boring food, and self-denial fun. Yes, it was a challenge, and in that sense I had a feeling of accomplishment, but I wouldn’t want to eat this way voluntarily for long. With the exception of a glass of OJ in the morning, we only drank water. We had no snacks or desserts and little meat or comfort foods. We had no alcohol except for the one date night. Probably the hardest part was all the calculating and constant attention to what I ate.
  3. An additional challenge for a middle class person like myself was to decide how to be faithful to the spirit of the challenge on the weeks when strict adherence was not practical. For example, I made exceptions on weeks #5 and #6 when hosting guests, traveling, and taking advantage of other’s hospitality.
  4. One strict week is probably enough for a consciousness raising experience. One month, however, would more closely approximate the actual lifestyle of avoiding comfort foods and expensive foods.
  5. It takes strong motivation, self-discipline, and knowledge to eat nutritiously, not just relieve hunger. The motivation can come from a religious commitment, social justice awareness, or necessity. Self-discipline is the same quality that it takes to be successful in school or a job. Many people who are on Food Stamps, however, are also hindered by poor education, a disrupted family life, mental illness, etc. so self-discipline may not be an acquired life skill. Knowledge can come from reading about nutrition or from a parent, relative, or culture that passes down healthy survival skills. There are many reasons a person might be on Food Stamps (loss of job, an illness, a financial emergency, or just plain bad decisions and an unhealthy lifestyle.) Some things are controllable. Others are not.
  6. Although we did not calculate our food expenditures for the two weeks we were in Afghanistan and India, I noticed that few people in those countries looked overly thin or overweight. They appeared healthy. When we asked about how they stayed fit, they said they walked a lot – because they had to. Of course appearances can be deceiving. It could just be that the sick or emaciated people weren’t walking the streets. The week in India consisted of rice and a sauce plus some vegetables for most meals. It could easily qualify under the Food Stamp budget.
  7. In some ways it would have been harder with children; in other ways easier. Children are pickier eaters and prone to complaining. More mouths to feed, however, would have helped the economy of scale.
  8. If you know how to get enough protein, being a vegetarian brings food costs down since meat was an expensive ingredient. Of course so were fresh vegetables and fruits, but they stretched further.
  9.  This was not a pure experiment in that it was temporary and voluntary. We had friends who treated us occasionally and had access to a stocked pantry and knowledge about nutrition. We also did not have the emotional or psychological stress of wondering where our next meal would come from. Moreover we were free to make a couple exceptions when circumstances warranted.
  10. I did take a daily multi-vitamin – as insurance. Vitamins are not covered with Food Stamps.