Liberty Food Challenge Log
by Ari Armstrong
This document contains all of the notes from the August, 2007, "Liberty and Prosperity Challenge," during which Ari and Jennifer Armstrong will spend no more than $3 per person per day for food. (This is in response to the earlier Food Stamp Challenge, meant to promote more tax spending on food stamps.) The posts are published in reverse chronological order. **Disclaimer: The author is not trained in nutrition or medicine. None of these comments is intended as nutritional advice. Consult a trained professional for any question or action regarding nutrition, medicine, or health.**
August 31, 8:45 p.m.
Our monthly food challenge comes to an end. We spent a total of $159.04 for food, or $2.57 per person per day. Rounding to the nearest dollar, that puts us $21 under our maximum budget of $180. The Food Stamp Challenge allowed a budget of $3.57 per day, the equivalent of $221 for the month for two. We beat that by $62. The most relevant figure, though, is the real food-stamp budget for a family of two, which is $284 (archived). We beat that by $125.
Obviously, $125 (or even $62 or $21) would have gone a long way toward adding more variety to our diet. With $125 more, we could have purchased all the fresh, leafy vegetables, walnuts, and high-quality meat and dairy we wanted.
I seriously doubt that we'll spend more than $284 per month for a month's groceries after August, except that going out to eat may bring the total a little higher for some months. We're striving to meet some financial goals, and so we're deal-seekers as a matter of course.
One of the budget-saving things we normally do is buy in bulk. Often we buy foods that we eat over a period of many months. Dried, canned, and frozen foods all last at least for months. Thus, normally we buy in bulk what we find on sale. Our ability to do that in August was severely limited. Thus, cost savings are easier with longer-term budgets.
Despite our self-imposed handicaps for August, we ate a diet of above-average nutrition, as promised. True, we didn't get our calorie counts right for the first nine days of the month, but as soon as I recognized the problem we corrected it within budget. Our experience this month would allow us to repeat the exercise without any problems whatsoever.
At the beginning of the month, I weighed around 164 pounds (unclothed), then dropped to 159 pounds by August 9. However, today I was back up to 162 pounds. So that puts me down around two pounds for the month. Jennifer experienced a similar weight fluctuation. However, as we began to weigh ourselves more frequently, it struck me how much weight can fluctuate from day to day. My plan is to keep slowly putting weight back on, probably until I'm somewhat heavier than I was before August.
I ran into three issues I didn't expect. First, I needed to learn more about nutrition. My pre-August diet wasn't as good as I thought it was, I learned, and I need to make some changes for the future. Second, tracking and recording the diet took a lot longer than I anticipated. Third, going without free food is a much greater hassle than I anticipated. My wife passed up free food (whether a little or a lot) at her office every work day of the month. She didn't even drink the bottled water. I walked right by the food samples at grocery stores. And we couldn't eat anything at friends' houses. A few days ago I gave an informal talk about the diet -- the event was held at a restaurant, where I had to forego the free chips. Of course, people who are actually poor need not pass up free food.
We also had several dollars worth of food left over. Here is a list of the remaining food:
In all, the month's diet was an educational experience for us, and we proved the point we set out to prove.
The Consequences of Welfare
For more information about the numbers of children born out of wedlock, see Unmarried Childbearing by the National Center for Health Statistics. One chart is titled, "Nonmarital childbearing by detailed race and Hispanic origin of mother, and maternal age: United States, selected years 1970-2004."
In 1970, 10.7 percent of all births were to unmarried mothers. In 2004, the percent was 35.8. The scariest trend is for blacks: the percent went from 37.5 percent in 1970 to 68.8 percent in 2004. (Two slightly different sets of statistics are given.)
These numbers are truly frightening. This is a social problem of grave magnitude, the sort of problem that's enough to make a person fear for the future of our civilization, should the trends continue. It's a much greater problem than, say, global warming, yet the media have devoted probably thousands of times more coverage to the latter issue.
Of course, not all out-of-wedlock births are a problem. Many single women have the resources and character to raise children responsibly. Others can rely upon a relative or friend to help out. Yet what fraction of the children born to single mothers in 2004 will grow up in an unstable, unsupportive environment? And it is clear that the welfare state has played more than a minor role in creating the problem.
August 29, 10:00 p.m.
While poking around on the internet, I found WebMD's list of 25 Top Heart-Healthy Foods.
The page states that "fresh produce provide the cornerstone for a heart-healthy diet because they help wipe out free radicals in the bloodstream, protecting blood vessels." A doctor promotes a "whole-foods diet" of eating food "in its natural form," unprocessed. Fresh fruits and vegetables provide "phytonutrients that prevent and repair damage to cells. That's the essence of preventing heart disease." The page continues, "Whole grains, beans and legumes, nuts, fatty fish, and teas are just as important -- offering all sorts of complex heart-protective phytonutrients."
The list contains familiar foods such as salmon, flax, oatmeal, black beans, nuts, red wine, and blueberries. I was somewhat surprised (pleasantly) to see brown rice and carrots on the list. I was pleased to see cantaloupe on the list, as we've been eating a lot of that lately, and particularly pleased to see dark chocolate. The page recommends "70% or higher cocoa content." I love dark chocolate, so that's great by me (though it is a bit more expensive).
The Mormon Food Distribution System
I do not approve of the teachings of the Mormons or of any religion. But I am impressed by the Mormons' sense of community and family, their preparedness, and their sensible charitable work.
Electa Draper wrote an interesting article on August 28 for The Denver Post titled, "LDS's can-do spirit: From its canneries to its charities, Mormon Church helps others help selves."
The article states, "The Mormons have built a network of 751 storehouses, canneries, thrift stores, family-services providers, and employment and literacy centers to serve 13 million members worldwide. ... In Aurora, a Mormon welfare complex called the Bishop's Storehouse sprawls over 48,000 square feet below four towering grain silos."
Yet the Mormons' charitable work promotes "an underlying principle of self-reliance." Lynn Southam told the Post, "Those who get this help are expected to work for it. It is always temporary help. Anyone who thinks that the church is there for a free lunch day after day would be sorely disappointed."
That deserves a hearty "Amen."
Victims of the Welfare State
In his August 28 column, Vincent Carroll of the Rocky Mountain News relates some frightening statistics:
"[F]athering children out of wedlock is very much legal and very much socially accepted. Indeed, it is accepted to the point that 37 percent of all babies -- nearly a quarter among whites, 45 percent among Hispanics and nearly 70 percent among blacks -- are born to single moms. Meanwhile, this epidemic of missing-in-action fathers is a social calamity, especially for lower-income America where the pattern is so much more common and the need for stable male role models so much more acute."
Put simply, the welfare state, in conjunction with a myriad of other political controls that depress economic opportunities and reward irresponsibility, is fostering an underclass in America.
More Views on Nutrition
Yet again, I urge readers to heed the disclaimer above. Today I was talking to a health-care professional, and she shared with me several of her views on nutrition. She recommended The Glycemic Load Diet, a book that I've placed on order.
She thought that, while we do need to eat some saturated fat, we need to eat quite a lot less fat overall than what others previously mentioned recommend. I'll keep evaluating different views on the matter. It remains clear, however, that we do need many grams of good fats every day; the disagreement is over how many grams.
Finally, she had some bad words to say about potatoes, claiming that potatoes contain carbohydrates that are too-quickly absorbed by the body without sufficient fiber to slow the absorption. So here's the skinny from NutritionData.com. A medium potato (baked with the skin, for 173 grams) contains 37 grams of carbohydrates, 4 grams of protein, 161 calories, and 4 grams of dietary fiber. The listing under carbohydrates breaks down to 3.8 grams of dietary fiber, 29.9 grams of starch, and 2 grams of sugars.
The estimated glycemic load for a potato is 16, maybe. Elsewhere the glycemic load for a potato is listed as 28, "considered high." (A description of the scale is provided at the link.)
What about brown rice (which makes WebMD's list of heart-healthy foods -- see above)? One cup of cooked brown rice (195 grams) contains 45 grams of carbohydrates, 5 grams of protein, 216 calories, and 4 grams of dietary fiber. The carb breakdown appears to be similar.
The estimated glycemic load for a cup of cooked brown rice is alternately 21 or 23, also "considered high."
So, offhand, I'm willing to continue to give the lowly potato the benefit of the doubt, at least when eaten whole and in moderation.
At least the American Diabetes Association isn't quite so down on carbohydrates, including starches:
The message today: Eat more whole grains! Whole grains and starches are good for you because they have very little fat, saturated fat, or cholesterol. They are packed with vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Yes, foods with carbohydrate -- starches, vegetables, fruits, and dairy products -- will raise your blood glucose more quickly than meats and fats, but they are the healthiest foods for you. Your doctor may need to adjust your medications when you eat more carbohydrates. You may need to increase your activity level or try spacing carbohydrates throughout the day.
So the point remains somewhat confused. A couple points remain clear, though: both the quantity and preparation of the food matters. Eating half of a baked potato as part of a balanced meal is different from eating a plate full of skinless mashed potatoes or french fries. In addition, it seems likely to me that it matters what else is eaten with the food. Doesn't a potato with a large meal containing protein and fat have a different effect than when eaten alone? I'll continue to look into the matter.
It does seem apparent, though, that potatoes should be eaten in limited amounts. On the other hand, I have heard of no limit (other than stomach capacity) in which fresh, leafy vegetables may be healthily eaten.
August 25, 3:00 p.m. -- Reply to Robert I. Laitres
While I appreciate letters in response to articles that I've written or co-written, writers of letters should at least make some effort to get their basic facts straight. Unfortunately, in his August 22 letter in response to the August 20 article by my dad Linn and me, Robert I. Laitres gets all of the significant facts wrong. At issue is the food challenge that is the subject of this document.
Laitres claims that we're "feeding [ourselves] on $3.75 a day." Yet the column correctly states that we "are spending all of August eating for less than $3 per day while accepting no free food." If Laitres had bothered to check this web page, which is noted in the column, he'd have seen the same figure in the top paragraph. If he'd read a bit further, he also would have noticed that as much as $284 per month is available in food stamps to a two-person household, yet we're eating for less than $180. (The figure $3.75 did appear in the paper's version of the article with respect to the original "Food Stamp Challenge," but that's a misprint. The correct figure is $3.57.)
Laitres claims that we "undoubtedly 'shop around' for best prices. In order to get there and back to those 'deals,' they undoubtedly drive and probably to more than one location. They can afford to do so. They are not forced to go to the corner grocery where prices are frequently much higher and where there are few bargains."
Yet if Laitres had bothered to check this page, he undoubtedly would have realized that his suppositions are nonsense. In fact, we've purchased nearly all of our groceries at the "corner grocery," where bargains abound. We've also done a bit of shopping at the Target down the street. (I've popped into two other stores that sell groceries while on other business, but I purchased no food there.) Our commuting costs for groceries have been trivial, no more than a few cents. (While I've made several small purchases at the local grocery store because I go by there all the time anyway on other business, I nearly always walk. And I could have combined many of those purchases, had that been more convenient.)
Do we "'shop around' for best prices?" Well, duh. That's what you do when you're on a budget. We do that, anyway. But mostly this is a matter of looking for bargains at the two stores that we frequent. Yet Laitres treats the need to seek out bargains as some sort of strange imposition, rather than as common practice for us and everyone else on a budget.
Laitres writes, "It is also noted that it was only two adults who entered this regimen. They did not impose it on adolescents. Had they, it might be discovered that, in order to feed their charges, they would have to further restrict their own diet having to give up some of their 'necessities'."
However, according to one nutrition web page, "Boys ages 11 to 18 need between 2,500 and 2,800 calories each day. Adolescent girls need approximately 2,200 calories each day." This is similar to the dietary requirements of my wife and me. (We've been counting our calories of late and eating plenty of them, and our weight has started to go back up after an initial drop -- see below.) So it is possible to feed a family of any size on less than $3 per person per day (barring special needs). Indeed, more family members would make more bulk buys reasonable and thus actually decrease the per-person average.
This point bears repeating: this month Jennifer and I are eating for considerably less than the actual food-stamp budget. Let's say that an adolescent were added to our family. According to the USDA, as much as $408 per month in food stamps would be available for a three-person household. Assuming a 30-day month, that's $4.53 per person per day, obviously a lot more than we're actually spending now per person.
But of course it is convenient for Laitres and our other critics to simply ignore this fact.
Laitres writes, "While the above exercise is 'cute,' having failed to replicate all conditions, any conclusions drawn are worthless."
Laitres is right that we have "failed to replicate all conditions." In particular, we have not accepted any free food (or food discounted through charity) all month. We have turned down food offered to us at friends' houses. My wife has turned down all sorts of free food at her office. We don't even accept samples of food at the grocery store. Of course, people who are actually poor face no such restrictions. They can get free food from food banks, church banquets, friends, and so on.
We have handicapped ourselves in every way imaginable. We have purchased no food at Costco. We gave away tomatoes that ripened on our own vines. Laitres is dishonest to ignore these serious handicaps, which only make our point more strongly.
Laitres writes, "Like the Armstrongs, I do not like being asked for a handout. However, I do not automatically denigrate all who ask by labeling them 'bums'." Yet Laitres's suggested that we did so is simply a lie. If Laitres had bothered to check the background documents, he would have realized that Jennifer's family was on food stamps for a few months when she was a child, and my family once lived on severely restricted resources.
My dad and I did use the term "bum" in our article, but clearly we were not referring to all poor people. Here is the relevant line: "[Y]ou have the right to choose to help the poor with your resources, whether by donating to a charity or buying a bum a burger." Implicit in this line is the idea that "bums" are only a segment of the poor. What is a "bum?" The top definition at Dictionary.com is "a person who avoids work and sponges on others; loafer; idler." My mom and step-dad were poor, but they certainly weren't bums, as they worked hard and slowly increased their income.
Laitres is correct that we "'voluntarily' entered into the experiment and can get out of it if they so choose." True. But we haven't gotten out of it. Laitres claims that we don't have "the stress of being forced to enter or remain in the situation." True, but a month on the diet is ample time to make the point. The original Food Stamp Challenge was only a week long -- did Laitres write in to complain about that? (Of course, we originally offered to go on a six-month diet, but supporters of food stamps refused to support that challenge. In some respects, a six-month diet would have been easier, because we would have been able to take advantage of more bulk buys of sale items.) And often poverty is a short-term condition.
Laitres adds, "They undoubtedly also entered well fed and, abandoning their 'experiment,' they will again be well fed." Yet the fact that Laitres ignores is that we're "well fed" for the month of August, too. We're eating a diet of above-average nutrition and regaining the weight we had lost during the first nine days. Indeed, I believe that my nutrition is at least as good now as it was before August.
I have saved the ideological point till the end. Laitres opens, "The Aug. 20 Armstrongs' column once again presents us with an example of how intellectual myopia can distort reality. As it is always in their column, it is a complete subordination of everything to an economic theory of capitalism and a blind 'it's supposed to work'."
It is true that we advocate capitalism. But this is not merely because capitalism is "supposed to work," it is because it demonstrably does work. Yet, though he accuses us of "intellectual myopia," does Laitres offer even a single argument to support the alleged virtues of the welfare state, which relies on the forcible redistribution of wealth? Of course not. He restricts his comments to lies and personal attacks.
What is capitalism? It is the consistent legal protection of individual rights, particularly rights to control one's own life, resources, and property, as consistent with the equal rights of others, and to associate voluntarily with others. Voluntary charity is perfectly consistent with capitalism. Obviously, I don't have time to offer a complete defense of capitalism here; I refer readers to the works of Ayn Rand as well as Ludwig von Mises and other champions of liberty. But I can hint at its basic virtue. Under capitalism, individuals are free to act on their own judgment. They are not plundered or coerced by politicians or bureaucrats. While individuals can err in their judgments, a system of liberty allows, rewards, and encourages sensible choices. To the extent that an individual suffers from force, he is unable to apply reason to the course of his life and the use of his property.
The only alternative to capitalism, individual rights, and voluntary association is some variant of political control, individual subjugation, and the threat or use of physical force against peaceful persons. Apparently Laitres is blind to this fact.
August 22, 12:45 p.m.
The Calorie Split
I was talking with a friend who is also a nurse, and she told me about the calorie split between fat, protein, and carbohydrates. So I looked into this a bit more.
According to NutriStrategy.com, one gram of fat yields 9 calories, one gram of protein yields 4 calories, and one gram of carbohydrates yields 4 calories. (The web page also claims that walking burns around 500 to 600 calories per hour; we walk for 35 to 45 minutes nearly every day.)
As noted previously, the FDA recommends (for a 2,000 calorie diet) 65 grams of fat (for nearly 600 calories), 50 grams of protein (for 200 calories), and 300 grams of carbohydrates (for 1,200 calories).
But others recommend a split of 40 percent carbohydrates and 30 percent each of protein and fat. If I understand this correctly (and I am merely discussing it, not making any recommendations), that translates (for a 2,000 calorie diet) to 67 grams of fat (for 600 calories), 150 grams of protein (for 600 calories), and 200 grams of carbohydrates (for 800 calories). In other words, there's a significant shift (of 100 grams) from carbohydrates to protein. But this is hardly a "carb-free" diet; carbohydrate intake remains two-thirds of the FDA level, while protein levels triple.
Our Food Stocks
It struck me that it's a bit tedious (for reader and writer) to continue the daily diet updates, when we'll be eating many of the same foods over the remaining days of the month. Counting today, there are ten days left of the month. So I'll just recap the food we have available at this time. So far, we've spent $159.04 for food. (Actually, that includes $6.64 in taxes.)
It's unclear at this point whether we'll need to spend any of the remaining $21 to fill in at month's end. Our quick calorie estimate last night suggested that we can make it with no additional purchases, but we may need to add something. Anyway, you can assume that our daily diet consists of the foods listed below, unless I note a new purchase, in which case we'll (obviously) eat that, too.
By the way, on Monday (the 20th) we baked chicken. Today, I'm baking potatoes and chicken, cooking the beans and perhaps some more rice, making more tortillas, and making cookies. That will take us through several days with no additional significant food preparation. After that, the only remaining food preparation will be making the second meatloaf with spaghetti, baking the remaining potatoes, and popping popcorn. So here's a list of the supplies:
* Nearly three pounds (dry) of brown rice.
August 19, 12:00 midnight
Food Stamp Challenge Notes
I ran across a few more write ups of the "Food Stamp Challenge." One blog made the mistake a few weeks ago of confusing the "average" food stamp payment with the amount of money that recipients have available for food. According to the USDA, the maximum food-stamp payment to an individual is $155 per month, or (assuming a 30-day month) $36.17 per week, or $5.17 per day. Or, put another way, the original "Food Stamp Challenge" was bogus.
Yet the blog states: "$21 worth of stamps a week doesn't add up to much, and it's 'almost impossible' to maintain a healthy diet for $1 a meal (huh, wonder why America's poor suffer obesity in such great numbers?)."
I submit that "America's poor suffer obesity in such great numbers" not because they have too little money to spend on healthy food, but because what money they have for food they spend (on average) imprudently. (Obviously, many people who are poor spend their grocery money wisely, while many people who are wealthier spend their grocery money on junk.)
I dare any reporter who thinks otherwise to find a couple dozen representative poor fat people, record what they normally eat for a week, and record their weekly budget. I will make two predictions. First, they spend significantly more than $21 per week for food. Two, they spend their food budget disproportionately on junk food that costs considerably more than many healthy alternatives.
I again have to wonder if people such as this blogger have ever actually walked through a grocery store. Healthy food may be purchased at any regular grocery store for far less than $1 per pound, cooked weight. My wife and I have purchased oats, pinto beans, brown rice, potatoes, and flour very inexpensively. We've purchased fresh vegetables for under $1 per pound. The most expensive items we've purchased are chicken breasts at $2.50 per pound and flax for $2 per pound (not counting spices).
There is a causal relationship between poverty and obesity, but it is not that poverty causes obesity. Instead, the same sorts of irresponsible behaviors that often cause poverty also often cause obesity.
The Washington Post published an article by Lyndsey Layton on May 16. It begins, "Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) stood before the refrigerated section of the Safeway on Capitol Hill yesterday and looked longingly at the eggs. At $1.29 for a half-dozen, he couldn't afford them." Perhaps Congressman Ryan should have done what real people on a budget do: buy things when they're on sale. I've purchased eggs this month for 50 cents per dozen. Locally, the regular price of a dozen eggs is around $1.30 per dozen.
The reporter notes, "According to the rules of the challenge, the four House members cannot eat anything beside their $21 worth of groceries." Of course, she makes no mention of the fact that actual people on food stamps suffer no such restrictions.
The report continues, "'No organic foods, no fresh vegetables, we were looking for the cheapest of everything,' [Rep. Jim] McGovern said. 'We got spaghetti and hamburger meat that was high in fat -- the fattiest meat on the shelf. I have high cholesterol and always try to get the leanest, but it's expensive. It's almost impossible to make healthy choices on a food stamp diet'." The article alleges of Ryan, "No money for meat, milk, juice, fresh fruit or vegetables, save for a single head of 32-cent garlic to flavor the tomato sauce."
What nonsense. No, you can't buy the organic mixed spring greens mix for $4 or $5 per pound on a tight budget. But the regular price of cabbage is 55 cents per pound (79 cents for red cabbage, which we made into a fine salad just today). We've also purchased green leaf lettuce for under $1 per pound, green beans for 69 cents per pound, and frozen mixed vegetables for $1 per pound. We've purchased fattier hamburger than I normally buy, but we've also purchased chicken breasts, which are nearly fat free. And our purchases have included organic milk and some organic eggs.
You'd think that The Washington Post would insist on something a little better than Layton's make-believe advocacy journalism.
Shopping and Diet Updates
I moved the table comparing foods by the ounce to a separate page. But it occurred to me that another table that includes common portion sizes would be more useful for adding up daily intakes. I've added a new table for that that I'll continue to expand. (I do not guarantee the accuracy of the information.)
Here's what we've eaten.
August 16: I ate milk, oats, peanut butter, eggs, fruit, banana bread, soup, pinto beans and a tortilla, cookies, a potato, quiche, and green beans. Jennifer ate a smoothie, an egg, veggies with chicken and a potato, cookies, banana bread, pie crust, milk, quiche, green beans, and a peanut butter and jelly tortilla.
August 17: I ate a smoothie, quiche, pinto beans, half of a potato, milk, a banana, banana bread, cabbage, pie crust, soup, cookies, chicken, and rice. Jennifer ate a smoothie, soup, quiche, banana bread and peanut butter, chicken and veggies, a potato, chocolate chips, pie crust, a cookie, and chicken and rice. I cooked a chicken that night, which took a few minutes of prep and a couple hours of oven time. I also made rice.
August 18: We both ate smoothies, banana bread with peanut butter, milk, chicken, rice, veggies, cookies, pinto beans, half of a potato, tortillas, a banana with melted chocolate, and popcorn. I also had a boiled egg.
August 19: We both ate smoothies, peanut butter and jelly tortillas, pinto beans with rice, milk, cookies, chicken, cabbage salad, bananas with melted chocolate, egg burritos, and rice pudding. I also had an egg. I baked several potatoes and rice pudding. This took a few minutes of prep (using already cooked rice) and around an hour of oven time.
We've made three purchases since last time. Our new total is $159.04.
Jennifer made a quiche with the pie crust left over from the banana pie.
This chicken was a pretty good value at 69 cents per pound!
This rice pudding is adapted from a recipe I found online. I added some cinnamon, which rose to the top and added a nice flavor to the dish.
August 15, 9:00 p.m.
Protein, Calories, and Fat: Getting the Balance Right
Protein is always in favor. But in our society the drum beats constantly for "less fat, fewer calories." To a degree that makes sense for a society plagued by obesity. But the body needs fat to live. And the body needs calories for energy.
Unfortunately, for the first nine days of the month's diet, I unintentionally shorted our diet of all three. I made this error because I did not adequately check the very real differences among foods regarding their levels of these three things. I didn't realize how much fat we were cutting out by skipping the nuts, olive oil, chocolate chips, and so on. I didn't realize how many calories in a day we typically eat in fat. And I didn't realize how different are protein levels in different foods known for their protein (e.g., chicken breasts versus beans).
Indeed, I now think that our pre-August diet was sometimes short on these things. I think that our experiences in August will actually lead us to a more healthy diet long-term.
I'll take each of the three items in turn, starting with fat, because it is most maligned. One web page claims that a deficiency in essential fatty acids is "very common." The potential results: "Diarrhea, dry skin and hair, hair loss, immune impairment, infertility, poor wound healing, premenstrual syndrome, acne, eczema, gall stones, liver degeneration."
Of course, not all fats are created equal. I have heard nobody claim that "trans" or hydrogenated fat is good for you. Why, then, do stores continue to sell hydrogenated fat? In a word, the reason is cost. Hydrogenating soybean (or other) oil is cheap; milking cows is expensive. For example, I noticed that hydrogenated margarin costs 59 cents per pound at the local grocery store. Butter costs $2.84 per pound. (Usually we buy organic butter for over $3 per pound.) I accepted a trace amount of hydrogenated fat in the peanut butter because of the cost savings. But I think I'll avoid the margarin because, you know, gross.
A note here about my comments. I urge readers to heed the disclaimer above: I am not a nutritionist. I cannot independently vouch for the claims made by the sources that I cite. I'm drawing nutritional information from NutritionData.com and the labels from the foods I've purchased; I must assume that the information is basically accurate.
It's unclear to me how much saturated fat a person is supposed to eat in a day. I doubt that there's a solid consensus. At least one school of thought says that some saturated fats, especially from coconuts, are better than both hydrogenated and processed vegetable fat (such as my canola oil).
Mary Enig writes:
By analyzing menus from turn-of-the-century cookbooks, we can estimate that the fat content of the diets at that time was about 35-40 percent of energy as fat. Fats contain about twice as many calories per gram as protein or carbohydrate foods. In a diet of 2500 calories, 35 percent of calories as fat translates to 97 grams of fat (slightly less than 1/2 cup) per day, as added fat or distributed in the foods. ...
Whether or not Enig is correct in her ratios, it is clear that getting enough fats in the diet is crucial to health, and people should get enough unsaturated fat, including Omega-3 polyunsaturated fat. (That was my thinking in buying flax.)
According to the FDA, every day a person on a 2,000 calorie diet should consume 65 grams of fat (20 of which are saturated), 300 grams of carbohydrates, and 50 grams of protein.
(According to one calculator, I need about 2,800 calories per day. But that strikes me as a little high. I think there's probably a difference between empty calories and nutrition-dense calories. I.e., perhaps the body can do as well or better on fewer calories and more nutrition.)
Let's look at the fat content of some of the foods I've given up for the month and adopted for the month.
Almonds, which we usually buy at Costco in a three-pound bag because they're so expensive elsewhere, contain per ounce 14 grams of fat, one of which is saturated. That's 22 percent of the "daily value" of fat for a 2,000 calorie diet. The fat content is astounding: an ounce is 28 grams and a full half of that is fat! The nuts contain 160 calories per ounce. Before August, I'd eat a handful of nuts just about every day.
Let's compare olive oil -- my usual oil of choice -- to this month's canola oil. In a tablespoon (14 grams, or half an ounce), canola is pure fat, one gram of which is saturated. Four grams are polyunsaturated while 9 grams are monounsaturated. I checked NutritionData.com for more information on the poly mix: 1.3 grams are Omega-3, while 2.8 grams are Omega-6. (My understanding is that the typical American diet contains too much Omega-6 relative to Omega-3, but it's not clear to me what the proper balance should be or why it matters.)
I checked the values for salmon oil, by the way, and for a tablespoon (14 grams) it shows 4.8 grams of Omega-3 to 0.2 grams of Omega-6!
A tablespoon of olive oil has 1.9 grams of saturated fat, 0.1 grams of Omega-3, and 1.3 grams of Omega-6. Offhand, then, it's not obvious to me why olive oil, which is much more expensive, is preferred over canola oil.
And flax? Because it's ground seeds rather than an oil, I'm using the measure for an ounce, 28 grams. An ounce of ground flax contains 11.8 grams of fat, or less than the fat contained in a tablespoon of oil. Of this, one gram is saturated, 2.1 grams are monounsaturated, 6.4 grams are Omega-3, and 1.7 grams are Omega-6. We've been eating a tablespoon a day, listed as only 7 grams.
Clearly, what's needed here is a chart, in which I'll also include calories, protein, and carbohydrates, all from NutritionData.com. Please verify all data independently. [Table moved to a separate page.]
Obviously, this chart is missing a lot: it doesn't include any vitamins, minerals, or "phytochemicals." So obviously diet is about a lot more than getting the right amount of fat, calories, and protein.
Moreover, "protein" is not a single, homogeneous thing. NutritionData.com lists 19 different sorts of protein. I don't pretend to understand how the body uses different sorts of protein, but the word is that it's important to get "complete" protein. Apparently especially for plant products, different protein sources should be eaten together. One source of protein does not necessarily substitute directly for another.
We can make some fairly simple observations about the chart. Half of a chicken breast (86 grams) provides 29 grams of protein, or around half of the daily requirement. Per ounce of meat, a thigh is close behind. However:
[N]early 25-percent of a whole thigh is bone. ... The average serving-size is four ounces in weight and each chicken thigh averages two ounces. This is after removing the skin and bone. If you do eat them with the skin on, keep in mind you are raising the fat and cholesterol content considerably...
Even though we've purchased thighs for 69 and 74 cents per pound, we also purchased breasts because of the high protein content (without waste) and ease of preparation (and we like them).
There don't seem to be many readily available foods that supply much Omega-3. I suppose that's why fish oil is so popular. But a combination of flax, walnuts, and fish can provide significant Omega-3. (Again, it's not clear to me what is the best balance of fats.)
If you dress a salad with two tablespoons of olive oil, you're getting 248 calories and 28 grams of fat just in the dressing. By way of comparison, an entire head of romaine lettuce (626 grams) contains 106 calories and 1.9 grams of fat. In other words, you'd have to eat 3.3 pounds of lettuce to match the caloric content of two tablespoons of olive oil. I'd like to see somebody try to get fat eating 3.3 pounds of lettuce every day.
The other obvious point, though, is that, however important leafy greens are to one's diet, it's not enough. So I for one plan to top my (post-August) salads with things like nuts, eggs, avocado, and oil.
It struck me that many Americans look at nutrition in terms of what they can take away and add to their current diet. I think that's why sentiments such as "less fat!" and "more fruits and vegetables" are so common. But I took that mantra too far and have had to work to bring the fat and calories back in. Perhaps a better approach is to forget one's current diet and look at a healthy diet from the ground up. Such an approach sees fats, calories, and carbohydrates, in the right amounts and from the right sources, as essential to life, not as an enemy.
Daily Diet Update
Yesterday I ate a smoothie (described below), banana bread with peanut butter, an egg, beans, soup, a small potato, some chocolate chips, meatloaf with pasta, green beans, and pie. Jennifer ate eggs, milk, banana bread, soup, a potato, chocolate chips, peanut butter, and the same dinner. I also scored three more dozen eggs for 50 cents each. Quiche? Okay; that really does meet my egg quota.
Today I ate eggs with bread and butter, banana bread, a smoothie, peanut butter, oats, meatloaf with pasta, green beans, soup, a small baked potato, milk, cookies, mixed veggies, pinto beans with a tortilla, and chocolate chips. Jennifer ate banana bread, peanut butter, an egg, meatloaf and pasta, green beans, chocolate chips, popcorn, cookies, milk, and mixed veggies. I also picked up 2.5 gallons more of milk. Okay, perhaps a bit overboard. But part of the appeal is that it's easy protein and calories. (I found that I was overcharged initially, so I got a refund, which I noticed after the fact was in error slightly in my favor.)
Our new total is $142.72.
August 14, 1:45 p.m.
I've had a busy few days. The upshot is that the diet is on track. So far we've spent $132.35, leaving us plenty of funds to fill in with more eggs, milk, butter, and vegetables.
I think that what happened a few days ago is that a combination of stress, lack of sleep, and dietary imbalances caused me to be run down, which left me more vulnerable to a throat infection, which left me still worse off. (Jennifer continues to feel great.) So now I'm making sure that we eat enough protein, calories, and fat, along with other nutritious foods. Actually, I think I'll end up eating healthier from now on than I did before August. I'll discuss this change at greater length in a future post.
Over the past few days, we've purchased more milk, meat, and chicken. We picked up some great deals on both chicken ($2.50 per pound for breasts) and hamburger ($1.24 per pound). And, ever since one of my friends mentioned that she couldn't survive without chocolate, I've been craving it. So we each bought a 12-ounce bag of chocolate chips for $1.12 each. To get another source of protein and fat, I also bought 3.5 pounds of peanut butter for $3.99 ($4.16 with tax).
Yesterday I cooked up half the hamburger in a meatloaf. I also baked two loaves of banana bread and baked several more potatoes.
Since the 9th, we've eaten many of the same foods -- soup, beans and rice, potatoes, fruit, salad, and so on. The main difference is that we've been eating more eggs, milk, meat, and canola oil, again to get our protein, calorie, and fat counts up. I just don't have the time to offer a meal-by-meal update. But here are a couple of examples. Last night we ate meatloaf on pasta with tomato sauce, green beans, and pie. This morning I made a smoothie with about two cups of frozen cantaloupe with a bit of banana (the watermelon is finished), a cup of whole milk, and a tablespoon of flax. With this I ate a piece of banana bread with a tablespoon of peanut butter and a boiled egg. Here are some pictures of our foods and receipts.
August 9, 9:15 p.m.
Eating Crow -- But Not Enough Calories!
It is appropriately ironic that, after driving home from an appearance on KOA radio with Jon Caldara from 10-11 this morning, during which time Jennifer and I crowed about how our $3 per day diet is going well, I started to feel a bit sluggish. I ate lunch as I shrugged off the feeling as the effects of the stress of being on the radio plus not getting enough sleep. (Last night we stayed up till about 1:00 a.m. going to the Rush concert at Red Rocks, which was freakin' awesome.)
But then I remembered that, earlier in the week, I had told Jennifer that I was feeling a little "off," and that I thought I was either getting a bug or just feeling the effects of a somewhat stressful period (I have a couple of big new projects starting, in addition to the time requirements of writing about the food challenge), along with the accompanying shortness of sleep. I do think that stress and shortness of sleep had a lot to do with my mild and ambiguous (but nevertheless disconcerting) symptoms.
But, with the second incident, I started to wonder if the diet also had something to do with it, and, sure enough, that is evidently the case. (Of course, stress can also impact diet.) The evening before August 1, I weighed myself wearing my clothes but not my shoes and got 167.8 pounds, which I thought was a little high. Well, today I took a weight of 162.8 (clothes no shoes). I was surprised. And I realized that this is beyond what's usually considered healthy weight loss. Yet I haven't been feeling hungry. So how did I lose weight?
The August diet is similar to our normal diet, so I didn't think about the subtle but, in retrospect, impactful changes I was making. I think there are three factors at work, plus the minor factor of not going out to eat, which tends to introduce quite a few calories per time.
First, I cut down on my sweets and oils. Thinking about it, normally I'll swipe a small handful of chocolate chips, eat a double portion of dessert, pour a bit of maple syrup in my oatmeal, etc. I'll also pour some olive oil on my salad or eat it with a piece of bread. This month, I've cut out all of that. Meanwhile, I have not made up the calories in unsaturated fats that I've purchased. I ate my flax meal only a couple of times for the first week, and I barely touched the canola oil. Obviously, I need to stop being an "extra virgin olive oil" snob and start using the canola oil. Looking at the label, a tablespoon of the oil contains 14 grams of (mostly unsaturated) fat, or 22 percent of the daily fat allowance, plus 120 calories. It's sort of odd to be in the position where I need to consciously increase my intake of calories and fat, as the constant cry in the U.S. is to limit both, but that seems to be where I'm at.
Second, I think I unconsciously limited my portion sizes. Normally, I don't give much thought to how much I'm eating or what I'm spending. I set general protocols -- look for sale items, compare prices, eat a variety of healthy foods -- but then buy and eat food pretty much as the mood strikes me. And this generally works quite well. But this month, in which our budget for food is artificially restricted to a month, I'm trying to shop for deals but not buy more food than we'll eat. As a consequence, I can't help but to think about food in terms of its use over a month, which makes me think in terms of portion sizes. So I think I've been eating the amount I'm "supposed" to eat, rather than the amount that I would naturally eat. In addition to all of this, our August diet is, on a per-calorie basis, bulkier than our normal diet. I think that explains why I haven't been feeling hungry but have still been losing weight.
Third, in retrospect, I think I've also been limiting my portion frequency. Again, normally I'll snack whenever I feel like it. This month, I think having the monthly goal in mind has tended to make me snack less.
This problem here is not an inability to buy enough food on $3 per day. The problem is that I haven't been eating enough of the foods that I've already purchased and will continue to budget. I have gobs of food sitting around. The solution is obvious: I need to make a conscientious effort to increase my calorie (and nutrient) intake by eating more unsaturated fat, eating larger portions, and eating more frequently. Obviously, I'll also release my weight at the end of the month. (Also obviously, I now wish I'd taken our weights every day or two, as that would have alerted me to the problem days ago. It just never crossed my mind till today that I might be losing weight.)
Jennifer, who reports feeling consistently great, has also lost a comparable amount of weight without feeling hungry at all. She told me, "I feel better. I think that my weight range is more comfortable at 135 to 140 rather than peaking at 150. I also want to be able to keep up with my exercise, which is easier with a little lower weight. I think probably the main thing for me losing weight is not having access to the candy jar at work." But obviously we don't want her to lose more, so she too will have to up her caloric intake.
850 KOA with Caldara
Jon Caldara, subbing for Mike Rosen, asked me to discuss the diet this morning on the radio. Jennifer was able to call in for the first half hour.
Jennifer made a couple of great points. First, preparing food can be a fun thing to do as a couple (or, by extension, as a family). Doubters, I'll add, may watch the films Eat Drink Man Woman and Tortilla Soup. Second, we've been physically active this month; indeed, more-so than normal.
I did have to disagree with Caldara about the politics of food stamps. "I love food stamps," he said, because they allow choice. "Political reality" entails the continuance of public assistance, he said. I reminded him of the choices of those paying the bills. People have the right to control their own lives and resources. We should move away from food stamps toward a system of voluntary charity, such as food banks. When money is taken from people by force, I added, they have little incentive to monitor the programs that they're funding. But with voluntary charity, the giver, the charity organization, and the recipient all have better incentives to spend those resources wisely. And "political reality" is what we make of it, I said; we should make it in accordance with free markets and individual rights. I did agree with Caldara, though, that food stamps are better than government-directed diets for the poor.
Finally, a caller recommended Operation Front Line, described as "a groundbreaking nutrition education program that helps families help themselves by teaching them how to prepare healthy low-cost meals." At first glance, this looks like a swell idea.
Why Soak Pinto Beans?
I have long wondered why pinto beans are supposed to be soaked and rinsed before cooking. Now, thanks to a document from New Mexico State University, I know:
Pinto beans are a good source of energy and the B vitamins-thiamin, riboflavin and niacin-which are necessary for growth and tissue building. Minerals found in pinto beans include calcium, phosphorus, potassium and iron, all essential to good health. One-half cup of cooked pinto beans furnishes 118 calories. Beans are good for low-sodium diets as they contain only the salt added by the cook.
I'm not sure, but I suspect that if one first soaks the beans in a boiling bath, removing that water is adequate.
Daily Diet Update
My big change (for reasons explained above) is to eat larger, more frequent portions. The diet will seem familiar, but we'll make some new items over the coming days. I ate a couple bananas, an egg, milk, a bean and rice and lettuce burrito, watermelon, flan, salad, oats, and a potato. Jennifer had rice, an egg, watermelon, two bananas, a potato, beans, rice, salad and flan.
By the way, here's a photo of last night's burrito with chicken, beans, rice, and lettuce.
August 8, 5:30 p.m.
Today's Shopping Trip
I bought 16 pounds of bananas at 25 cents per pound. That's a bargain. I had to work at it, but I managed to stuff four quart bags of banana pieces into the freezer for later use. The rest I stuck in the refrigerator.
Okay, I splurged and bought a 69-cent box of instant pudding. Why? Once the flan runs out, Jennifer has promised to bake a pie crust, which we'll fill with bananas and pudding.
Finally, I purchased another gallon of milk for $1.50.
The total trip, tax included, cost $6.51, bringing the monthly total to $102.21.
If I'd waited and bought another gallon of milk today, I'd have saved $1.29. Several more dozen eggs were available for $1 each, but we just don't need any more eggs for the month. (If I change my mind I can buy more later.) I noticed that Safeway is now selling cantaloupe for 33 cents per pound. Earlier I bought 14.65 pounds at 49 cents per pound. So I would have saved $2.34 by waiting. I also left four pounds of cheap bananas sitting in the store, because I didn't think I'd use them. Oh well. That's part of the problem with limiting a diet to a month: I can't take advantage of long-range shopping. Many foods, including frozen fruit, will last far longer than a month.
Daily Diet Update
Jennifer's office was invited to a barbecue for lunch, but Jennifer couldn't participate. She brought watermelon, rice, and a salad to eat. So far I've had oatmeal, watermelon, cucumber, a banana, a glass of milk, and a bowl of beans and rice. Tonight we're going to make burritos with lettuce, beans, rice, and chicken, then probably have a snack later.
August 7, 10:15 p.m.
Economizing by Spending More
Some of my friends work 60-plus hours per week. Others travel for long periods at a time. And some spend several hours per week in commute. It is true that ordering in, ordering to go, and buying prepared food at the grocery store can be quicker and easier than buying and preparing inexpensive meals.
If somebody makes $10 per hour, spending thirty minutes in the kitchen costs $5 of time. If somebody makes $100 per hour, spending thirty minutes in the kitchen costs $50 of time. So it would actually save money to spend another twenty minutes working and spend ten minutes getting food to go (depending on the food).
But it depends dramatically on what kind of food you prepare. I spent 2.5 hours making around 24 large servings of soup (counting wait time), or around six minutes per serving. But, for some people, making a 2.5 hour commitment for cooking might be out of the question.
But of course some people love to cook, and some people hate it. People who hate to cook will increasingly pick quick meals over cheap meals as they earn more money. But people who love to cook might actually spend more time cooking as they grow richer.
And then there's diet. The nutritional value of a fast-food burger is not the same as the nutritional value of a large salad with a grilled chicken breast. Usually, healthier prepared food is much more expensive than unhealthy prepared food.
In addition, different people have different tastes in food. People go to restaurants for the service, the atmosphere, the socializing, and the quality of food. It's easy, if a little time consuming, to prepare low-cost, nutritious meals. But it is both more expensive and more time-consuming to make complex, restaurant-quality meals.
The upshot is that economizing on food, in the broader sense, does not mean merely spending as little as possible on food. It means buying the food that makes the most sense given one's income and preferences. This month, my wife and I have artificially changed our preferences such that we're spending somewhat less on food than usual. Once the month is up, we'll return to our previous habits.
The final twist is new information, which can change one's practices. For example, if somebody learns how to prepare low-cost meals that he or she likes and that can be frozen in bulk, the person might start cooking more and spending less money on food. Somebody who finds an especially fine restaurant might start spending more money on food.
A reader asked me whether it would be possible to do the South Beach Diet on $3 per day. I don't know much about that diet. However, I'll offer what notes I can.
According to the web page, during the two-week "Phase 1," "you'll eat foods such as lean meats, chicken, turkey, fish, and shellfish (vegetarians can enjoy meat substitutes and tofu), along with eggs, cheese, nuts, beans, and plenty of vegetables." Fish, cheese, and nuts are probably too expensive, except in small quantities. But beans are very cheap. Eggs are moderately priced and often on sale. A limited amount of chicken would be possible. And fresh vegetables can be purchased for under $1 per pound.
In "Phase 2," "it's time to reintroduce good carbs such as fruit and whole-grain breads and pastas." This is good news, as whole-wheat flour, brown rice, and oats are very inexpensive. And fruits are often less expensive than vegetables. In "Phase 3" "you'll continue following the principles" of the first two phases.
So I do think it might be possible to go on such a diet for $3 per day for food, but the first two weeks would be more expensive, and some foods would be difficult. The diet seems to strongly discourage sugar, which is very cheap, while sugar-free alternatives are often expensive. So desserts might be a problem. But, again, I don't know much about the diet or its results.
Daily Diet Update
Today Jennifer ate watermelon, tea, a baked potato, salad, an egg, caramel corn, soup, rice, and flan. I ate watermelon, tea, two egg burritos, flan, a baked potato, soup, and rice.
I also baked six potatoes and cooked a bag of rice. At this time I'm cooking two pounds of pinto beans, and in a bit I'll slice the second watermelon.
By the way, we're maintaining our regular exercise regimen, which is to walk (or do something equivalent) for 35-45 minutes per day.
Honestly, the diet itself is no problem. The hassle is monitoring and recording it. (We both fill out a daily food log, and as you can tell I spend considerable time writing about the diet.) We've now completed our first week!
August 6, 11:45 p.m.
Daily Diet Update: Today Jennifer ate watermelon, tea, a baked potato, a pancake, caramel popcorn, an egg, soup, salad, and flan. I ate the same diet, except I didn't have a potato or popcorn but did have a bowl of oatmeal. I cooked the oats as I boiled a dozen eggs (which are nearly done as I type).
August 6, 1:45 p.m.
Jean Torkelson's Article
Jean Torkelson wrote a basically good article for today's Rocky Mountain News regarding food stamps, poverty, and eating on a budget.
The following paragraph offers some useful context:
It's true that Americans don't face starvation as people do elsewhere in the world, says Jim Baldwin, president of the Colorado Food Bank Association. But an estimated 547,469 Coloradans are what today's food assistance industry calls "food insecure" -- not altogether sure where their next meal is coming from.
However, I'm a bit skeptical of the figure of 547,469 people. There is surely a vast range of income levels and personal choices subsumed by this figure. Those who are "not altogether sure where their next meal is coming from" because they just blew their paycheck at the casinos or the bar is a substantially different case from somebody who doesn't know which food bank to visit, which is in turn very different from a case of somebody being flat broke and not knowing about any friends or charity organizations that might offer food. It is often the case that I'm "not altogether sure where" my "next meal is coming from" -- King Soopers, Target, Costco, Wild Oats, a friend's house, a restaurant? (I'm discussing months other than this one, of course.) So the phrase is hardly precise. But the number offered is artificially precise -- no estimate to the exact person is possible -- so it's automatically a bit fishy.
In July, the House passed a massive farm bill that would include a $4 billion increase in the food stamp program's budget. The bill also would rename the program the Secure Supplemental Nutrition Access Program. However, the bulk of the complex bill, which passed 231-191, is rife with controversial crop subsidy measures. It faces a likely presidential veto unless it's significantly changed when the Senate takes it up this fall.
That's useful information. Not as useful is Torkelson's review of food stamps: "Food stamp supporters want the minimum monthly allotment increased and more people made eligible... Today, the average monthly food stamp allotment for one person is about $107, or $3.57 a day in a 30-day month."
As I've reviewed (based on notes by Tom Blumer), the "average monthly food stamp allotment" is misleading, because the total amount of money available for food is assumed to be substantially higher. For example, my wife and I are limiting our budget to $3 per person per day, or $180 total. But this is actually 37 percent less than the maximum value of food stamps -- $284 -- available to to a couple. But, even though the figure of $3 per person per day is artificially low, we're still going to spend substantially less money than that on groceries this month.
...Roxane White, manager of Denver Human Services... took the food stamp challenge and said she found that feeding herself on about $25 a week left her hungry and tired. White's complaints annoyed [Doloris] Dunn, a peppery, 76-year-old retiree whose careful saving habits allow her to be completely self-sufficient... Dunn took exception when she read about White's menu. "She bought what I thought were crazy things" such as frozen dinners. "This is not good value and it's not nutritionally good for you because there's too much sodium." Dunn says she lives well on a food budget of about $100 a month - roughly the same amount as the food stamp challenge - with enough money left over to dine out occasionally and sometimes even donate extra food to charity.
I particularly like the fact that Torkelson discusses charitable food banks and offers a few tips for buying food on a budget. Overall, her article represents a substantial improvement over previous articles in Denver's papers about food stamps.
The Price of Rice
As I mentioned on August 3, "White rice is more widely available in larger packages at a more steeply reduced price." This is definitely true. I found that Target sells its brand of white rice for 46.8 cents per pound. But Costco sells a 50-pound bag for $12.99, or 26 cents per pound!
If we assume that the cooked weight of rice is a maximum of 3.6 times as much, that's 180 pounds of food at a cost as low as 7.2 cents per pound. NutritionData.com lists the caloric value of of an ounce of white rice as 36. So, for the bag, that's 81,600 calories. If a person ate that amount of rice over 30 days, that would be 2,870 calories per day (obviously way too many).
Of course, rice is a high-carb food, and I suspect that brown rice really is better for you. Typically white rice is fortified, because the processing strips out many of the natural vitamins and minerals. Nevertheless, on an emergency diet, white rice provides calories and some good nutrition for a very low price. It's true that Costco charges an annual membership, but people can ask members to pick up food for them. And I suspect that, somewhere else in the Metro area, bulk white rice is available for a comparable price.
August 6, 1:00 p.m.
On Friday evening, we scrambled up the egg whites left over from the flan (along with an additional egg). A bit later we also had a piece of flan each.
For breakfast on Saturday, we each had a large glass of milk (leaving five quarts of milk in the freezer), oatmeal, lettuce, and watermelon. Then we went out of town for the night, so we wanted to take food that didn't require preparation. We brought popcorn, four baked potatoes, four hard-boiled eggs, watermelon, salad, and cookies.
On Sunday we joined a group for breakfast, though of course we could eat only our own food. But the pancakes looked so good that, upon returning home, we decided to make some. I selected an easy recipe from Where's Mom Now That I Need Her? Blend two eggs, a half cup of milk (we substituted water, which isn't quite as good), a half cup of flour (we used whole wheat), a half-teaspoon of salt, and a tablespoon of sugar. This produces a thin pancake; roll the batter around the pan before it cooks. The recipe calls for the pancake to be rolled with applesauce, but we used grape jelly.
Jennifer had some work to do, so I decided to make and freeze some tortillas. I used my mom's recipe, which she picked up from a family from Mexico that used to live next door to us (in Texas). The recipe (which I increased by half) calls for 4 cups of flour (I used half whole-wheat and half unbleached white), a teaspoon of salt, one-third cup of oil, and a cup of warm water. (I find that a bit more water is needed.) Knead and let sit for 20 minutes. Then roll out small balls of the dough using a floured counter and rolling pin. Apply less pressure as you roll to the edges. For freezing, I stacked the tortillas, separated by wax paper. To cook, place a tortilla on a hot skillet; it cooks quickly. This produced 25 tortillas in about 45 minutes (plus sit time). Realistically, with our normal budget, it's not time effective to make our own tortillas, but they are very inexpensive and quite good.
We each ate a tortilla with a bit of butter, sugar, and cinnamon.
But, feeling a little carbed out, we decided to go to the store to purchase some fresh vegetables. We picked out two large heads (nearly 1.5 pounds each) of green-leaf lettuce for $1 each, green beans for 69 cents per pound, a one-pound cucumber for $1, and 1.5 pounds of cabbage at 55 cents per pound. So the total bill (including tax) was $5.43 for around 7.5 pounds of fresh vegetables. This will provide salads for several days, and I froze most of the green beans for later use.
So far, then, the grand total for the month is $95.70.
August 3, 7:40 p.m.
Today I spent another hour and a quarter (or so) making food. I made four things. I used four of our tea-bags in a gallon jar for iced tea. (Three bags would be enough, as it's quite strong.) A long squirt of lemon juice adds flavor. I boiled eight eggs. I made several batches of popcorn and added caramel to most of it, yielding four gallon ziplocks full of popcorn. And I made sugar cookies, using a recipe that calls for soda only (as I didn't buy baking powder). I used only butter, skipped the vanilla, and added a bit of cinnamon. This yielded 25 cookies, 17 of which I froze (as dough). "Delicious," says Jennifer. (Also, last night while the soup was cooking I also baked several potatoes.) Here are some pictures:
So far today, I've eaten oatmeal with milk, watermelon, a little milk and popcorn, salad, tea, and a cookie. Jennifer has had watermelon, two salads, a baked potato, a bag of popcorn, tea, and a cookie.
By the way, the soup made 12 quarts.
August 3, 2:30 p.m.
"Hungry for a Month"
In November of 2006, Evan Steiner went on a monthly food budget of $30: "For the month of November, I'm only spending $30 on food. The only exception will be things that are freely available to the average person (salt taken from restaurants, sauce packets from Taco Bell, free coffee from an office). Buying in advance is fine, but at the end of the month, it all has to add up to $30 or less."
Steiner says he wanted to discover "the realities of being poor." He lost 18 pounds over the month.
I have two main criticisms. First, most people considered "poor" in America today have way more money than that available for food, and the poor have access to all sorts of free food. So Steiner's diet was a test of what it's like to eat on a dollar per day. Still, as my wife and I spend no more than $3 per day each for food this month -- a lavish amount -- I have to respect Steiner's effort.
My second main criticism is that Steiner didn't make the best dietary decisions. He bought hotdogs! Yuck! On day one, Steiner writes, in addition to a bit of free food, "I only ate one meal today. Two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches plus a packet of chicken Ramen." Not a single one of those items is appropriate for an emergency diet.
An emergency diet consists of beans and rice as staples. Add to that some very inexpensive (less that 50 cents per pound) fruits and vegetables. Possibly splurge on a more-expensive onion. Perhaps add to that some whole-wheat flour and oil for tortillas. Maybe a bit of salt and sugar. That's it. Forget these extravagances that we're buying this month such as flax seed and cinnamon.
But I'm not going to criticize Steiner -- again, "A" for effort -- without offering to prove that I can do better. I hereby offer to go on a diet spending no more than $1 per day for food, say in January or February (hell, I'll even do October, even though that month contains my birthday as well as Halloween), so long as any individual or combination of individuals agree to donate at least $1,000 to the Ayn Rand Institute once I successfully complete the diet without unhealthy weight loss. Unlike Steiner, I'll accept no free food. Just write to me at ari[**AT**]freecolorado.com if you want to pledge funds for this effort. [August 8 update: Nobody has responded to this offer, and I withdraw it at this time. The reasons? The diet would not be particularly fun, and I already will have spent plenty of time writing about my diet. Plus, the $1 per day diet wouldn't really prove any interesting point. But I have given some thought to what such a diet would look like. Eight pounds of pinto beans cost $5. A 20-pound bag of white rice is available for less than $8 at Wal-Mart, I found. Multivitamins would cost a few dollars more. The rest of the money would go for the cheapest available fresh fruits and vegetables. Assuming an average price of 60 cents per pound for fresh produce, $12 would buy 20 pounds, or two-thirds of a pound per day. August 10 update: based on my experiences recorded yesterday, it would seem important to also buy some inexpensive unsaturated fat such as canola oil.]
How Much Food do People Eat?
One blogger claims, "The Average Person Eats Almost 1500 Pounds Of Food A Year!" That's about four pounds per day. That seems high to me, but perhaps the figure includes drinks such as soda, milk, and coffee. Imagine eating four, one-pound loaves of bread in a day. That's a lot of food -- according to NutritionData.com that's around 4,700 calories!
Earlier, I misread the label on the rice, causing me to incorrectly calculate its cooked weight. A pound of brown rice cost me 89 cents at Target. I measured out the rice, and it yields 2.5 cups (per pound). The package says to add 2 cups of water per cup of rice, so that's 5 cups of water per pound of rice. Water weighs 8.3 pounds per gallon, or 2.6 pounds for 5 cups. So a pound of dry rice becomes around 3.6 pounds of cooked rice. So the cost is around 25 cents per pound of cooked rice. However, this doesn't account for loss of water due to evaporation. If I had a small scale, I'd just boil up a pound of dry rice and see how much it weighs afterward. If anybody has a more reliable figure, let me know.
But, of course, I purchased the more-expensive brown rice. Is brown rice worth the extra money? NutritionData.com lists numerous types of rice, but one sort of brown rice and one sort of white rice aren't that different. The white rice actually beats the brown for certain things, though the brown is much higher in certain minerals, especially manganese.
White rice is more widely available in larger packages at a more steeply reduced price. So, if I were on a true emergency diet, I'd look more seriously at buying larger bags of cheaper rice.
August 3, 3:00 a.m.
I was going to wait till tomorrow to add this, but, hey, I'm up and thinking about it. The big topic is spectacular soup.
The key to a good soup is to saute an onion and head of garlic (in this case, two each). You can add about whatever you want after that. I added black beans, lentils, split peas, brown rice, potatoes, carrots, and cabbage. (Salt and pepper to taste.) These ingredients have two things in common. First, they are insanely nutritious. Second, they are ridiculously cheap. The bulky items cost around 15 to 50 cents per pound (using the soaked weight for rice and beans), while the onion cost 99 cents per pound. Most of this will go in the freezer for use throughout the month.
By the way, later in the evening (on Thursday), Jennifer and I had popcorn and flan, and I also had a few pieces of watermelon and a small glass of milk.
I wasn't really planning to make the soup tonight, but I wanted a snack, and I didn't want my carrots or cabbage to sit around for too long. So I figured I'd go for it. It took around 2.5 hours from start to finish to make the soup, but for the last half of this time I worked on another project while stirring the soup occasionally. It will take me a bit more time to get this in the freezer.
I don't really know how many meals this will provide, but the answer is "a whole lot." (Had I done the week-long food challenge, I'd have made a smaller batch of the soup.) And it's also really good.
Here we are barely into the third day of the challenge, and I've already done much of the food preparation for the entire month. Most of the mellon is cut up. For soup, all we have to do now is stick a bowl in the microwave. Most meals (oatmeal, scrambled eggs) require a minimum of preparation. I'll probably make two more time-consuming dishes later in the month: tortillas and refried beans. But for now I don't have any more space in the freezer or fridge!
August 2, 8:00 p.m.
My mail box is located next to a King Soopers. So often I'll pop into the grocery store while running my errands. This usually takes a few minutes. Today I found a couple of good deals.
I bought two dozen more eggs for $1 per dozen. A dozen large eggs weighs 24 ounces, so the cost is 67 cents per pound. A large egg contains six grams of protein and "is a good source of Riboflavin, Vitamin B12 and Phosphorus, and a very good source of Protein and Selenium." Okay, it's also "high in Saturated Fat, and very high in Cholesterol," but it's still an outstanding little packet of nutrition, and cheaper than almost any meat. We already had enough eggs to last through the month; now we have an ample supply.
I also bought a ten-pound bag of potatoes for $1.49. Dang; yesterday I paid $2.69 for ten pounds! And today I left another cheap bag in the store, as I didn't think we'd eat that many potatoes in a month. So I lost $1.20, but it's hard to predict the sales. At any rate, 15 cents per pound of food isn't too bad.
I've now spent just over half of the monthly budget, or $90.27.
Today I ate another big bowl of oatmeal, this time with cinnamon and milk. Later I had some watermelon. In the afternoon I made a rehydration drink which is trivially expensive. Finally, for dinner Jennifer made egg pudding, an old family recipe of hers.
Jennifer took oatmeal, salad, and watermelon to work. She also made tea and ate some popcorn. To make the egg pudding, mix four eggs, two tablespoons of flour, half a teaspoon of salt, and two cups of milk in a blender. Melt a little butter in a pan, then stir the pudding constantly for several minutes until it's done. Traditionally it's eaten by scooping it onto bites of bread.
Later this evening, we might have a bit of salad or watermelon as a snack, and maybe a piece of flan.
August 1, 11:45 p.m.
Here's our Daily Diet update.
Before I went to bed early on the first, I had a small bowl of popcorn. Then, for breakfast I made a large bowl of oatmeal with cinnamon. (I made enough oatmeal for several more meals; the rest is in the fridge.) The oatmeal needs to boil for a few minutes. Next, I cooked an "egg in the basket" and added two pieces of toast with grape jelly. What's an "egg in the basket?" You may have seen one in the movie V for Vendetta. The idea is to cut a hole in a slice of bread (I use a wine glass for this purpose), then fry an egg in the hole. It takes maybe ten minutes to prepare and clean up.
Then I sliced a watermelon and all the cantaloupes. So when Jennifer came home, we each had a bowl of mixed fruit. From 6 to 8, I sliced the fruit and also made a double batch of flan. Later in the evening, I spent around 45 additional minutes baking the chicken, making salads, and cleaning up. (I'm not counting time when dishes are baking in the oven and I can do other things.)
So for a late dinner Jennifer and I each had a salad with red-leaf lettuce, red cabbage, and carrot. We also each ate a piece of chicken. (The rest of the chicken will be shredded and frozen.) Then, for dessert, we each had a piece of flan. The double batch yielded 18 pieces, and we plan to eat one peace each per day till it's gone.
Earlier in the day (while at work), Jennifer ate a banana, a carrot, a baked potato, a bag of popcorn (which I'd popped before going to bed), and a cup of tea.
I took some photos of our dishes:
Obviously, I won't record every day in as much details. On some days, I'll do no food prep and eat dishes repeated from earlier in the month. But this is the first day, when we bought most of our food and prepared a lot of it. I'll photograph any notable new dish.
So the first day of the Liberty and Prosperity Challenge draws to a close. I see no reason why we shouldn't be able to end the month significantly under budget.
August 1, 5:45 p.m.
It's still the first day, and I've already spent nearly half of the total budget! Am I worried? Not in the least. This is all according to plan. I spent another $33.25 at King Soopers, plus $10.48 at Target, which, with the previous purchase, brings the total to $86.63.
I've now purchased everything from my master list. I now have staples to last the entire month: eggs, milk, fruit, rice, most or all of my beans, and many of my vegetables. My heavy shopping is finished. (I dropped by the stores while running other errands, as I had some free time this afternoon; I probably spent something like another hour shopping.) For the rest of the month, I'll fill in with food that's either really cheap normally or that's on mark-down. (Cali is shown in the photo with some of the items purchased today; she approves especially of the brown rice.)
Now that I have all this food, I'll probably spend much of the evening processing it. I need to slice and freeze melons, perhaps make flan, and at some point make a giant batch of soup. While some of the food preparation will take some time, it will also provide many meals throughout the month. For instance, I'll freeze the soup in portions.
In addition, I enjoy cooking. So it's not really a "cost" for me; it's a fun hobby (and something I do anyway). Some might complain that low-income people are too frazzled to cook. However, cooking in bulk doesn't really take that much time, cooking can be a relaxing and social activity, it is necessary to eat well on a tight budget, and buying food at restaurants also takes time. (Many wealthier people spend an inordinate amount of time cooking because they enjoy it, though of course they sometimes purchase exotic and expensive ingredients.)
So here's what I bought today, starting with King Soopers:
Watermelon. On sale at $3.99 per melon, this is a great deal. They weigh around 15 pounds, so that's less than 30 cents per pound (though of course the rind takes up part of that weight.) I bought two watermelons and plan to eat them over the first two weeks of the month.
Milk. Okay, at $2.79 per gallon (for Horizon organic), I didn't do as well as I might have. But buying milk on mark-down is a crap shoot: you never know when you'll find it or what the deal will be. So I decided to buy two gallons, freeze portions of them for use throughout the month, and then buy more milk only if I find an exceptionally good deal. If we were seriously in a budgetary emergency, obviously I wouldn't be purchasing milk except at the very lowest prices. But, again, this is something of a demonstration diet: we wanted to show that people can eat fairly normally without spending a lot of money. And most people consider milk to be a basic part of their diet.
Red cabbage. At 79 cents per pound, this is a great deal. I'll make a salad tonight with cabbage and some of the other vegetables I've purchased.
Eggs. These were on sale for $1.67 for 18 eggs. I bought four cartons to last the month. With some of the milk and sugar, I'll make flan, which is spectacular.
Cantaloupe. I bought four melons at 49 cents per pound. I'm going to freeze these for use in the last two weeks of the month.
Pineapple. This looked really good to me. And it cost $2 for a fruit that weighs nearly four pounds, so the price is right. We'll eat a little tonight and I'll freeze the rest.
Red-leaf lettuce. At 99 cents per pound, this is one of the more expensive foods I purchased, but the nutritional content is amazing. Here's what NutritionData.com says about it: "This food is a good source of Dietary Fiber, Calcium, Magnesium, Phosphorus and Selenium, and a very good source of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Iron, Potassium and Manganese." A mere ounce contains 42 percent of the recommended amount of Vitamin A! I may buy another head or two of lettuce this week while it's on sale.
Bread. I bought a one-pound loaf of whole-wheat bread for 65 cents. I froze most of it.
Now for Target. Why a different store? I've checked the prices, and for beans, rice, and pasta Target sells for less.
Rice. The Target brand of brown rice costs 89 cents per pound. A pound cooks with four cups of water, which weighs around two pounds, so cooked rice costs around 30 cents per pound -- a pretty good deal. [Update: This figure is corrected in an August 3 entry, but it's not far off.] Rice is great in soup, in burritos, and with cinnamon.
Beans. Pinto beans cost 62 cents per pound. Black beans, lentils, and split peas (I know; not really a bean, but they're sold in the same section) cost 72 or 76 cents per pound. A pound of beans cooks with six cups (3 pounds) of water, so that's less than 20 cents per pound for cooked beans. And that's why beans are a poor family's friend. Of course, some people foolishly look down their noses at beans (though they might spend many times more for "hummus" in the rich kid's aisle), but that's merely prejudice. In colonial times, lobster was "trash" food. NutritionData.com praises black beans, for example, as "a good source of Protein, Thiamin, Magnesium, Phosphorus and Manganese, and a very good source of Dietary Fiber and Folate."
Pasta sauce and spaghetti. The sauce (Hunt's Four Cheese ) costs 87 cents for a 26-ounce can. The spaghetti costs 92 cents for a two-pound box. We thought this would offer nice variety, and the items will provide several meals. Maybe we'll make garlic bread too -- yum.
By the way, it has taken me about an hour and a half to write up this entry. But the big commitment of time for shopping, food preparation, and writing about it will come at the start of the month. Later in the month I may find time to discuss related topics more political in nature.
August 1, 4:00 a.m.
To briefly review, on June 14 I published an article proposing the "Serious Food Economy Challenge." This was a response to the earlier "Food Stamp Challenge," during which public figures spent a week eating on no more than $3 (or $3.57) per day, the "average" food stamp budget, in order to promote more tax spending on food stamps. My wife and I agreed to eat on less than $3 per person per day for six months, if advocates of increased welfare spending agreed to fund a nonprofit of our choice $10 for every $1 we came in under budget.
Later in June, I wrote a follow-up article in which I reviewed why the "average" food-stamp budget is considerably less than what people are assumed to have available for food.
Nevertheless, even though (all but two) supporters of food-stamp increases refused to sponsor our six-month challenge, we decided to proceed with a one-month challenge, "The Liberty and Prosperity Challenge." During August, our maximum food budget will be $180. We'll donate very dollar that we save out of that budget to the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI). Moreover, eleven other people have agreed to match or exceed our donation, such that around 17 times our donation will be given by others to ARI or other nonprofits.
I believe that ten of the donors will contribute to ARI, while the remaining donor has selected other nonprofits. I told donors that I'd allow them to describe their nonprofits of choice (without necessarily implying my endorsement). Russell Weisfield replied:
As stated I intend to pledge a donation to a non-profit to help promote the food challenge. I did take some time to decide on which one and for the first time took a look at the Ayn Rand Institute as I had never before heard of it (not even when I looked through the federal government's Combined Federal Campaign booklet - a booklet full of unknown and sometimes strange charities ). From the little bit that I read, it appears to be an excellent and upstanding organization. I have, however, decided to make a donation to each of two charities which I will briefly outline below.
The main point of this first post is to describe my first shopping trip of the month. People don't usually start the month without a scrap of food in the house, yet that's what we're simulating with the challenge. Thus, being a bit of a night-owl anyway, I decided to conduct a major shopping trip, as I wanted to pick up something for the morning meal, anyway.
I have purchased hardly any groceries over the past two weeks, because I've been trying to eat up our supplies of food. I didn't realize just how much food we normally have on hand. I wanted to empty the freezer to make room for new food in August; I got only half of the freezer cleaned out. (The rest of the pre-August food will be saved until after August.) We also have a lot of beans, rice, canned goods, and so forth sitting around (which will again be saved).
One thing this impressed upon me is that our normal measures to economize on food span periods of time far longer than a month. For example, I've purchased discounted fruit, frozen it, and eaten it over many months in smoothies. Many items can be purchased in quantity on sale and eaten over many months.
So, ironically, the food challenge has caused us to economize less in our food budget in certain ways. Rather than continue to replenish our supplies with discounted items over the last couple weeks, I've stopped shopping and intentionally tried to reduce my supplies. I'm not Mormon, but one thing I respect about the Mormons is their ability to pack away food. It makes me uncomfortable to run low on food supplies. And buying things in bulk when they're on sale saves a lot of money over time. (We also had to give away some perishable food that we weren't able to eat up.
My shopping trip lasted from 12:20 to 1:15 in the morning, from doorstep to doorstep. It took a little longer than usual because I paused to jot down notes and take a photograph. (It has taken me longer to write about going shopping than it took me to go shopping.)
Unfortunately, I didn't find any spectacular deals on mark-down. Nevertheless, I purchased many goods that are regularly sold for a very reasonable price. The best deal was two-for-one bags of potatoes; I bought ten pounds for $2.69. Many of the other items are one-time purchases for the month.
So far, I've spent $42.90 out of the $180 budget. But these goods, combined with a few additional items that I plan to pick up from Target, will constitute my basic stocks.
As I wrote previously, "[W]e are by no means going on an emergency, subsistence diet. We could survive on a small fraction of the money that we'll actually spend. Our goal is to achieve a comfortable, low-budget diet of above-average nutrition." It's a demonstration diet. Thus, some of the things we'll buy and make just to show that it can be bought and made. For example, I purchased chicken, even though we don't eat a lot of meat, because most people will consider a diet incomplete without some meat.
Obviously, there's a lot of variation in what a person could buy with $3 per day for food. We've selected things that we like and know how to prepare. Our goal is to find a balance between cost, nutrition, and enjoyability. (Again, without that final consideration, we could spend far less and eat nutritiously.) So, with that basic explanation, following is the list of food that I purchased:
Regular oat meal. I bought the King Soopers brand for $1.99. For 42 ounces of uncooked cereal, that's an outstanding deal. I may need to purchase one or two more of these over the month.
Lemon juice concentrate. The point of this $2.29 purchase is to flavor iced tea. It might also be useful for certain recipes. The idea was that, given that we're foregoing soda and coffee, we wanted one flavorful drink that doesn't cost a lot.
Popcorn. This low-cost snack can be eaten with a bit of melted butter or with caramel.
100 tea bags for $1.58. We can use this for hot and iced tea.
Whole wheat and unbleached white flour. $1.49 for five pounds of food isn't too bad. With this we can make tortillas, cookies, and pie crust. We thought about making bread with yeast or baking powder, but we couldn't really justify the expense. We might purchase low-cost loaves of bread, as they don't cost much more than the ingredients for bread, and they save a lot of time. It is possible to purchase yeast in bulk, but that amount would last much longer than a month.
Canola oil. This can be used in tortillas and other recipes. It cost $2.12.
Hot sauce. This was on sale for $1. This will be useful for spicing up burritos made with refried beans, chicken, and rice.
Salt. Even though we'll use only a tiny portion of the salt in the container, it cost only 49 cents.
Cinnamon. This was a luxury at $3.49, but this four-ounce canister will last all month, and it's really yummy in oatmeal. We can also make cinnamon toast and cinnamon tortillas with it.
Black pepper. It's $1.99, but it's really good in soup and on potatoes.
Sugar. This is $2.19 for a four-pound bag. I'm not sure how much sugar I'll use over the course of a month, so I bought the smaller bag, even though giant bags cost less per pound. We'll use sugar for flan, caramel, and cookies.
Jelly. Okay, we didn't really need this $1.18 purchase, but it will be good on bread, tortillas, and even oatmeal.
Flax seed. At $2.19 per pound, this isn't exactly low-cost food. But a pound will last us all month, and it will provide us with Omega 3 fat.
Baking soda. This 69-cent purchase will be used in various recipes.
Potatoes. Ten pounds for $2.69 -- not bad. Great for soup.
Carrots. These cost $1.07 for a two-pound bag; also great for soup.
Onions and garlic. It's 99 cents per pound for onions and 49 cents for a head of garlic, but these two products are outstanding in soup.
Cabbage. This terrific food costs only 50 cents per pound. I'll use the green cabbage in soup and perhaps buy red cabbage later for salads.
Banana. I bought a single banana (50 cents per pound) for my wife's breakfast. I'm hoping to find some discounted bananas this month.
Chicken. Legs and thighs were on sale for 69 cents per pound. Even though part of the weight is bone, it's still a pretty good deal. Okay, the dark meat is a little more fatty than the white meat, but it also contains higher levels of some good stuff. We'll probably have baked chicken one night, then shred the rest (and freeze it) for salads and burritos.
Butter. It costs $2.29 per pound, but we use it sparingly in deserts, on bread, and on potatoes.
The new store ads go in effect later today. So I have a bit more shopping to do. At King Soopers I want to buy melons and eggs. And at Target I plan to pick up rice, beans, pasta, and pasta sauce (mainly for variety). Aside from that, I'll purchase fruit, vegetables, and other items as on sale.
So far I've spent $42.90 on food (which includes $1.79 in sales taxes, which are a pretty stupid thing to impose especially on the poor), which leaves $137.10 (at most). I'll spend another big chunk of money later today, but then we'll be fairly well stocked for the rest of the month.