How to eat on just $4 a day

By April Dykman

For Get Rich Slowly

Published: Thursday, Aug. 21 2014 12:50 p.m. MDT

I view food as a cross between health care and hobby. And I know I’m fortunate to be in a position to buy things like freshly pressed olive oil and porcini mushrooms.

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Editor's note: This article originally ran on the personal finance blog Get Rich Slowly. It has been reprinted here with permission.

I spend a lot of money on food. (More than I spend on my mortgage.)

Part of it is need, of course. But much of it is want, because I’m both an enthusiastic cook and a health nut. I view food as a cross between health care and hobby. And I know I’m fortunate to be in a position to buy things like freshly pressed olive oil and porcini mushrooms. I know that not everyone has that option. For some people, food is about survival. They have to stretch their food budget as far as they possibly can. Sometimes they go to bed hungry.

Being realistic

From time to time, I read GRS comments asking for advice for people who are struggling just to make ends meet. They can barely afford to eat, let alone save a six-month emergency fund or open a Roth IRA.

Comments like those always stay with me, but I’ve shied away from writing about those topics because I feel awkward doling out advice on something I know nothing about. I don’t know what it’s like to struggle to put food on the table. I’m not a teacher or a social worker who witnesses struggles like that.

And I certainly didn’t want to repeat McDonald’s blunder, when it created an unrealistic sample budget for its minimum-wage workers, inadvertently proving that its workers couldn’t live on a McDonald’s salary. The budget estimate didn’t include line items for heating or child care, so you know it was just a little out of touch and completely unhelpful to its minimum-wage workers.

But last weekend I came across an article about Leanne Brown, and I immediately knew I would share her story on GRS.

Eating on $4/day

Brown moved from Canada to New York to pursue a master’s degree in food studies. While volunteering with food access programs, she noticed that people in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program were eating a lot of processed and unhealthy foods.

“It really bothered me,” she told NPR. “The 47 million people on food stamps — and that’s a big chunk of the population — don’t have the same choices everyone else does.”

Part of the reason why they don’t have the same food choices is that the average SNAP benefit per person is $133 per month for food. That works out to roughly $4.30 per day.

Another problem is that to feed a family on $4 a day, you have to cook. And you have to cook in a way that most of our grandmas used to cook, knowledge that many people didn’t inherit. For instance, cooking an entire chicken is more cost-effective than buying individual cuts, especially if you use every bit of the bird, even making stock from the bones. But when I started cooking, I had no idea how to cook and carve an entire chicken let alone how to make stock. My education came from copies of Cook’s Illustrated and lots of trial and error. And before I taught myself how to cook, I didn’t know how to really use up all of my groceries. For instance, I used to throw away stale bread. Now I know how to make like an Italian grandma and throw it in some pappa al pomodoro. But of course, I have leisure time to cook, and food is my hobby. Some people don’t have time for hobbies. Instead, they have two jobs and kids to raise.

Finally, another big problem Brown noticed is that the recipes already out there for eating cheaply didn’t look or sound very appealing. She described them as “photocopied a bunch of times from a 1970s church cookbook, and not very inspiring.”

So Brown set out to create a solution to these problems, writing Good and Cheap: How to Eat Well on $4/Day, a cookbook for people on a tight budget.

Eating well, on the cheap