A Healthful Diet, on $3.57 a Day

Sunday, May 27, 2007

I am a Quaker who has owned a natural foods business for 31 years and has traveled extensively in the developing world. It is clear to me that most of the people who live in the poorer areas of the world rely on a simple diet based on grains, beans and vegetables. So, as a discipline in keeping with the Quaker call to simplicity, I began adhering to a $25 weekly food budget in early April specifically to test the economic feasibility of living on organic whole grains, dried beans and fresh vegetables.

On that $3.57 a day, I have been able, through careful planning, to feed myself well -- with enough left over to prepare lunch four days a week for the five people on the staff of my store.

Virtually my entire diet since April has been grains and beans grown certified-organic and a mix of organic and cheaper non-organic vegetables.

So imagine my surprise to read that Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), in attempting to live for one week on a food budget of $21 as part of the "Food Stamp Challenge," decided that they could not afford organic foods and fresh vegetables. Or that McGovern, who lamented that he was forced to choose hamburger that was high in fat, concluded that "it's almost impossible to make healthy choices on a food stamp diet."

For more than six weeks, my diet each day has consisted of three meals made up of whole grains such as rice, wheat, oats, barley or rye, with prices hovering at $1 a pound; white beans at $1.39 a pound; or lentils at $1 a pound. I have supplemented those staples with all kinds of vegetables, such as onions at 99 cents a pound, Yukon Gold potatoes at 99 cents a pound, carrots at $1.29 a pound, parsnips at $2.59 a pound and turnips at $1.99 a pound. I have also added a small amount of walnuts daily for protein, at $7.89 a pound.

Keep in mind, the above prices are for completely organic produce; the cost seems to drop 30 to 50 percent if one moves to supermarket prices and nonorganic vegetables.

Believe me, I know this is a very simple diet compared with what we are used to in our affluence. What I am learning from this experience is that one can enjoy eating, as well as work upwards of a 40-hour week, just fine on this meager amount of money.

I must share one caveat and one more piece of information. The caveat is that this budget does not account for the spices and fresh herbs I consume (which, to be honest, are what has made the monotony endurable). But guideline No. 3 of the Food Stamp Challenge registration form states that the cost of spices and herbs is not to be counted. The piece of information is that, like Ryan (6-foot-3 and 215 pounds), I'm a big guy (6-6, 240).

Let it be said that I completely agree with McGovern that "it's immoral that in the U.S., the richest country in the world, people are hungry." However, with all due respect to these elected officials, I would vigorously challenge the nutritional wisdom and fiscal prudence of their shopping lists.

-- Tom Wolfe

College Park


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