Low-Carb Food Stamp Diet: $4.61 Per Day

Today is the first day of my “Low-Carb Food Stamp Diet,” and this morning I purchased groceries for the entire week. The total cost was $32.29, or $4.61 per day. Following is the media release, then documentation of my shopping trips.

[February 6 Update: I purchased another 78 cents worth of bananas, bringing my daily total up to $4.72. Read the details.]

MEDIA RELEASE: February 4, 2009

Diet Proves Great Nutrition Possible on Small Budget

Today Ari Armstrong purchased a week’s worth of highly nutritious groceries for $32.29, or $4.61 per day. That’s 19 percent less than the $5.68 that food stamps allow for a single individual — see http://www.fns.usda.gov/FSP/faqs.htm.

Armstrong will eat his “Low-Carb Food Stamp Diet” from February 4-10, and he will document his receipts, purchases, and meals online — see http://tinyurl.com/a9l7z3.

“My grocery purchases today explode the myth that food-stamp recipients can only afford unhealthy foods,” Armstrong said.

A recent CNN report — see http://tinyurl.com/d2lb5g — quotes several individuals who falsely claim a low budget means a bad diet.

Armstrong purchased meat, dairy, eggs, olive oil, vegetables, fruit, walnuts, chocolate, tea, and spices. He did not purchase any products with grains, vegetable oils, hydrogenated fat, potatoes, or processed sugar. The diet roughly follows the advice of such writers as Gary Taubes and is similar to “paleo” or “cave-man” diets.

Receipts and Photos


The key to eating well on a budget is simply to eat what’s on sale.

A week’s budget isn’t a true test of this, as true budget shopping looks ahead several weeks. For example, a couple months ago I bought a dozen or so assorted squash for 49 cents per pound. Some of this squash is now in my freezer, pureed, awaiting its place in some dish or other, ala Jessica Seinfeld. Squash hold up very well over time, so I still have three spaghetti squash awaiting the oven. To take another example, last week King Soopers sold strawberries for a dollar per pound, so I bough extra and froze some.

Today I shopped at three grocery stores, Sprouts, Target, and King Soopers. I chose Sprouts by reading store ads online; that store is having particularly good vegetable sales this week. (Last week King Soopers had a sale for red-leaf lettuce, but that didn’t help me today; grocery sales run from Wednesday through Tuesday.)

I had never been into Sprouts before, and I like it. It has on open, light feel, and it has some great prices. The speculate, I think the business model is something like, “Lure in the yuppies with loss-leaders and a hip environment, then the yuppies will spend all the money they saved on higher-priced specialty goods.” This is great for people shopping on a budget. As the photos illustrate, I cleaned up on produce for a mere $6.80. I got a large eggplant for 50 cents. Cabbage, tomatoes, and onions for 33 cents per pound. Grapefruit three for a dollar — each weighs over a pound. Red-leaf lettuce for 69 cents each; I bought two head. And I got some Walnuts to give me some Omega 3. (Normally I take fish oil for the DHA Omega 3, but I’ll skip those for the week. I buy a large, inexpensive bottle of capsules at Costco, so they can definitely be part of a low-budget diet.) I’ll definitely be going back to Sprouts.

Next up was Target. The produce at Target sucks. The quality isn’t too bad, but the quality-cost combo isn’t great. But the store has great deals on things like chocolate, tomato sauce (which I skipped this week), and, as you can see, turkey. Milk costs the same at Target and King Soopers, so I grabbed a gallon at Target. I was surprised to find that Newman’s olive oil was the least expensive of any I saw.

Finally I swung by King Soopers, a.k.a. the Store of Markdowns. I left a $2 gallon of milk sitting in the cooler; the short dates of dairy mark-downs don’t allow for a week’s keep. I did buy a bunch of marked-down bananas for 35 cents per pound. I plan to eat these for desert with chocolate sauce and cream — yum. As you can tell, I got hundreds of times as much salt as I need for the week, as, believe it or not, that was the cheapest way I found to buy it. Tea wasn’t on my list, but I knew I was under budget, so I splurged and spent 89 cents on a box of 16 bags. Two cloves of garlic — 49 cents. A cup of cream. Pepper. And that completed my week’s purchases.

The two most expensive purchases on my list were the turkey, at $7.77 for an 11.26 pound bird, and the olive oil, at $4.48.

Oh, the final picture is my breakfast: two eggs and a diced tomato scrambled in olive oil, a cup of milk, and a mug of black tea.

The main thing I learned from my 2007 diet was the importance of fat. At the time, I was eating from a “fat is bad” mentality. Now I understand that good fat is a cornerstone of a healthy diet. Of course there’s a big difference between monounsaturated fats and Omega 3 oils versus “partially hydrogenated soybean and/or cottonseed oil.” My usual diet includes butter and coconut oil in addition to olive oil, but I couldn’t get all three for a single week.

Recently I read in a book about thrift — I forget the title — claiming that you should never buy off-list at a grocery store. That’s terrible advice for saving money. All the time I find fantastic sales that I wasn’t expecting. To take another example, recently I purchased around 20 peppers for 20 cents each. I ate some and pureed and froze the rest to add to dishes. I would have been nuts to skip the peppers just because they weren’t on my list.

So, to summarize my advice:

1. Buy real food, not processed junk. That means you’re really only shopping about 20 percent of the typical grocery store.

2. Buy food at the lowest prices you can find.

3. When you come across great deals, buy as much as you can reasonably eat or fit in your freezer.

This is pretty much common sense. So nobody better tell me the only thing they can afford is junk macaroni and cheese with hydrogenated fat. As I’ve said before, what is lacking is not access to good, modestly priced food, but the will to eat it.

14 thoughts on “Low-Carb Food Stamp Diet: $4.61 Per Day”

  1. I’m really enjoying this. Perhaps the real lesson is basically that people have forgotten how to eat. One wouldn’t have to do this for long before starting to come up with a week’s recipe ideas in the store after only a quick review of the sale items.

  2. Armstrong has obviously been eating well and is in good or better physical condition and virtually not overweight. If he was like the typical American (overweight, out of shape, a regular consumer of fats and carbohydrates), he would never survive on the diet he has chosen. He would be feeling always hungry and drinking water like its going out of style to placate the onerous and persistent stomach pangs and aches he would be having.

  3. Perhaps Anonymous would care to check what I’m actually eating. There is plenty of fat in the diet. Whole milk, cream, eggs, olive oil, turkey, chocolate…

    Taubes contends that it is actually a high-carb diet that exacerbates hunger pangs, whereas a lower-carb, higher (healthy) fat diet diet satiates hunger much better.

    In my normal diet, I do not completely cut out processed carbs, but I do limit them.

    Plus, the diet I’ve chosen does contain carbs; for example, a banana has 27 grams of carbs, according to NutritionData.com. And a cup of whole milk contains 13 grams of carbs.

  4. I’ll add the obvious point: a diet with more carbs is potentially much cheaper. I know of no less expensive foods that flour and rice. If I were seriously hurting for money, I’d make flour tortillas and add rice to most dishes. A person can eat some grains without going overboard and without buying expensive packaged food.

  5. I’m not sure half a bottle of wine per day is necessary. Usually I do drink wine — I’ve taken to Black Box, which I actually prefer to various less-expensive bottles — but it’s not in the budget this week.

  6. Diet Proves Great Nutrition Possible on Small Budget…

    … if you own a car? I assume that you did drive right? You didn’t take a bus or walk. I’m solidly middle-class, but I live in San Francisco without a car. So a trip to the three closest “real” grocery stores, getting what you did, would take me about 6 hours.

    Diet Proves Great Nutrition Possible on Small Budget…

    … Assuming you have Internet access and can find out absolutely all the lowest prices in your area. Here in SF, even the cheapest Internet access costs about $35/month. But I suppose you could use the connections at the Public Library–add another two hours to that trip…on the bus, and then there’s the problem of printing the necessary coupons…

    Diet Proves Great Nutrition Possible on Small Budget…

    Assuming you don’t live in an inner-city, one that doesn’t have anything other than ‘corner markets’ (liquor, cigarettes, sparingly few eggs, onions, and grapefruit) and don’t have limited mobility. Though I walk to the closest “real” grocery store (’bout a mile away), a lot of people in the SF’s Tenderloin (’bout 3 blocks South of here) don’t have that option.

    All I’m really trying to point out is that the situation is not as clear as your description makes it out to be, and a fair test of whether or not somebody can get by on ~ $6.00/day isn’t going to be determined by a Colorado shopping trip. I wish I had time to comparison shop the items you purchased at our local Whole Foods and Ralphs (my guess…double), but that will have to wait. Target…out of the question. The nearest one is 20 miles away.

    (BTW: How much did the gas, insurance, and car-payment amount to?)

  7. I knew going into this that, no matter what conditions and restrictions I placed on the diet, some would complain about them, despite the fact that my self-imposed conditions are much more severe in many respects than are real conditions for people on a very-limited budget.

    The main point that Kvatch misses is that, as I’ve explained, buying all my groceries within a single week, to be eaten entirely within that week, imposes an artificial constraint that requires special planning. Usually I’m always looking for deals at the local store. But, within a week’s period, any given store will run sales only for particular items. Thus, it’s much easier to buy food on sale when you’re shopping several weeks out.

    By the way, the grocery stores also mail their ads to everybody in the neighborhood, so internet access is not necessary.

    In fact I do purchase many of my groceries by walking to the local grocery store. If I had to purchase all of my groceries that way, my food budget would go up only very slightly, because I would simply take better advantage of the deals at the local store.

  8. Here in the Denver area the grocery stores send out their sale flyers every week in the mail, as well as publish them in the Wednesday newspapers. No internet access is required. Also, the cheapest grocery stores are the ethnic markets, usually located in the poorer neighborhoods. That’s something I should document on my site sometime soon.

  9. Ari, You have a car. You are in good health and can schlep to all these different stores. You don’t live in an area that is bereft of grocery stores. You are not home bound and dependent upon others to do your shopping for you. And you do know something about nutrition.

    I think Kvatch is describing a much more realistic situation in most cities.

  10. For years I shopped the way you describe, and it does work. I also did low-carb diets and was always able to afford it one way or another–shopping the sales, buying large quantities when it was especially cheap, grabbing bargains that weren’t on my list, etc. Then my husband lost his job and for the past year and a half we’ve been scraping by on two partial incomes (when we can get work).

    It’s impossible to “shop smart” when there just isn’t any money. Turkey, for example, may be cheap at 59 cents a pound, but when you don’t have even $5.90 plus tax for a 10-lb turkey during the week the sale is on (that’s quite a small one–we’re not even talking about the 25-lb. ones here) then you can’t grab it, no matter how cheap it is. Eggs may be cheap when they’re $1 a dozen, but we had weeks last year when we didn’t shop for groceries at all because we had to save money for gas so we could do the absolutely necessary driving (looking for work, etc.) There were weeks when we didn’t have fresh fruits or vegetables and not much meat. What did we live on? Beans, rice, flour, and pasta products we’d stocked up on months earlier when THEY were on sale, all of which keep well on the shelf.

    It’s true that many low-income people are also low-education people and honestly don’t know how to shop cheap or cook from scratch, but some of us are pinching every penny as tight as we possibly can and we still aren’t getting enough protein and fresh produce. You have to have the money when the sales are on, even for cheap groceries.

  11. I am amazed at how few commenters seem to have actually read the relevant material prior to responding.

    I did not propose the low-carb diet as the model for an emergency budget. As noted, if I were truly on an emergency budget, I too would eat inexpensive beans, rice, and flour. (I would also garden.)

    As for the previous comment that I have a car and am not home bound, I buy many of my groceries from the local store, and I usually walk. If I had no car, I could buy all my groceries there or occasionally take the bus elsewhere. As noted, over a longer period of time you can find more deals at a given store.

    True, if I were unable to move, I would not be able to do much bargain shopping. But that describes barely anyone taking food stamps, so it’s irrelevant.

    Again, some people will never be happy with a model diet, no matter what the conditions, because they are already committed to the politics of forced redistribution.

  12. I think that if welfare would have classes on how to shop for and prepare healthy foods more people would shop healthier. I myself love eating healthy but have no clue how to prepare or shop with a menu list for a week or month at a time within the stamps budget. I think the cost of government food stamps could decline a lot if there was education involved. Not all people on food stamps have access to internet or cooking channel. Educate people

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