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
LOW-CARB FOOD STAMP DIET COSTS $4.61 PER DAY
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.