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The (Organic) Thrifty Food Plan Challenge

Spices for Tex Mex chili We eat well. Maybe a little too well, judging from our waistlines. And we eat pretty inexpensively, too. So the recent spate of publicity about Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski's committment to eat food totalling only $21 for one week (the amount an average Oregon food stamp recipient receives) caught my attention.

Now, the Governor's stunt is a little misleading: no one expects The government doesn't expect food stamp recipients to eat on only $21 a week (though I'm sure some people try). The USDA's Thrifty Food Plan [pdf] (from which food stamp allotments are derived) is spartan enough, but the most recent figures provide an adult male between the ages of 20 and 50 years of age with $35.40 a week for food—part of which will be provided by food stamps, and part by the individual, depending on their income. Regardless, the Governor's point is well taken. It's not a lot of money to spend on a week's worth of food.

I pride myself on my thrifty shopping habits. I've also been fortunate in these last few years to be able to afford to buy organic and locally grown fresh food most of the time. So I've decided to take the Governor's challenge a step further. I'd like to see if I can feed the two of us for one month on a "Thrifty Food Plan" budget using organic food. My budget: 74.00/week or 320.80/month, the USDA "Thrifty" standard for a family of 2 adults, aged 20-50 years.

That's $10.57/day if you take the weekly amount, or 10.69/day if you take the monthly amount—about $5.30 each—and here we run into the first mystery of the USDA Food Plan: why do the two figures not match up?

A note: I would make this a local, organic challenge, except that my market doesn't always note where my staples (beans, rice, flour) come from. I believe the rice is grown in California but the flour may come from Kansas, I have no idea. So I'll leave it at organic and try to buy locally as much as I possibly can.

Is it going to be hard? I don't know. Like most shoppers, some weeks I spend well above my budget, and some weeks I spend less. I tend to stock up on items when they are on sale, and of course many staples are bought and then used over the course of weeks.

So here are the ground rules:

- I will cook the way I usually cook, with an eye to economy. I'm not going to cook only the very cheapest things (at least I hope I don't have to), but there's no way I'm going to splurge on morels, either.

- I will shop the way I usually shop, that is, I'll buy in bulk and on sale whenever possible. I wonder if this budget can accomodate stocking up on sale items? It's possible that none of my staples will go on sale during the next few weeks, or, it may be that this budget simply can't accomodate buying any extra food. If that's the case, I'll make the purchase anyway, but note how much this (very thrifty) style of shopping would have taken me over budget.

- Food already in my home will be priced out as accurately as possible based on the price of those items at the time I bought them. If I can't determine what I actually spent, I'll price them at the rate I would have had to spend during the week I cook them.

- Food from our subscription to Terra Firma Farm's CSA will be priced at a flat $12.50/week—our cost based on a quarterly payment.

- Some pre-purchased items will not be organic—I'm not 100%—but items I purchase during the next 4 weeks will be organic if it's at all possible.

Now, I have some advantages:

- I work from home, so I can easily take the time to cook from scratch, which I do almost all of the time.

- I am primarily a vegetarian cook. That may not sound like an advantage to you, but when you are trying to save money, believe me it is.

- We eat rather simply, as you will see. For example, we almost never eat dessert at home.

- I shop at a natural foods coop which offers a wide variety of foods in bulk.

- I live in California, which has a much broader variety of fresh locally grown food during the winter than much of the rest of the country does. It's springtime, so the frozen northeast and midwest are starting to see locally grown salad greens and the like, but I expect that I may have access to produce that's not yet available, say, in Wisconsin.

- My CSA delivers produce to my neighborhood once a week. This makes it easy for us to eat locally and seasonally. Again, if I lived in Wisconsin, a CSA would likely only provide me with food from June to September, requiring far more attention for the rest of the year if I wanted to eat primarily what was grown in my area.

One more thing: there may be lots of carrots. I always get behind on the CSA carrots during the winter. They keep well, but not forever. I'm in my usual spring frenzy of trying to use them all up before they rot in the crisper.

A note: I am tracking only food costs for this month. Grocery items such as cleaning supplies, deodorant, over-the-counter medicines and supplements and the like are not included in the costs I am tracking.

I know I can eat on this budget. The question is whether I can eat as well as usual on this budget. Let's find out.

 [ 04.28.07 ] Read the next entry  »

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I am sitting on the edge of my seat in anticipation of the results.

For the past three years, I have struggled to decrease our food bill. I buy almost exclusively organic, and local whenever possible, and I'm feeding a family of five. Our monthly food expense is the second largest budget item for us, right after our mortgage. (And prior to moving to a larger house, it was our largest budget item.)

I do have other constraints - for example, with three children under age four, it's hard to find the time to cook much from scratch, so we do buy some prepared foods. And some of our kids are fussy eaters, so there is definitely some food waste.

But still...I'd love to dramatically cut our food bill. And if it is possible to eat on $5.30/day/person, that would be a dramatic decrease for us.

So I'm rooting for you, and I'll be doing my meal planning based on what you post. :)

What a wonderful idea. I'm really looking forward to the results. And if you have any time left, it might be fun to round up some more of those political "doing what the poor folks have to do, for a little while" stunts. One I recall was a very pleasant young conservative MP in England (now a famous writer and commentator) called Matthew Parris, who lived, as I recall, either on the streets or in a homeless shelter.

Ah, no, I misremembered: here's a report

Rebecca, it sounds like a very interesting experiment. One thing in particular I'd like to really commend you for is that you are accounting for the purchase of staples like spices too. Most similar experiments I've seen around the web don't do that. I even saw one so-called 'budget eating experiment' which included a salt-baked fish using Malden Salt that the author has in her cupboard! That's just cheating. Real people on very tight budgets don't have the extra resources to stock up on food in bulk, or buy those little extra ingredients that perk up food.

On the very first episode of 30 Days (a documentary/reality series by Supersize Me's Morgan Spurlock) he and his girlfriend attempted to live for 30 days on minimum wage. His gf is a vegan cook and she had quite a struggle if I remember trying to cook her way on such a tight budget.

I'll be following your progress with interest - Good luck!

thought you might be interested on this similar project undertaken by a friend of mine, although it was more a rumination than a long experiment. I thought her insights into structural support (available to the comfortable more than the impoverished) were particularly useful.

You deserve an award for this!
I think this is a wonderful idea.
I am from NJ and I have been shopping at WholeFoods for about a year now. For this month, I have noticed that I spend ALOT of money there. For instance on 4/30/07 I spent $67 bucks and on on May 5 I spent $47 bucks!.
There is only two people in the house and I feel that's too much for the two of us. I am always hearing about local co-ops saling fresh items and you just put things into perspective. I am also going to follow this challenge.
Thanks for archiving your results for readers to follow.

This is wonderful! I will be visiting your site often to track the progress of your project. We also eat a primarily vegetarian diet (organic when we can) and are in Illinois. It would be interesting to see how much difference there is in food cost across the country. Best wishes to you!

An excellent idea. Having watched the demise of local shops here in the UK the supermarket is king of shopping. This is leading to the most amazing food poverty because the cheapest foods are highly processed, over packaged products. My nearest supermarket has over 100 BOGOFs (Buy one get one free) on at a time and they're all on processed food.
I'm ever aware that the food we eat needs to be healthy and sadly in the UK we're sliding into a situation where its getting harder to buy cheap vegetables. I'm hoping to encourage my neighbours to set up a community garden on some land near us that can grow some food for us all.
Simple things like planting fruit trees instead of ornamental trees would be fantastic and is something local government could start doing.
Good luck with your low cost eating - I look forward to reading more.

You CAN do this!! I do it already for my family of four, we have a budget of $100/week. And we eat meat too, although you can imagine not very much for the prices that local meat goes for :-)

I'm sure you've already heard all the usual food budget tips - eat beans and rice, keep a price book, etc. I've found one thing that helps tremendously that people rarely mention is going through cookbooks and PRICING the cost of likely-looking recipes. Oil and certain spices will drive the price up quick. Learn to cook with very little oil :-) And yes, spices are expensive, do you have a Penzeys or local health food store that sells spices in bulk? $2 worth of cumin will last you the whole month, that and $1.50 for 6 heads of garlic from the Chinese grocery and and another dollar for a big head of cilantro from same will go a LONG way.

It's actually easier to do this long term than it is short term, because you can work in things like bulk buying, buying a few of those more expensive items each month instead of trying to buy them all at once, and gardening. An awful lot of our savings comes from bulk buying on sale and freezing or canning garden produce, which would not be sensible for a month long experiment. But once you have a couple dozen jars of homemade FREE except for the sugar raspberry jam, or a dozen jars of fiery harissa made from tomatoes and chiles from your garden, suddenly exotic treats like raspberry crepes for breakfast or Moroccan chickpeas and couscous can become some of the cheapest food you eat.

One more word of advice - be creative. A large part of really cutting to the bone budget cooking like this is NOT shopping according to a menu plan, but picking up what you can get on sale and figuring out what to do with it. Overripe bananas are half price? You're having smoothies or banana bread for breakfast! Someone at the farmer's market have half-price eggs because they are a little older? Older eggs are a lot easier to peel when hard-boiled.

You CAN do this, and good for you for trying! It will be harder for you to do it for a month than it is for those who do it all the time, but it is doable and I bet you'll eat better than you think :-)

I live in New York City and I spend a fortune on groceries - but we can't do things like buy in bulk becasue we have no space to put anything, plus we don't have a car, so transporting large items/large quantities isn't feasible. We get our groceries every week now from a place that delivers, and it's $5 a delivery - but if it helps me to stock up and plan meals in advance rather than resorting to pricey take-out, I figure it's still saving us money in the long run.

The only problem with the CSA is that at least the ones in our area charge high fees at the beginning of the summer. I'd love to be a part of a CSA, but I make $800/month. There's no way I can afford the $400 one month that it would take to join.

I would love to know how this goes for you, as I am a single Mother to a very special needs child that has a very strict diet. I am provided with $643, if I get it, in child support from her father and the state has reduced my Food stamps to $160 per month. We were getting $284, but since he now sort of pays support it has been reduced, based on the states convenient way of dispersing payments (they hold all payments and then send them one right after another, so a 30 days cycle causes a reduction in FS).

My child has severe food allergies and is only permitted to eat gluten, soy, dairy, potato, and corn free products. As such, a breakfast bar for her is about $2 per bar and cereal at about $5 per box! I live on top ramon, as I can no longer afford anything else with the aid reduction and she continues to have medical problems from the food she eats! I was able to buy her special formula, in place of milk that she's allergic to, with my Food Stamps until they reduced it to nothing. Since, she has been stuck on rice milk that provides half of the nutrients as she once had and thus, she is now beginning to lose weight and is under 2 years old!

The supposed Thrifty Food Plan is a crock for those with special dietary needs and many of those children are in low income families!

I have a Bachelor of Science degree that goes unused, since I gave birth because her doctors are not comfortable releasing her for child care. As such, I stay home 24/7 with her because I cannot get a doctors release for daycare! I live in Section 8 Housing, trying to sell what I can on eBay that I no longer need, and have given up my life entirely at the age of 29 years old! It's been 2 years since I've done anything socially, because as a single mom I cannot afford to pay a sitter and with her condition I cannot just leave her with anyone! Her father lives with a woman that make 10k a month in West Hills, CA (a prominent area of LA County) and even can afford to buy his cat a diamond studded collar, but will not even provide medical insurance for his own flesh and blood! He drives a state of the art truck with all the big boy toys and his child wears second hand clothes, while I struggle to see what food I can afford this month and whether she will require another surgery or hospitalization (provided by the fabulous state aid medical that nobody will accept, except community clinics that could care less about healing)! This on top of now being $60k in debt and being hunted down for money that I do not have, is a fabulous way to live! But hey, I got a 4 year degree out of that, which does me no good! I wake up each day wishing it were already over, because I do not want to face what money issues I will have next...on top of the medical issues of my child that no parent should have to endure!

What I am getting at, is that the Federal Thrifty Food Plan is a crock and a sham! It does not account for the growing number of people, mostly children, that are developing food allergies/intolerances, as a result of our highly processed diets! My child is a prime example of how society has let down our children! She lives on broccoli and turkey, because that is all I can afford for her special diet! She will most likely end up with some type of food disorder as a result of her limitations. If I could get back the amount of aid I had before her father started paying a fraction of his own income, she might not end up scared of food. However, since I'm now so limited on resources, even more then before, she will most likely have a warped sense of diet! As she has already started showing signs within the last month with refusal to eat!

Politicians making up some gimmick to shade over the eyes of the working classman that votes! Well, I'm dirt poor, but I get out and vote too and I'm sick of these people pretending that we, the poor, do not exist! Our children are hungry and so are we! Money talks in this Country and as a result our children have been left behind!

I hope your study shows that it's near impossible for a person to live on this supposed plan and even more so for a child with severe eating challenges! It's pathetic that I paid my taxes for 13 years, to be treated in the manner in which we must now live!

Our children are STARVING in America, but more focus is provided to other Countries and it's pathetic!

You can do it.
I do it.
The way I cheat is to grow my own food. In fact just minutes ago a case worker just left our home.

what would help is to be able to buy canning jar on foodstamps.

I can buy seeds, plants, hunting and fishing items but not the cans.

Think canning keeps food safe for a long time and requires no more expence to keep safe. Ok, so it can not freeze but I have to keep our home warm enought to live anyway.

I have gotten raspberry, blueberry, aspragrass, tomatoe, and every seed I can grow. I have had a tomate plant alive and producing for 2 years.


In the Complete Tightwad Gazette, Amy Dacyczyn recommends buying canning equipment at garage sales. At the time she was writing, she said she could pick up everything she needed - including the pressure canner! - on the way cheap at garage sales.

It's a great book. She's obsessed with saving money, and every time I re-read her book I go a little insane, too. In a good way. See if your library has a copy - you might enjoy it.

Thanks for your comment and the insight. It's very interesting to find out what is and is not allowed with food stamps.

You must live in the South to have kept a plant alive for so long?

We've been doing this for about a year, and it's been wonderful. Of course, access to farmers' markets in the summer and a co-op really contributes to making it a success. Some weeks we're even under budget.

Nevertheless, the challenge to eat organic on the USDA's meal plan can be very, very tough.

Good Luck!


I have thoroughly enjoyed your postings and the goals of your project. I wanted to let you know that I posted a piece ( on the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity's blog regarding the seductive power of the thinking that addressing individual responsibility alone could improve the public's diet. I noted your conversation on the advantages that you have over the average food stamp participant, concluding that your efforts point towards potential solutions, such as government-sponsored cooking and shopping classes. I'd love to hear your thoughts on our blog as well. Keep up the good work.

Good for you! I've been doing something similar for several years. I'm single, and my grocery budget is slightly higher--$25.00 a week--but that does include things like cleaning supplies and paper goods. I live in the southern part of Texas, so I may not have quite as many organic food choices as some areas, but I buy organic whenever I can. I enjoy cooking easy meals, and I never feel deprived by the meals I prepare. It helps that I already had a well-stocked spice and herb cabinet before I settled on this grocery budget, which is part of my overall spending and saving plan. Also, most, though not all, of my meals are vegetarian, which is also a savings. Most importantly, I always, always shop (once a week only) with a list from which I never depart.

Since I began this budget, I cook more creatively, eat a healthier diet, and waste far less food. I don't have every kind of delicacy every day, but I certainly don't skimp. And I realize that many of the foods I eat today were unheard-of luxuries in the Texas of my youth (born 1964). Feta cheese? Dried cranberries? Red bell peppers? Asparagus? I eat foods like these, but I never take them for granted. Cornbread and beans still taste good, too. Although many of the foods I prepare are things that my mother never ate in her life, I learned from her the basics of cooking and budgeting and the importance of wholesome food. I think that it is so important that people learn basic budgeting and meal preparation skills. It is absolutely possible to eat delicious, healthy food, with a large organic component, on little money. Home economics classes, anyone?

Like everyone else, I'm eager to see how this goes for you. I'm also thankful so many people posted with their own tips on how to accomplish this. We're on a super tight budget because I'm a full-time student, have two kids, and my husband just lost his job. Even so, we want to feed our kids the healthiest food possible because we don't want them to end up with problems in the future. I've decided to try to switch us over to organic foods and I'm having a hard time convincing my husband that we can do this without blowing our budget.

Good luck! Perhaps there is some other information that needs to be included. The Food Stamp Household Profile provided this detail; only 56.6% of households have completed at least 12 years of education, i.e. have graduated from high school. That is certainly not the case for the congress members participating in the challenge. Items listed as eligible for purchase included seeds and plants to grow food. One ineligible item, vitamins!

Being a teacher, I have found one glaring problem, education. The choices of food that the congressional participants made indicated a knowledge of nutrition and what their bodies need to remain healthy. This is to be expected, considering their levels of education. In every case, the participants lost weight. Can the current recipients of food stamps make the same informed choices?

I see a need for a deeper reform of the food stamp program than simply raising the monthly allotment. If we are to make inroads into the problems of poor nutrition and obesity in this country, their needs to be the element of education. This includes teaching good nutrition, basic cooking and shopping skills. (Congressman James P. McGovern had and expert shopper to help him!) Funding for community gardens and the inclusion of vitamins in the food stamp program are also needed.

I really enjoyed reading about your project, and the comments that follow. My husband and I are raising three children, eat a mostly vegetarian diet, and our monthly food budget has been about $350 a month. We have eaten very well off this amount. We eat a lot of rice and veggies for dinner, oatmeal and raisins for breakfast, and whatever is left over for lunch. We do not drink milk, so we save there. And I bake bread, rolls, make homemade everything, and we do not eat processed packaged food.

We are getting ready for a huge move from Michigan to Wyoming and are trying to save more money each month, we are making about $1800 a month now and do not recieve food stamps. We are now living off about $75 every two weeks for food. I know it sounds crazy, but it is only for two months. we are eating a lot of potatoes, rice, oats, homemade bread, beans and frozen veggies that are priced just right. Sometimes we get hungry, but the kids never do. We could stand to lose a few pounds.

I think that what we are doing is good for us. Americans eat too much, and too much of the wrong thing. I often think of the depression era, and look back at old recipes of my grand mothers. She spent very little on food and always had well fed kids. Maybe some day we will be able to afford the "thrifty" plan from the USDA, which is about $600 a month for us. Right now, that thrifty plan seems like a luxury plan. I remember telling my husband a few months ago, that I was splurging for the month and going to spend $450 on food. We did that once. We ate a lot of fruit, that was the biggest luxury. But for now, we will live on beans and rice, and enjoy knowing that we are eating better than a lot of people in the world. Our $150 a month food budget will be interesting, but I know we will never go without.

I love doing the food challenges and I like reading about how people handle them. On thing for most people to remember is that if you're only doing it for a week you miss out on the benefits of having the money all at once and being able to buy in bulk, especially meat. You can get ground beef, chicken, etc. cheaper if you buy the larger pack.

I recommend that everyone try it for a month and see how it goes. As someone who was in the "system" for about 6 months last year we learned a lot about shopping the sales & buying in bulk when we could afford it.

Your moderator is Rebecca Blood. Please be thoughtful and polite.

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about this project

» How did it begin?
» Week 1: Monday | Tuesday | Wednesday | Thursday | Friday | Saturday | Sunday | Photos | Summary: Under budget - $3.20
» Week 2: Monday | Tuesday | Wednesday | Thursday | Friday | Saturday | Sunday | Photos | Summary: Under budget - $13.34
» Week 3: Monday | Tuesday | Wednesday | Thursday | Friday | Saturday | Sunday | Photos | Summary: Under budget - $7.15
» Week 4: Monday | Tuesday | Wednesday | Thursday | Friday | Saturday | Sunday | Photos | Summary: Under budget - $6.41
» Week 5: Monday | Tuesday | Wednesday | Photos

other food challenges

» Above Average Jane
» The Eat Local Challenge
» The April 2007 Penny-Wise Eat Local Challenge
» Half-Changed World
» Slow Food for Low and Moderate Income People
» Tinotopia's Food Stamp Diet

other food projects

Food is a Munition of War: living for one month on UK WWII rations

blogging by the book

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