When I saw the opportunity to participate in the #surviveon35 challenge, I jumped at the chance to participate. Not because I was eager to show people that “yes, you can ‘thrive’ on a food stamp budget,” but because all of us are excited by the thought of getting a little insight into how people manage to make eating and overall living healthier easier. That’s why many people come to our blogs… to see how we live, and to see whether they can pick up a new tip or trick to incorporate into their own lives.

Living healthy on a budget is something I’m no stranger to – remember, I’m the one who originally started out with lifting gallon jugs full of water because I couldn’t really afford a gym membership or equipment at the time – and it’s only until recently that I’ve even actually had more money to work with. I mean, I can clearly remember the days of looking up my bank card balance on my cell phone as the cashier was ringing up my purchase, to try to stave off the “declined” message. I’ve always been doing this by the pennies.

The challenge stated that, for $35 per adult and $20 per child, I would have a total of $90 to spend for the week to make do with. But, as someone who was easily one getting by on $50 for two people, is this really a challenge for me?If I were being honest with myself, the answer would be no… so I had to kick it up a notch.

What if I took my challenge… directly to Whole Foods? And, furthermore, what if I bought all of my veggies organic? That.. felt like a challenge.

The almost-hubby – in an attempt to make my challenge more like an actual member of the working poor – tried to challenge me even further by saying I could only buy what I could carry, meals couldn’t take all doggone day to cook and that I could only have an hour to do my shopping. The rationale was that chances were low that I’d have all day to plan meals, all day to spend cooking, would probably be grocery shopping after work and probably wouldn’t have a car to do my shopping.

So… no driving. I could only buy what I, alone, could carry in my little carrying cart thingy. Fine.

I was timed. Literally. I walked in the store at 11AM and was told I had until 12:15, assuming it’d take 15mins to check out.

It felt like a mad dash, but I instantaneously knew a few things:

1) Big batches would be how we survived. That meant:

The big breakfast batch of ginger almond granola.

  • one giant batch of granola for breakfast, that could be enjoyed as a bowl of cereal with almond milk (which I purchased)
  • lots of dinners that could be made into leftovers to carry over into lunch the next day
  • one giant back-up batch of a lunchtime pasta salad, just in case there wasn’t enough leftovers to carry over into the next day

2) Fresh organic produce, unless heavily discounted, would be out of the question. Without a doubt, I went straight to the frozen foods section at Whole Foods. Almostall of their frozen foods are organic and the variety is pretty impressive.

3) All of any meat I’d be purchasing would have to come from the counter-top. I couldn’t afford the pre-packaged meats with the saran wrap and digital stickers. I did purchase a ten-pack of chicken thighs, but the ground turkey I’d needed, I took to the counter and asked him to break it down, as I’d only needed half a pound of it.

4) The bulk section would be my friend. As in, “me and you, us neva part” friends. The oats I’d needed, the chickpeas that would be the base for many of my soups (it also makes a pretty decent broth), the quinoa.. all bought in bulk, all only purchasing the quantity I’d needed, which helped me save money. It’s awesome to be able to catch two pounds of quinoa on a sale, but if I don’t have the $4 to spend on it and would rather only spend $1.50 on what I need for now instead because money is tight, then bulk is where you go.

5) If I was going to do any pasta dishes, they’d have to be whole wheat. Not because it’s inherently “better,” but because whole wheat pasta has so much protein in each serving, that it’d require less in the form of additional protein to make a satisfying and great-tasting dish.

And, lastly, 6) Portion control would be beyond important. If I ran out of food before the end of the week, I was going to feel like a jerk. I could just as easily return to the store and get more food, and life would go on. There are people who can’t do the same. (Being reminded of your privilege – and others’ disadvantages – is always a sad moment.)

That being said, I had the world’s longest receipt, and the total is right there on the bottom for your viewing.

For me, this challenge has been bittersweet. I’d just returned from Washington, D.C. (oh, I forgot to blog about that, huh?) after having spoken on a panel with Mayors from both Oakland and Trenton; a director from the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition; as well as the president of the US Healthful Food Council about how we can affect change in regards to health and wellness in our communities. We talked about everything – from the lack of stoves to the lack of adequate refrigerators to the lack of knowledge of what the hell to do with a vegetable when you get your hands on it. We discussed the lengths to which some people have to go to even get fresh non-hyper-processed food, let alone fresh, local, organic produce. We talked about how policy is poorly targeted and what needed to be done now, in our opinions, to really make healthy living easier for people who may not even understand “healthy” to mean what we, here at BGG2WL, understand it to mean. How do you identify what the real barriers are, and how do we go about changing those, or making them look less like walls and more like hurdles, able to be lept over with a little effort?

The giant pot of chili.

It makes me think of my own journey. To the point where, I have a blog where I can share what I’ve learned through trial and error with a supportive community… to the point where I’m showing my Mom how to eat and live healthier inexpensively, and I think of how hard I’ve worked to get that knowledge. I think of all the recipe books I spent my time nose-deep in, all the reading I did, all the cooking shows i watched… all of it. I think of all the food from other cultures I tried… and I think of how open-minded I had to be to understand why I was putting cumin, cinnamon, ginger, coriander and cayenne in a pot of boiling water. What made this challenge so easy for me is the knowledge, and that’s the ultimate privilege…

…which brought me back to the panel I participated in. One of the mayors spoke on the “lost generation” that, by and large, never got to learn their family’s traditions because of how “the crack epidemic” combined with the “war on drugs” combined with the widespread job losses in the manufacturing industry affected so many families and tore so many apart. (We could just as easily say the same about the “meth epidemic” right now plaguing rural America, where lots of SNAP recipients are located. Hello, Appalachia.) How many of us grew up not really knowing or understanding how to cook our families’ traditional meals? How many of our fathers’ lost their jobs in the 70s and 80s when factories started moving their productions overseas? How many of us barely survived those job losses? How many families wound up with both parents working much harder for meager pay, with no one at home to teach those lessons? How many families got by on processed food not because that’s all that they could afford, but because that’s all they knew how to cook quickly? (I cannot count the number of kid cuisines I ate as a child. Seriously… but boy, was I glad to get those sprinkles and those stickers, even if I was starving an hour or so later.)

My very special quinoa jambalaya.

Like I said yesterday, none of these things happen in a vacuum. Lots of things affect our lack of connection to veggies – and believe me, that last paragraph up ^^ there? I was totally projecting. – or our lack of understanding of how to do these things on our own. Is it possible to live well on $95/week? Of course it is. If I can do it on all organics, then surely it can be done in a regular ol’ grocery store. But does everyone know what I know? Does everyone have the experiences I have? The kinds of knowledge that comes along with the privilege of trial and error? Hell, does everyone have my spice rack?

And that’s why, even with all the “problems” people pointed out with these kinds of challenges, I think they’re still important and still valid. There are still tips, tools and tricks to be learned out there, and they’ll make all of our lives easier… limited budget or not. Just because you’ve got the money, doesn’t mean you wouldn’t rather have it in a savings account, somewhere.

Think of how much you do – or don’t – know. Think of how many people may not have that knowledge (and remind yourself of the obesity rate in America) or that access. Then, think about the fact that your government wants to reduce the amount of SNAP benefits families who qualify can receive. It’s already difficult to qualify. But to qualify, and only get pennies? Listen. The money isn’t always the problem… but if so few people know how to really make the money work, and you’re trying to limit that money anyhow? No one’s gonna thrive on that.

All this challenge has done, really, is inspired me to renew my commitment to educating. Support your local community. Support your local organizations that want to help teach cooking skills, nutrition and overall wellness. And, most importantly, be a resource to your loved ones. Support them through the journey of eating and living healthier, and encourage them when it gets too tough. We all know how valuable support can be when the going gets tough.

Now… since I have no idea how I could expound upon everything I did during the week, I want to open the comments up to questions. What would you like to know about how I did it all? (I’ll be doing a post with all the photos and recipes soon, so stay tuned!)

Oh, and join @AnyTimeFitness @FitFluential, me at @bgg2wl, and my fellow #surviveon35 challengers for the twitter chat on Thursday, July 26th, 2012 at 9pm EST to discuss our experiences with the challenge!

FitFluential LLC compensated me for this Campaign. All opinions are my own.