Home Debunking The Myths How To #surviveon35, In Whole Foods, Buying Organic, And Keeping Your Wallet Intact

How To #surviveon35, In Whole Foods, Buying Organic, And Keeping Your Wallet Intact

by Erika Nicole Kendall

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.

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xaria July 25, 2012 - 2:33 PM

(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.)

I cannot thank you enough for this statement…I grew up in Appalachia and it’s crazy there…there are plenty of ppl (mostly white) that are struggling to make ends meet and a lot of the history, in regards to family traditions, go down the drain when there are drugs present. i need ppl to stop thinking its a “black” problem and realize its more of a class problem

aaanywho, this article was spot on. my husband and i are now having to carefully budget due to me being laid off, and I was becoming disheartened on having to cut back…this article reminded me of the privilege that I have and that I need to be thankful.

Erika Nicole Kendall July 25, 2012 - 2:35 PM

Yes, indeed – I posted a bunch of maps yesterday and asked people to overlay SNAP recipients and food deserts… and while “the Black South” was a glaring and obvious highlight, so was Appalachia. It is, without a doubt, a class issue… and an unfortunate one, at that.

*hug* on having to cut back now. I know it’s hard, and I wish you all the best. If there’s anything I can do to offer some insight on eating cheaply, my e-mail is always there.

Brooke July 25, 2012 - 3:10 PM

I can’t wait to see what recipes you have, I’m a college student and I live off $40 dollars a week during most of the semester, and whole foods and trader joes are the only grocery stores in reasonable distance from my campus.

Regina July 27, 2012 - 2:15 PM

I always thought trader joes and whole foods were the same thing, but they are not! You can get lots of cheap stuff there, and they offer a range of organic and conventional items.

If you’re into/can afford to be into food and social issues, they also just signed on with the CIW (Coalition of Immokolee Workers) to pay living wages to tomato pickers. So that’s a neat bonus.

Sorry to sound like a PR person 🙁 But as someone who has lived on a tight budget for two plus years, I was so glad to move near a TJs and actually be able to afford groceries from one place (spending your only day off shopping around for deals always blows).

This blog is fabulous! Thanks for what you do!

Renee Foster July 25, 2012 - 5:02 PM

Really good post! Yes, hunger, poverty and food deserts are bound by class. “Whole Paycheck” as I like to call Whole Foods, offers the most value in its bulk foods. Unfortunately fast foods chains, instant/packaged foods are the go to staples or processed, high sodium foods by corporate agri-farms are slickly marketed for their convenience. Very few basic cooking lessons are given in homes where there is grinding poverty.

I’ve personally taught too many people something as simple as cutting up a whole chicken or to cook one cup of rice.

My solution is simplistic, as the Aunt & “fairy godmother” to girls between the ages of 5-15, they are required to accompany me to the farmers market and to assist with the preparation of varieties vegetablesto discover their favorites.

Without packaging added sugar or salt, they now ask for greens, butternut squash, kale & brussel sprouts. But this requires patience, attention and a willingness to make an effort. It is so worth it.

B July 25, 2012 - 5:03 PM

Yes please share recipes. Great piece!

Tiffany July 25, 2012 - 5:15 PM

This post made me think of conversation I had a few years ago with a former friend. We were talking about healthier food options and she made the comment “I don’t buy that poorer people don’t have access to better food.” I immediately replied “Me either.” So many times I’ve wanted to go back in time and change my comment and explain to her how her opinion (and mine) was clearly from a place of priviledge. I taught in an inner-city and seeing my students not only lived in a food dessert, but they and those raising them never left their neighborhoods, so of course they were unaware that the city farmers market accepted EBT and how were they going to bring those groceries home? On the train or a packed bus? And considering that many, if not most of my students, were being raised by grandparents (b/c of that pesky crack epidemic) who were old and physically unable to get to a real grocery store, let alone carry groceries home from halfway across the city. And of course, if you’re able to overcome those barriers, there’s as you stated, lack of facilities in the home to even store and prepare the food. All of these factors make it damn near impossible to eat a nutritious diet and be healthy. But of course obesity is an individual issue *sarcasm*

Ashleigh July 25, 2012 - 7:18 PM

I definitely agree that knowledge is what is missing. I’m just getting over a health scare (got the all-clear but still shaken up) and I realize that although for a long time, I’ve wanted to create healthier meals for my family, it usually doesn’t happen because there is so much I just don’t know.
Just the other day, I found a recipe for an “unboxed” version of Hamburger Helper Cheeseburger Macaroni and I was floored by how quick, easy, and BETTER tasting the unboxed version was compared to the powdered cheese and noodles you get in the box.
Looking forward to your blogs about how you survived the challenge. Thank you so much for sharing what you know with us.

Jame (@jameane) July 25, 2012 - 7:24 PM

Look forward to seeing your tips. I shop at Whole Paycheck a lot. It is really close, and the bulk section is well stocked.

On a side note, I live in Oakland, and it is totally a city of haves/have nots. I live in the “haves” area of town. There are about 10 grocery stores in a 3-4 mile radius of my place. 2 trader joes, 5 safeways/albertsons, a whole foods, and a local whole foods-like full service market, and a full-service gourmet market. There are also quite a few produce stands, stand alone butchers and natural markets. And there is a full service Korean market, full-service Middle Eastern market, and a wealth of shops in Chinatown. This adds another 12 or so good options. Some more affordable than others.

At the edge of my 4 mile radius starts the poorer areas of town. So for the other approximately 40-45 square miles of Oakland (East Oakland and West Oakland “flat lands”) there are about 5 full service grocery stores — about 2 of those stores are in the wealthier “Hills neighborhoods .

Obviously, the grocery stores are extremely concentrated in my part of town (North Oakland). Which is denser than some of the other parts, but there are a few very dense areas in the rest of town as well. And around 2/3s of the population lives in the those other 40-45 square miles.

A new grocery store opened in East Oakland about a year ago. It was the first new grocery store in that part of town for about 50 or 60 years.

Things that make you go hmmmm……

Nikki July 25, 2012 - 7:36 PM

I appreciate the thought you put into this challenge. I admit, wasn’t a fan of it from the beginning, I thought it was insensitive and made it seem like it was soooo easy to do this. I love that you have addressed what really makes this a challenge. I’m so glad I found your blog!

Jenna July 25, 2012 - 10:21 PM

Great post! Looking forward to the recipes.

Mignon Ariel King July 25, 2012 - 11:21 PM

Good article. That jambalaya pic is making my mouth water.

Melissa July 26, 2012 - 5:54 AM

I’ll admit I was skeptical of the survive on 35 concept when I saw it mentioned on another blog. As I’ve followed some other bloggers who completed the challenge, I was still skeptical and I didn’t feel that they really made the challenge realistic and almost seemed smug about the whole thing. But reading your post – you put a lot of effort and thinking into your meals and the realities of the challenge. Very eye-opening, for sure. Thank you for this post and changing my (skeptic) views on the challenge!

Hillary J Shaw July 26, 2012 - 5:58 AM

More on UK’s food deserts at http://www.fooddeserts.org

Meg July 26, 2012 - 12:38 PM

Thank you for not only taking part in the challenge (and making some delicious looking food I may add) but also for your analysis of the many factors that brought us to the point where we have food desserts and not all people have the same privilege of knowing how to cook satisfying yet economical meals.

One of my favorite parts of your blog is that you don’t just address food/exercise, you discuss it all within the context that we don’t live in a world where everyone can spend all of their time cooking delicious healthy foods and devoting 5 hours a day to exercising, a la Biggest loser, or some fitness blogs I’ve seen.

Erika July 26, 2012 - 4:43 PM

Looking forward to the tips, I started my own business not to long ago that has a long lag time between service and getting paid.

I grew up on organic foods and work hard to maintain it but it’s soooooo expensive….. or maybe I just haven’t been shopping right 🙂

I’m really looking forward to your tips, for a girl like me this really makes all the difference in budget. I appreciate this article!

Annette July 26, 2012 - 5:00 PM

Looks like my grocery except for the meat and cheese products which I omit because of digestion. I also thought you would ace this without any problems. Love the food everything looks really good.

Neikata July 26, 2012 - 10:57 PM

Girl, those meals look amazing; yet healthy!

cindylu July 27, 2012 - 3:42 AM

I’m still wary of “challenges” like this, but you laid out some great arguments about why this is important and can be a source of education for both in need and those fortunate enough not to need government assistance. I am curious how you did it.

Diane July 27, 2012 - 2:46 PM

Thank you for this post. I as I explore my relationship with food through OA and journaling, I can admit that I come from a place of extreme privledge even if I don’t have a lot of money (my own vehicle, my own place, single with no kids, a good job, college educated, grew up with lots of fresh veggies and being encouraged to try new foods, etc.). This challenge will help me look further into my eating issues/habits and really tighten up my eating and face some hard truths. I won’t be walking/riding the bus (way too hot-I’m Kansas City) but I’ve decided to at shop at ethnic grocery stores and farmers markets only, taking no more than 60 minutes and cook no more than twice a week. Thank you for making me think, feel and live with greater clarity and awareness.

P.T. August 14, 2012 - 7:24 PM

Someone recently gave me a flyer with a list of local farmers’ markets in the metro Atlanta area that offer 2 for 1 benefits for SNAP recipients. (For every dollar spent you get $2 worth of produce.)

Maybe other cities have programs like this too.

Cindy Morris August 26, 2012 - 4:35 PM

Can u share your quinoa jambalaya recipe? It looks so good!

Shannon December 20, 2012 - 6:48 PM

You are a truly inspiring person. Wow, so glad I found this on pinterest. Keep it up!

nikki January 5, 2013 - 3:38 AM

I was wondering if you can give me some advice on budgeting for my unique family needs. my husband has no diet restrictions. however due to health problems, I am a vegetarian and my three year old cannot have meat or dairy. eggs are the only thing keeping her from being vegan. I find it difficult to shop on a budget because the meat substitutes and dairy substitutes(boca, morning star, soy milk, almond breeze, etc.) are pricey. our grocery budget needs to decrease so other bills can be paid. but I don’t know how to spend less but still make sure my daughter and I are getting the proper vitamins and nutrients we need. any help/suggestions would be appreciated.
affamily on a budget bec

Diane January 5, 2013 - 1:56 PM

Do you really need meat substitutes? What nutritional value do they add? How often are you eating them? You can make your own using wheat gluten, TVP, beans, tofu or nutritional flakes. You can even make your dairy products from nuts and/or tofu. Vegweb.com has some great recipes, it’s helping me transition to vegan. If you want to keep processed meat substitutes check out the producers website, there are usually coupons there or even Amazon Prime depending on what it is.

Erika Nicole Kendall January 5, 2013 - 5:48 PM

I couldn’t agree more.

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