By Kerri Leonard
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To our parents, for feeding us
THE ONE DOLLAR DIET PROJECT
As we walked out of the grocery store, I told Christopher, “You need to stop doing that.”
“Doing what?” he asked.
“Telling people about the dollar-a-day thing. It’s weird. And we’re weird enough already.”
“Okay, but I don’t think it’s that big of a deal.”
I disagreed. It was a big deal, and it was weird. I was up for the challenge, but I didn’t think the whole world needed to know about our experiment. Little did I know what was in store.
The idea to reduce the cost of our diet to a dollar each per day had been simmering since May, when Christopher and I had gone grocery shopping and I was feeling financially stretched. The bounty of colorful, fresh organic produce and the southern California sunlight coming through the large windows of Jimbo’s, our local natural foods store, was not enough to massage away my economic stress. The number at the bottom of the register tape seemed higher than usual; several people had been over to our house for dinner during the past few weeks, and I always cook something special for guests. We want people to enjoy memorable food when they eat with us, but it gets expensive.
On top of that, we were approaching the end of the school year. As public high school teachers, we only get paychecks eleven months out of the year. We bought a house the previous summer, and I felt even more apprehensive about making the mortgage than I had the year before. Saving throughout the year is a challenge, and our teachers’ salaries don’t leave us much room to be frivolous with our funds. Car payments, mortgage payments, and credit card payments all marched through my mind as I tallied up our food bill. Christopher doesn’t worry about the summer like I do. He manages to keep his finances in order, but I have the burden of credit card debt and school loans weighing upon me. I felt as if I would never get out from under it.
We arrived home from the store on that May afternoon and I dropped the brimming canvas shopping bags onto the kitchen counter. While we put away the groceries, I complained about the cost of our shopping trip and told Christopher that we needed to find a way to spend less on food. My proposed solutions ran along the lines of more reasonable grocery lists and better planning. I should have known that Christopher would have something to add. He typically responds in a way that both enlightens and annoys me. That was when he volunteered the information that a large portion of the world eats on a dollar a day or less.
“Why don’t we try it?” he asked.
I rolled my eyes. Pretty soon he would be talking about Bangladesh or some other developing nation that we should learn from. All I wanted was to crawl out from under the weight of my economic woes, not hear about people halfway around the world. Yet when Christopher goes on about things like this, there are times when he convinces me to look at what we have differently. At times it was exhausting, but sometimes we changed what we were doing. This was one of those moments when I ended up agreeing. We would try it; we would eat on a dollar each a day.
I never expected that, when I met the man of my dreams, my eating habits would be transformed. Christopher and I had met four years before in our teaching credential program. I had moved to San Diego only a few months earlier and didn’t know many people. During our first class, one of our teachers explained that we’d spend a great deal of time together. He added that over the years several couples had resulted from the program. I looked around the room and could not picture these people dating each other. I never would have guessed that I would be the first.
However, Christopher intrigued me from the start. As we toured the campus, I noticed the cute guy with the dark hair and black-rimmed glasses. The “Go Vegan” button on his messenger bag further compelled me to pay attention. I had attempted vegetarianism a few times during my college years, but I had one roommate whom we jokingly referred to as the “Beef Princess,” and another who felt that the only vegetables worth eating were corn and potatoes, so my attempts were doomed. However, a year or two earlier I had eliminated all red meat from my diet and ate only chicken and, on rare occasions, fish. This vegan boy in my class made me feel inspired to try again, and this time I succeeded. Christopher always made sure that our assignments were tied in to what was going on in the world, and it was obvious that he was on a mission to make a difference. We began flirting within a week or two, and I was smitten. When I talked to my roommates, I referred to him as “my vegan boyfriend,” but I never imagined that he was interested in me.
One evening in October, about six weeks into our program, I turned on my computer to find an e-mail from a classmate. She informed me that Christopher would not stop talking about me, and that I should give him a chance. She added the selling point that he could cook. Within a week, we were inseparable. In January, he came with me to northern California to meet my family, and by the time we went home I was vegan. I thought it would be frustrating to try to figure out what to eat when I was choosing to avoid not only meat but all dairy and eggs as well, but the transition wasn’t hard.
Christopher had been vegan for almost seven years. There is a myth that eating vegan is difficult. If students find out I am vegan, they ask, “What do you eat?” One student even made the comment, “You must not like food.” Most people ask the standard questions: Where do you get your protein? Are you healthy? Don’t you ever just want to quit and eat a hamburger? And they make standard assumptions: Vegan food tastes bad, you must crave cheese, and there is no way you can get all of your nutrients. The reality is that making a switch to a plant-based diet is not as difficult as one may think. In hindsight, compared to the dollar-a-day diet, it was one of the easiest changes I have made.
Despite the fact that I agreed to the dollar plan, I was reluctant. During the school year, Christopher makes our lunches every day, and on the weekends he often whips up some French toast or chocolate chip pancakes. I am usually in charge of planning the shopping lists and preparing dinner, and I worried that this new endeavor would add too much work to our routine. I wasn’t sure I was ready for the commitment, and I didn’t want to simply trade economic uneasiness for culinary difficulties.
In addition, we both had a lot going on that summer. Christopher would be gone for three weeks on a journalism fellowship and a residency to complete his master’s degree. I would be home teaching summer school for the first three weeks. After that, we were both headed for my family’s annual vacation. Then the week before we had to report back to work was Christopher’s birthday, and we had planned a camping trip at Yellowstone National Park. We tossed around different times to start our “dollar diet,” but it seemed like summer was out of the question. So we decided to start in September.
Summer came, and we talked a lot about the plan to eat for less. I told my parents and my closest friends, but Christopher told everyone. That’s just how he is. When he gets the chance, he will talk to anyone willing to listen to his ideas. Each time “the experiment” came up, I shrank into my shoes, trying to find a way to end the conversation or run interference and take it in a different direction. He wanted to involve everyone in the discourse; I did not want our quirkiness to be the focus. But what we found was that the conversation always moved away from what we were doing and into discussions on poverty, food prices, grocery shopping, and farming: everything and anything related to food. People told us about tough times when they struggled with food issues of their own. This was what got Christopher motivated; he reads everything he can get his hands on and absorbs it into his thinking. I admit that it was fascinating to hear what other people had to say. I even learned about the problems that my own parents had faced when they were young.
As an English major, I hadn’t planned on food becoming the focus of my life. Ask me about Dostoevsky and we’re in business, but bring up food stamp allocation, third-world debt, or the modern global food system, and I do my best just to tread water. But the conversations about food and economics were interesting. As for our project, we had no concrete plans or expertise that would help us to actually carry it out. We only knew that it would involve guesswork and trial and error. We planned to purchase foods in bulk, but we weren’t sure what specific items or what meals would come from it. Our summer left little time to actually investigate.
When I went home to visit my best friend, Nicole, she and I laughed with my parents about what we would eat and how it would work. We joked about having a monochromatic diet—white foods, lots of flour, potatoes, and rice. Although they laughed, I could tell that my parents were concerned. They were worried that we would get sick or lose too much weight. I wasn’t as bothered by those issues as I was with the thought of being hungry. I hate the feeling of my stomach growling and churning. If I skip a meal, I get grouchy and short-tempered. I like to experiment with recipes, try new foods. In short, I like to cook and I like to eat. We have at least twenty cookbooks, and I love digging through them to find different treats. During the school year, we get caught up in a rotation of basic meals, but in the summer I try to break out of the pattern and make at least one new meal each week. We move our quick favorites to our workweek lineup, saving the time-consuming meals for special occasions.
As we sat around my parents’ kitchen table, in the home where I spent most of my childhood, I realized that eating out would soon be impossible. We eat most of our meals at home, but we do frequent a few local restaurants. Ask anyone from Southern California and they’re bound to have their own favorite taco shop. Rico’s is ours, a favorite of Christopher’s since his high school days. Christopher introduced me to this burrito haven located at the east end of our sleepy beach town when we first started dating, and it would be accurate to say that we have a bit of a love affair with Rico’s. In fact, this special place was where I learned that a side of French fries and a burrito complement each other in ways that I still do not understand. When Christopher and I met, it quickly became our weekly date after our Monday night class. Once we started teaching, it became the “it’s Friday and we don’t want to cook” spot. However, with only a dollar each to spend, Rico’s was out.
Cookbook browsing and fine dining would have to be put on hold for a month. We would need to change the way we looked at food. No longer would we be able to eat based on taste; our guts would be governed by our pocketbooks. This was not necessarily a bad thing, as we both have a tendency to overeat. We often eat until we are full, uncomfortably so. When I cook, I make a lot of food, and I don’t serve small portions. I have difficulty making salads because while lettuce and tomatoes are great together, they seem to taste better when you add kidney and garbanzo beans, avocado, carrots, cucumber, bell peppers, sprouts, and any other vegetable that we might have. After a while, my salads become large enough to feed six or seven people. I do the same thing when preparing meals. At least now we would be forced to eat reasonably sized servings.
I had spent quite a bit of time that summer considering what we would have to do without, but it was not until we returned home from our camping trip near the end of August that we started figuring out what we would have to work with. Christopher had ordered the book Eat Well on a Dollar a Day by Bill and Ruth Kaysing for—no kidding—one dollar. It had arrived while we were camping. It was older than we were and did not look like most cookbooks or healthy living guides, but it reaffirmed what we planned to do. The book outlined some key strategies for making every penny count: buy in bulk, shop around, eat smaller portions, and forage. In addition to taking this crash course in frugal living, we also had scheduled our annual health checkups. We told our doctor about the plan; he seemed unfazed. He mentioned that we would probably lose some weight, but if we were taking multivitamins, then it should not be harmful. At that point we planned to continue taking vitamins, so we felt reassured.
The first hint I had of the challenges in store for us came when we returned from Yellowstone to a virtually empty kitchen cupboard. On several occasions when we returned home, I mentioned that we needed to get groceries, but every time Christopher shot down my suggestion. One evening around dinnertime we had no food in the house, or so I thought. I hunted around in the cabinets trying to figure out what to eat. I could see the sun setting over the backyard fence and our dogs, Viola and Horatio, wrestling in the dirt. I again attempted to convince Christopher to run to the store, a five-minute jaunt in the car, but Christopher said that he wanted us to finish off the food we had left before we started our project. That was easy for him to say; he didn’t have to make a meal from what seemed to be nothing. Despite his resistance to going shopping, he offered no solutions to our problem. When I said I would go to the store alone, he argued that there was plenty in the house if I just changed the way I looked at what we had.
I began slamming cupboard doors, but Christopher was unmoved. I complained that we had peanut butter, but no jelly, and no bread. We had one can of beans and a little bit of lettuce, but no tortillas or any other taco fixings. We had one can of split pea soup, which Christopher loves, but I don’t. I felt that any rational person would have agreed that a trip to the store was in order, but Christopher is not a normal person.
“Millions of people make their own tortillas every day. We’re probably smart enough to figure it out,” he said.
Sometimes I hate it when he’s right, but we looked up tortilla recipes online and, sure enough, within thirty minutes we were cooking. When I realized that burritos would be possible during our project, I knew I would survive.
It was about this time that we agreed upon our rules for the project. We didn’t want so many that we couldn’t eat anything, but we wanted guidelines, so we came up with five that we could live with:
- 1. All food consumed each day had to total not more than one dollar for each of us.
- 2. We could not accept free food or “donated” food unless it was available for everyone in our area (e.g., foraging, samples from stores, Dumpster diving).
- 3. Any vegetables we planted in our garden, we had to pay for (i.e., seeds or potted plants).
- 4. We would do our best to cook a variety of meals; we would only eat ramen noodles if there was no other way to stay under one dollar. (We had six packages of ramen, and would buy no more.)
- 5. If we decided to have guests over for dinner, they had to eat from our share, meaning they didn’t get their own dollar’s worth of food.
The donated food rule was a necessity. My family lives ten hours away, but Christopher’s family lives close by. Both his mom and sister suggested that it would not be cheating if someone happened to leave bags of food or plates of cookies outside our front door. They argued that we didn’t pay for it, so we didn’t have to figure it into our costs. However, we thought that would be cheating. If we allowed people to leave us food or cook for us, we could probably get ourselves fed most evenings by friends or family. People who are truly poor wouldn’t have that resource. We eventually convinced them that even if they left the food, it would rot on our doorstep.
The rule that we would pay for vegetables that we planted ended up being irrelevant. As a way to prepare for our adventure, I had decided to plant a garden. The June morning when Christopher left for his journalism fellowship, I got up at five a.m. to say good-bye, and subsequently could not fall back to sleep. Ordinarily, I am not an early riser; I love sleeping in on the weekends, and on school days I hit the snooze button repeatedly. But on this day, I had a plan. When we bought our house, I was excited that the backyard had two little raised garden beds, and I had resolved to start gardening as soon as we moved in. Of course, it was a year later on that early morning when I actually started digging. After extracting a promise from Christopher that he would call me when he arrived, I kissed him good-bye, threw on some old clothes, and went to work.
I spent the morning chopping at the rock-hard dirt and pulling weeds. I got to the gardening store just after they opened, and filled my cart with the makings of a vegetable garden: tomatoes, lettuce, bell peppers, jalapeños, and squash. I treated myself to a pair of gloves and a silly gardening hat. I justified the hat by claiming I needed it to protect my easily sunburned skin, but in reality I thought I might be a better gardener if I looked the part. Over the week I made several trips because I either needed more compost or realized I had more room and might be able to fit in one more tomato plant.
The garden didn’t last long. By the time we were ready to start our dollar-a-day project, all that was left were some anemic, withered cherry tomatoes. Our dogs caused its untimely demise. They ate the jalapeños first; I found the peppers chewed up and spit out on the patio. The next day, Viola pulled the plant out of the ground, perhaps as retaliation for its spiciness. The lettuce I planted from seed didn’t even have a chance to sprout; the day after I planted it, there was a large hole in the bed. My mom came to visit and we planted onions, which were ripped up one at a time over the course of the week. We laughed, but I was saddened each time the dogs came in with my labor on their breath. By the time Christopher got home, I was down to two bell pepper plants, three squash, and five tomatoes, which I think were spared due to the wire cages surrounding them. “You planted a salad bar for the dogs,” became his running joke.
School began during the last week of August, and we were going to start our experiment that following week. We spent most of our first weekend running around to stores looking for the best prices, burning a few gallons of gas trekking around town. Finally, we ended up doing most of our shopping at Smart and Final. This fluorescent-lit industrial-style wholesaler was a far cry from our airy, eco-friendly natural food store. But at that time, they had the best prices for what we were doing. The price of beans per pound was cheaper than at the dollar store, but we would have to buy in much larger quantities. We thought we would be able to get more variety, but it was harder than we originally planned. We calculated the cost of our meals by adding up the prices of the ingredients for each meal and dividing it by the number of servings. The cheapest way to get the ingredient costs low was to buy in bulk.
We walked around using our phones as calculators, trying to find the best deals. Should we get fifteen pounds of flour, or twenty-five? Was it better to get pinto beans or black beans? Could we get both? Our shopping trip lasted much longer than our weekly visit to the store, and there were several times when we had to resignedly put items in the cart back on the shelf. In the end, we were surprised by what we couldn’t get. It would have been roughly twenty-five cents per serving to buy black beans, but approximately eleven cents per serving for pinto beans. We could have bought a bag of ten apples for $2.99, but that made each apple $.29, and we decided it might not be worth it to use 29 percent of our daily allowance on a piece of fruit smaller than my fist. We bought white flour and wheat flour, but the wheat flour was a bleached blend, which meant that it was more difficult to get a good consistency for the seitan that we would be making. (Seitan is a low-cost meat alternative made from wheat flour.) We bought a twenty-pound bag of rice, jars of peanut butter and jelly, and a large bag of yeast for making our own bread, as well as several other industrial-sized items. The can of tomato sauce was so big we had to use both hands to carry it.
We then headed back to Jimbo’s to buy a few items from the bulk bins. It ended up being less expensive per pound to buy oatmeal, popcorn, and dried garbanzo beans there. Overall, for the cheapest price per pound, our dollar store did not have the best bargains, and its proximity to Rico’s made it a reminder of what we couldn’t have. We were lucky that the dollar store had recently introduced a small produce display; it was an unlikely addition to the aisles lined with third-party brands and cheap household items, but we found some deals. They had onions, four for a dollar, and one of my favorite purchases: eight bulbs of garlic for a buck. We also got a one-pound bag of frozen broccoli. In total, we spent about eighty-five dollars during our first day of shopping. That was more than the total cost of what we would eat for the month (sixty dollars), but our idea was to calculate what we ate, not to eat every ounce we bought.
The rest of the afternoon was filled with opening huge bags, filling large green construction buckets with bulk foods, measuring and weighing the food, and starting meals for the week. We weighed every item to find out the cost, and we bought a food scale to make sure we were as accurate as possible. If a twenty-five-pound bag of pinto beans was $12.75, then two cups, weighing one pound, would cost approximately $.51. We used masking tape and a Sharpie to label the bright orange lid of each container with the cost per cup or teaspoon, depending on the item. Once everything was labeled, I started preparing a few things from our menu, including a batch of homemade seitan steaks and a loaf of bread. I put garbanzo and pinto beans in water so they could soak overnight before I cooked them the next day. As our first under-a-dollar meal came together, our excitement began to grow. This was going to be an adventure.
“HEY, WE’RE GOING to write a blog,” Christopher said, the day before we started our project.
“Excuse me?” I replied. I was elbow deep in beans and flour. “I don’t want to blog. I have nothing to say.”
“Of course you do. Besides, I’m setting up our site, we just need to take a picture.” He brought his laptop into the kitchen to show me what he had been working on while I toiled away making sure we would have food the following morning. The fact that he sprung the blog idea on me at the last minute might have worked to our benefit. Had I spent the entire summer thinking about the fact that I would be writing about my daily experiences for anyone to read, I would have vetoed it.
“Okay, fine,” I agreed. I had gone along with everything else, so there seemed to be no harm in adding one more thing. “But can I shower and brush my hair before you post my picture on the Internet?”
The original intent of the blog was to share our experiences with our friends and family. Our families and Christopher’s students became our first audience. When we set out, we didn’t have a political agenda. Even though the idea came from the fact that there are people who have to eat on tight budgets, we weren’t trying to make a statement. We didn’t have something to prove. The only objective was that we make it through the month. When we prepared for the temporary change in our lifestyle, we weren’t trying to show the way that people in poverty can, do, or should live; we were only trying to learn how we could eat for less. We knew that many people on stringent food budgets don’t have the ability to price-check several stores, buy in bulk at the start of the month, transport and store large amounts of food, or have the time or means to cook everything from scratch. However, if we could explore these issues, we’d be happy to learn from it.
On that final night in August, we had our last dinner without worrying about the cost. We didn’t go crazy or eat until we were sick, but instead we dined on what would soon become one of our staple meals: beans, rice, and tortillas. However, that night we savored the creamy Sour Supreme (a sour cream alternative), crunchy lettuce, juicy tomatoes, and spicy salsa. We ate this way so we would feel more prepared for the next day, but nothing could have prepared us for what we would experience in the next month.
And So It Begins
It was still dark when I woke up, and the smell of fresh-baked bread filled the house. We had set the bread machine on a timer the night before. Kerri lay there with our old grumpy kitty, Mrs. B. (the B often takes on several meanings), sitting on her belly, calling out for breakfast. We have an alarm clock, but there is no need for it. When the missus is ready to eat, it’s time to get up. I rolled out of bed, doing my best to get back into the routine for the new school year.
- On Sale
- Feb 9, 2010
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Hachette Books