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Eating Near the Poverty Line

By Lisa Johnson, February 21, 2012  |  Meet the Blogger  |  More Posts by Lisa Johnson

Lisa Johnson is an avid from-scratch cook and now frugal foodie at TrueFoodMovement.com. She writes about her family's food adventures on her blog. She is frequently found on Twitter @LisaJohnson.

Sometimes you get a hold of an idea and you just can’t let go. Even though something seems a little crazy, you try it.

I’ve been writing about obesity, particularly childhood obesity, for a few years now and I kept wondering how hard it is for people at or near the poverty level to feed their families well. I knew a lot about nutrition and healthy eating, but what is it like to feed a family, healthfully, at or near the poverty level?

Believe it or not, I roam around the USDA website for fun. It’s a treasure trove of information, all kinds of stats and figures and guidelines. A few months ago I ran across grocery budgets set by gender and age and at four different price points: Thrifty, Low, Medium and Liberal. The USDA tracks over 8,000 families on a monthly basis.

They record all of their food purchases and create an aggregate picture. You can see exactly where you fit in on their Cost of Food at Home chart.

You might think these stats are a waste of taxpayer money but they have real implications.

If you’re going through a divorce there’s a good shot that your children’s food allowance for child support will be set from the “low” level. At the other end of the spectrum, our troops are fed based on the “liberal” budget. So it does have a real impact in our lives and our pocketbooks.

Actually the USDA influences us in a lot of ways that you might not be aware of. They set the guidelines for school lunches (recently revised and somewhat better than before) and they came out with the Food Plate late last year, the big graphic plate that has now replaced the Food Pyramid.

But back to those budgets, there are a few facts buried in the tables. The low and medium budget categories assume 10% waste and the liberal budget assumes 30% waste.

Could you imagine throwing out 30% of what you bring home?

After quite a bit of pondering and several discussions with my family, we decided to set up a 30-day challenge and blog about it.

We would use our budget amount of $491.10 for 270 meals plus snacks (every meal for three people using the “thrifty” budget category). That works out to $16.37 per day and yes we even packed a school lunch for our 4th grade son.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about how we did! What do you think?

Could you and your family eat on a poverty level budget?




Jamie says ...
Thanks for sharing the Cost of Food at Home link. Very interesting. I spend between $360-$420/month on food for my 2-person household. According to the June 2011 stats, that puts us in the thrifty to low-cost arena which surprised me. We eat almost all organic, which is funny because I constantly hear people complain how organic is "so expensive." So either people are eating a lot more food than we are, or all the processed junk is actually more expensive than organic fruits, veggies, grains, etc. Hmmm...food for thought :)
02/21/2012 4:28:45 PM CST
Frances says ...
USDA does do a good a job with trying to provide solutions to help families that are low income not only learn about nutrition but also give them recipes and strategies to stretch their limited food dollar, the problem is the assumptions they make that all in those circumstances 1. have the basic reading and computer skills to take advantage of this information and 2. all of us easily comprehend and have the skills to be creative and innovative with this information. What would surprise many people that have never had to survive being poor is how expensive it is when you are poor. When you reach an income that is comfortable many paths open for you that don't exist when you aren't. Cost of travel decreases with means, availability increases with means, without means skills that being able to afford and have access to better education doesn't exist and you pay for it by having to rely on others that might use your dependence as a means to better themselves. It's good to test the information out there but it's also unfair if you do not keep in mind that for you and your family this is short term and it's not the same as the emotional fear of knowing this is how you must live all the time, that you can never imagine an end to it. Could my family eat near or at the proverty level? We have and I have never been happier than when we didn't have to. I'm glad I learned the skills to survive and tolerate things like powdered milk and eggs but if I never have to live like that again, I thank God everyday for it and I also pray that other people who are going through that will have a better life and not have to be hungry. Please do not make light about something as serious as hunger and food insufficiency, it is very real and very serious.
02/21/2012 6:40:59 PM CST
Kathy G says ...
I suppose food costs more in different parts of the country than it does in the Midwest where I live, but when I looked up how much our family of 2 adults was allowed to spend per month on a Thrifty plan the $354.20 is MORE than I regularly spend per month!
02/21/2012 8:45:30 PM CST
AcoNKfast says ...
that's so bad beacause of poverty we can't get what we need...just see here to get in the low price fruit but have a great nutrition
02/22/2012 5:31:14 AM CST
Jennifer says ...
This information is very interesting. My goal next month is to stay within the low cost range.
02/22/2012 8:17:09 PM CST
Barbara Saunders says ...
Gee, the poverty-level food budget limit is still to high for me. Am pondering sampling whether chowing down on the poverty line itself is a satisfying enough eat
02/23/2012 12:55:20 PM CST
Christine says ...
Living in California, most our our income goes to housing. Our family has been living on a poverty level budget for many years. The secret is buying food and making it from scratch. Processed food may seem cheap, but are less nutritious, therefore less fulfilling, leaving you still hungry. Plant based diets are less expensive. Buying legumes and grains requires more effort, but saves money and is much healthier. Thank you for taking the challenge and showing people it is possible to eat healthy on a budget.
02/23/2012 9:56:38 PM CST
Raw Foodie says ...
Since becoming a raw foodist my grocery bill has come way down. I spend between $25 and $50 a week for ALL my food and most of it's organic. That's $100 to $200 a month for 1 person. For all meals and plenty of snacks. I eat raw fruits and veggies in season when they are fresh abundant and cheap. And I am NOT starving by any means. I buy organic seeds such as alfalfa, clover, fenugreek and broccoli and I sprout them, very easy, extremely cheap powerhouses of food. I also eat grains such as amaranth and quinoa for extra protein. I soak them rather than cooking them. This also saves me from medicines and there are never any greasy dishes or baked on foods to clean out of pans. I look better, feel better, have more energy and have more free time because I'm not spending hours cooking and cleaning in the kitchen.
02/25/2012 11:11:46 AM CST
Maria says ...
We are two adults on one (not very large)income and we spent $ 302.55 on food in January. That is even below the thrifty costs in that table. And our waste is 0%, we do not throw out any food at all. We eat very little meat (once a week)and buy as much as we can at the farmer's market, we even shop at Whole Foods once or twice per month. We don't buy processed food, baked goods, sodas, etc., cook and bake everything from scratch and almost never eat out. I do believe that it is possible to eat healthy on a budget but I also know that it takes more effort and a bit more work.
02/27/2012 11:09:34 AM CST
Amy says ...
Honestly after reading this I am shocked at what they consider "Thrifty". According to the USDA plan on a thrifty budget I should spend $891 per month to feed my family of 6. This to me is unreal. If I spent that much we would have food coming out our ears. Our food and toiletry budget is $150 per week and we eat very well. All kinds of fresh fruits and vegggies, much of which are organic. I make 95% of our food from scratch, but still buy pre-made 100% whole wheat bread, but that really is about it. I also am looking forward to planting a nice large garden this spring and lowering my budget even farther.
02/28/2012 9:27:27 PM CST
Gillis says ...
The problem for many people in the US, especially those in urban areas, isn't necessarily that food is too expensive; it's the lack of availability. Lots of inner-city neighborhoods don't have a proper grocery store, just convenience stores or maybe a corner market that has a limited amount of produce and fresh foods. It's great to try to eat as healthily as you possibly can within your means, but if you're going to have to ride two buses or take a cab to get to a store where you can buy fresh produce, bulk grains and legumes, and the kinds of staples that you need if you're going to cook from scratch, that definitely places limits on your diet and budget. The problem of urban food deserts in the US really needs to be addressed.
02/29/2012 2:10:39 PM CST
patricia says ...
I read your article. I admire you for your choice. My son and I have food allergies, and I MUST make all our own food, pretty much from scratch. I can buy a particular brand of pasta, but must make the sauce from individual ingredients. We left my husband and are making it on our own, with no car! This adds another level of difficulty, and many poor people also have that added challenge! We get more for the two of us than you had from my husband, thank goodness! But still, we barely get enough to feed my growing teenage son. And my family cannot understand why I keep asking them to help me by "loaning" me the money to get a car, which would help with getting a job as well as the shopping.
04/23/2012 5:58:28 PM CDT
Kristy says ...
Okay, I am late to the party, but I must say: I live in Kentucky. Produce is high here.Organic is VERY HIGH. I am feeding a family of four and can not afford $5 for 3 pounds of potatoes. I can't afford $2 for carrots when I can get them for $1. The catch about having a grocery budget is for people who have enough money to budget for groceries. I know so many people like myself (there are millions in the U.S.) who spend as little as possible. I know ones who eat hot dogs, american cheese, and potato chips every day. We eat real food, beans veggies (usually frozen, best bang for my buck) breads and meats. sometimes on very little meat cooked into meals like pot pie or spagghetti with half a pound of beef or sometimes real bacon bits as the meat. It is hard to go to the grocery. I feel such guilt over the money I spend. That is the worst part...the emotional pain of buying groceries. And my husband struggle with our weight. To many carbs to stretch the meals. (Got to go, my computer time at the library is up).
02/17/2013 9:40:18 AM CST
Corey Sosa says ...
Family of three, who live on 330 or less a month A month, we have milk for breakfast every morning, grains, fruits, and veggies. I do not use coupons.
01/21/2014 7:20:48 PM CST
Jackie says ...
But I make only $600 a month for one person. My rent is $350 a month. Gas is $50 a month. Which leaves me with only $200 to spend on food per month for one person. I could not even manage this. I am a plain, ugly old spinster with no hope of marriage and many broken engagements. Lucky you.
12/09/2014 11:24:47 AM CST
William says ...
My comment is based on reality, it isn't mean to be hostile. This piece demonstrates no understanding of what it is to live at or below the poverty line, let alone in a slum in the city where the dangers of poverty are greater. Neither does it offer ideas on HOW to eat below a tight budget: what are the meal plans, types of foods (and where purchased), how did you come to that budget, what areas of food shopping did you change? How is the protein level of the food? Is it nutrient dense food? Another challenge would be to not tell your family you're doing this or how long it will last. They will then at least not know there is an end in sight and just might garner a touch of deeper understanding. To bring in the full effect of living in poverty, cut out all those luxuries you take for granted; massages, manicures, hair stylists, smart phones, computers, gaming devices, tablets, kindles, shopping trips 'just because', vacations, trips anywhere, cable tv, Netflix, or other streaming options, movies, pizza, eating out, travel sports' clubs, gymnastics, swim club, golf, the membership gym, even pets, the ability to not have to worry about every penny spent...So while it's nice that people who don't HAVE to worry about the cost of food are trying to see if they could feed their families below the poverty line budget, you know there's an end in sight, that after the day, the week, the month is over, you can go right back to your old budget with NO WORRIES. We didn't have that luxury, not then, and not now, though now my family isn't at the poverty line, we do have a very tight budget and many families have much much less. $490 for the month?? Some families have $200 to feed 4 and even 5 and they fall through the very large gap that assistance programs won't help. I feed my family of 3 on far less than what you budget, we don't buy organic, we can't afford to, especially at a store like Whole Foods who price out the poor even if they accept their state's food assistance program cards, there is a limit on that card. I find this sort of 'project' mildly insulting and certainly laughable to those who have experienced poverty and still do. It's feel good fodder, so they can pretend to understand better what it's like to be poor.
12/09/2014 12:44:16 PM CST
Kim says ...
We are $240 less a month than our thrifty number. It can be done, you just don't get to choose what you eat.
03/11/2016 10:26:33 PM CST