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Eating Near the Poverty Line…at Whole Foods Market

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


If you offer to make a bet with Whole Foods Market®, they just might take you up on it.

My family and I bet them to see if we could eat exclusively from their grocery stores for my family’s USDA-calculated “thrifty” budget of $491.10 for 30 days. That is about $16.31 per day for all of us. Every morsel would come from my kitchen and their stores.

If we did it, they’d reimburse our expenses. If we failed, we’d get nothing.

If you want to see what your USDA food budget would be, just check right here and read my blog post from yesterday. Whole Foods Market said yes and we were off and running. We took their Value Tour the week before our challenge started. A Value Tour is when a store employee takes you around the store and lets you know where to find good deals.

Here’s what blew my mind: each store advertises between 100 to 150 items on sale each week, but there can be as many as 2,000 items marked down!

Simple Tips We Learned

  • We shopped every 6 days, that seemed to be the sweet spot between keeping veggies fresh and tasty and not spending extra money from making extra trips.
  • GroceriesWe had a loose menu plan but kept our options open. Because there are so many specials that are unadvertised, you might find something awesome that you want to take advantage of. An open mind means a wider variety of choices.
  • Madness Sales rock! We were struggling hard with the constraints of the budget until we hit a Madness Sale. There was such a great deal on chicken that it freed up $24 from our budget. We were able to put that towards fruits and veggies and everything was so much easier after that.
  • Frozen and canned vegetables are a great option. We wouldn’t have made it, frankly, without them. We found mixed veggie combos to be delicious, taste fresh, and used them liberally in stir-fries, pasta sauces and just about everywhere.
  • The more you cook from scratch, the cheaper it is. I made two loaves of bread every week for a mere $1.25. It makes sense: if you do the labor, you keep the savings. This is pretty true for just about everything in the store.

An Eye Opening Experience

Throughout the 30 days I kept thinking of families who were living at or below the poverty level trying to feed everyone. It was such a struggle for us even though we had done our homework and only had to do it for one month. I can’t imagine what the grind feels like after months or years of living like this.


Here’s a kicker, the USDA Thrifty level is about 30% higher than Food Stamps.

If you’re on food stamps it can be really challenging to feed your family healthfully. Starches are cheaper than produce and it’s easy to reach for those. I can see how the poverty/obesity trap happens and why it’s so difficult to get out of.

Over the 30 days, I gained a lot of knowledge about how to feed a family well even on a tight budget. When I started our meals were starch heavy but as I got savvier about living on a frugal budget, I figured out how to add more produce into our diets. It’s definitely possible, but it takes a lot of patience and tenacity.

In the end, we won our bet with Whole Foods Market and decided to put that money to good use. Instead of splurging on filet mignon and fabulous desserts, we asked Whole Foods Market to donate it to our local food bank. They graciously said yes, again.

You can read more about my family’s adventure on my blog:

True Food Movement

30 Day Whole Foods Thrifty Challenge

The Whole Foods Value Tour

The Food we Bought

Everyday Bread recipe

Have you ever tried to shrink your food budget? I’d love to hear how it worked for you.

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Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@SASHA - Yes, all of our US stores accept electronic food stamps.

Lin says …

I applaud you for your efforts. Its interesting that Whole Foods opened itself up for talks on poverty/cost of food because there is the "Whole Paycheck" stigma. I find that I am often able to pick the 365 brand and save money... I often argue with friends/family who almost make me feel like I should be ashamed for solely shopping at Whole Foods. I am a registered nurse, my husband is a well paid graphic designer. We place a high level of importance on what we put into our bodies, as well as the practices which bring the food to market...rendering Whole Foods our go-to grocery store. I have on occaision, geographically been at the mercy of stores like Shoprite or Safeway....when I peruse the aisles I often think to myself that what sits on the shelves is about as edible as a car tire... But lets talk about what happens when a person doesn't have a sturdy/robust income and can't afford to shop at Whole Foods...when they can barely afford a trip to conventional grocery stores for their food. As far as I know, Whole Foods does not accept food stamps. Often people living on them are afforded a lot less than $491.10 a month for food. Some people have to live on $125.00 a month. My mother and younger sister were two such people. I saw my sister, an active pre teen, and my mother gaining unecessary weight because my mother was reduced to buying processed simple starches in order to put food on the table. She simply couldn't afford salad greens not to mention anything ORGANIC. I had begun to supplement my mom's income as I started working as an RN... I saw my sister making healthier choices and her weight went down to a healthy place...as her grades and energy level went up. I have to ask...shouldn't all children (and adults) be functioning at their healthiest and best capacity? It's a really HUGE problem...and we have to look at it and face it. Nutrition and health should be available to everyone. There are SO many people in this country living below the poverty line. Its one thing to hear it and another to see it. Which I have. I really hope one day organic food won't be coming to us at a premium price...and that more people will be informed of the correlation between cheap/ unhealthy food and obesity/heart disease etc.

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@LIN - Thank you for your feedback. I did want to clarify that all of our US stores accept electronic food stamps.

Glenda says …

Thank you so much for this article, because I ws not sure if Whole Foods accepted EBT. I have recently changed my diet to organic products, many of the grocery stores do not offer a large variety of organic products.

Mariah says …

I know this is old but I was just SHoCKED by those who said their food budget for a family of 3 was 5/600. Seriously? We shop mostly at whole foods and Costco and only spend $75 a month

Melanie says …

I know this is an old post.. But we are a family on food stamps, and the budget in our state recently got cut hugely. On that USDA website, their "thrifty" food allowance for our family specifically would be $544 (for Jan 2014).... We get $370. that's $12 a day, or $3 a person, roughly. There's no way we could afford whole foods for our groceries. We can barely afford Walmart prices, and can barely get much beyond the cheapest bulk bag of apples and oranges for fresh fruits. We don't buy any meat, or other "extra" stuff (cookies, candy, pop, etc)...If Colorado had a better climate for it, I would have turned our small backyard into a garden, but nothing I planted last year grew in the small plot I tried it in.

Katie says …

Excellent post. I was checking constantly this blog and I am impressed! Very useful info particularly the last part :) I care for such information a lot. I was looking for this certain info for a long time. Thank you and good luck.

Ashley says …

I thought this post was awesome. I am a rising college junior who will be living off my own money while at college. I clicked on your post because there will be a whole foods right next to my place. I was nicely surprised with how much information you gave as well as insight toward how I might be able to live off a meager budget. I will definitely be following your blog.

Ann says …

I really appreciate your article. It is very challenging to work full time and still not make enough to feed your family. We are a part of the SNAP program and we really don't get much. We even get atound $100 for a family of 4. My husband and myself work full-time and make barely enough to keep a home for our children, lights on, and gas for heat. We are grateful for the food assistance. We DC have been trying really hard to make sure our children eat healthy. I do have one question though, does WFM sell seeds to grow your own veggies? I don't want to buy them from somewhere like wal mart because they are modified already. Thanks again for the article and thank you for any answers you can provide.

Yvette says …

I enjoyed reading this. Trying to feed my family of 5 with healthier options. After reading this I'm making my first trip to Whole Foods today. Thank you for sharing your story.

Holly says …

That's awesome of you guys!! Good for your family! :) I <3 Whole Foods