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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.

Groceries

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.

Groceries

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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61 comments

Comments

Moon says …

I had several emotions running through me reading this. I appreciate what the author tried to do & at least her acknowledgement of those who are far below the "thrifty" busget! As a disable 61 yr old,I wish I could get to a Whole Foods. I've heard good things about savings but going once a week with no car is near impossible. I've been gerting SNAP for several months @ $200 since I had no income between coupons,sales,growing some of my food on a good month I can barely get thru 3 1/2 weeks! In Dec the SNAP was reduced to $84...do the math... I've moved into a smaller place cannot start a garden & its like parting the Red Sea getting to any supermarket let along WF! Doing an "adventure" for a month,knowing you have a way out anyone could manage. Try it when you know there isn't. I've not been one who according to the author, have had" to do this for years"! I thank her for her asking Whole Foods to donate the winnings to a local food bank. I've have to rely on them more & more in the last few months & lets be real, it is nor the healthiest offerings in the world. But at least some people are thinking,becoming more conscience, maybe that would spur more actions. I would love more healthy eating. I can't afford it. I would though like to know if Whole Food donate their veggies/fruits & meats to food banks or individuals before they expire if there's a surplus?

says …

@Moon Since each Whole Foods Market does things a little differently, the donation of surplus products to food banks before their expiration would be a decision made on a store to store level. I encourage you to reach out to your community Whole Foods Market to learn what their procedure may be. The link below will help identify the contact information for your store where a Team Member will be happy to chat with you. www.wholefoodsmarket.com/stores

Craig Bodmer says …

We have a huge garden which overflows with produce for just the two of us all summer. Thanks for reminding me of the value of what we produce and for re-energizing my search for an outlet for all he valuable, good food that we can't consume ourselves.

Michelle Donaghey says …

I fed 5-7 high school boys for three years who came to my house for open lunch budgeting NO MORE than $6 for all of them a day! (What it would cost me if my son went out for fast food.) I usually did it for less than $5, using grocery store clearance racks, farm stands and a local amish dented can store as well as free products obtained from a friend who obtained them from a bakery restaurant (can't name it!). Water was usually the drink or lemonade! Yes, it was challenging, but it was so very worth it! Hopefully I taught those boys how they could eat healthy and "cheaply." A note- When I obtained the cheap or fresh produce, sometimes I worried about the boys eating it- well, it was not a problem at all- in fact, they loved anything fresh- and anything with cheese on it!

Joanne DeWald says …

i was with you until you said "chicken". i'm a vegetarian and that seems to horribly raise my grocery bills.

Destiny says …

I guess I always assumed being a vegetarian would make for a lower bill. Our little household goes vegetarian when we get really cash-strapped, since cutting out meats generally slashes our grocery bill in half. Throwing veggies into a dish has been my go-to for years to make a budget both bank and heart friendly. We never use meat substitutes, though, and stay away from tofu, so that probably keeps the cost down as well. I guess working a grocery budget is really just planning and knowing where to find the deals. I'll be asking about this sale tour now that I know about it, though!

Saffron says …

What a great challenge, good job!

Cynthia says …

Holy moly! My thrify level budget for myself is $169. I live alone and probably spend close to double that many months. I've been trying to cut back and have also found the frozen mixed veg to be a big help. Mix those with some rice noodles and curry powder, and I'm set!

Cynthia says …

Oops, I meant $159. Even worse!

theresa says …

wow. My budget is 50.00/week for one and it must also purchase food for the dogs,cat,chickens and birds. Thankfully the hens help with the eggs and since I am vegetarian no meat/seafood is ever purchased. Making most things froms scratch and using the bread machine sure helps. Along with my garden and the farmers markets in the summer.

Lindsay says …

Awesome Post! Our family food budget is $200.00 a month all natural/organic for a family of 4! We shop mostly at Whole Foods and then raise a huge garden every year! One of my favorite things about Whole Foods is that they offer the case discount! My family and 7 other families place a larger order from Whole Foods every 3-4 months and then divide the cases up between everyone! This has been a HUGE savings for us! I also really take advantage of the sales Whole Foods has on Fridays! Especially when it is meat!!!

Jamie says …

Wow. I looked at the USDA site and their recommendation for 'thrifty' is about 3x what my husband and I spend on food each month. While we aren't perfectly nutritious, we do fairly well on $125 a month.

Jordan says …

I've lived in NYC on a weekly food budget of $40 a week for three years. I was on food stamps for two of those years. As a vegetarian, it is very tricky to make ends meet and have a healthy diet. A lot of the things you need to eat for a balanced vegetarian diet are much pricier than if you ate meat. I shop at four different grocery stores, and have a huge stock of non-perishables such as rice that I base most of my meals around. It's tricky, but not impossible. Things like nutritional yeast have really helped me out, plus the book "Vegan on the Cheap."

Kelly says …

Nice job.. question do all WFM give you .50discount off on every 3lbs or more of meat that you spend? Do all WFM have the tour to take for the budget? I am on disability ,have many health issue's and very limited income I can spend 140.,for 1,for food a month and can make a trip to WFM once a month since it's 1 1/2hrs away.. Do you have any advice.. Do to the health issues I had to start eating differently my reason for going to WFM .. Thank you :) Kelly

Kelly says …

Congrats to you and your family! This is an impressive challenge- inspiring and eye opening. My son and I waste a crazy amout on food... Never have thought about what "normal" would be and even when I'm "broke" that's not where I cut from. Knowing it can be done at WF is inspiring...

Tammy says …

My family is one of those families currently living below the poverty line relying on food stamps to feed our family of 5. With three of us with sensory processing disorder, one with autism, one with Asperger's, my youngest daughter and I with life-threatening food allergies as well as sensitivities to gluten and dairy and thus implementing a g/f, d/f and other food eliminations' diet along with my husband who has what has yet to be diagnosed but appears to be diverticulitis, we are A MESS! It is extremely difficult to get by on even $800 per month...disincluding the cost of the supplements that we use for our children on the autism spectrum. I love being frugal, and we are, BUT, Lisa, as you aforementioned, "I can’t imagine what the grind feels like after months or years of living like this," you are so very correct. I would love NOT to have to scrimp. I would love to be able to choose the foods we want, eat out, whatever, but the fact of the matter, we are healthier for it all, but it doesn't come without a hefty price tag. Thank you for your hard work and dedication to your cause to get the word out that tasty, nutritional food can also be affordable if a person puts a little forethought into what he/she plans to eat! There is hope.

Katie L. says …

My normal monthly food budget is $150 for just me. I buy my meat from Whole Foods, but everything else from regular grocery stores. I have milk, fresh fruit & veggies every day. I don't eat meat every day, and when I do, I eat much less than most. I buy dried beans, instead of canned. Actually, I try to not buy canned anything, if I can help it. I eat very little actual bread. That said, I don't feel like I have too hard a time. I simply make a meal plan, shop according to it, and then stick to it. I can still have occasional extras, and I never feel deprived. Our culture focuses too much on food, and we feel like we need all the luxuries, but we don't.

Kim says …

I looked up our "thrifty budget" and was amazed by how high it was! Our actual budget for our family (2 adults and a toddler) is $100 a month, while the thrifty budget was $399 a month. We menu plan in the beginning of the month, make most everything from scratch, find the cheapest stores and use coupons (but not like in the extreme shows)just when they are convenient. We don't shop at Whole Foods often, but then it is 3+ hours away and doesn't make much sense. We do eat fresh produce, but very little meat just because we don't like it.

Love to eat says …

I fed my whole family of 3 on a 500 dollar budget in NYC for two years after I lost my job in the recession. It is not rocket science...

Sabrina says …

All you have to do is read the book "Wildly Affordable Organic" by Linda Watson and it will give you all the tips and tricks you need. She did this on a food stamp budget. Incredible book. I checked the book out of the library and just had to buy a copy for myself!

Kimmie says …

Hmmm...doesn't anybody see this is not a good sign? Jordan was on food 2 yrs stamps? You seem to like the new AMerika and just getting by on rice & veggies? Sounds like we are going tird world, 3rd world?

Julia @ The Frugal Find says …

This is an absolute travesty, what has our country come to that this is "thrifty" for a family of 3?! Our weekly budget for a family of 6 is $75 AND we do shop at Whole Foods, not exclusively but we do take advantage of the great coupons and sales. The Food Stamp (SNAP) budget for our family of 6 would be $952/month - I'd LOVE to have that much free money for groceries. I'd shop WF exclusively if I did. I shared my thoughts on this blog post tonight here... http://thefrugalfind.com/could-our-family-live-on-952month-for-groceries/

Jody says …

I am a mom of four, single, and struggling to feed our family. When I had food stamps, I was getting about $350 a month for the whole family. I recently lost the food stamps because I had to work when they wanted my interview, so now I have to reapply and wait again. I'm grateful for food banks, but I'm trying to keep my job and can not often wait in line for the box of food, as I might lose my job if I did. Anyways, I'm glad I saw this article, I have never shopped at a whole foods, and I have heard it is a good place to go. I wonder how much I could get for my family from there. Good article. Sorry for rambling.

says …

@Jody We'd love to help you around the store. Each location has a customer service desk that would be happy to help do you do some discount shopping and help you with the current store deals! Just ask your greeter at the front of the store where the customer service desk is located and the Team Members there will be happy to chat with you.

Lanie says …

My family eats primal. We spend 600/month for 2 adults and one child That's not even buying organic. :(

Nancy says …

The challenge is inspiring. Although I may not be ready to slash my food budget, you have inspired me to take a look and see where I can do a better job. Oh, and I love Whole Foods for so many reasons. Great staff, great stores, excellent assortment of foods and other products. Thanks for what you do, Whole Foods.

Kayla says …

What a great idea for a challenge. As the mom of four shopping for six,it can be really pricey. I regularly shop @WF Columbus Circle and was totally not aware of that the concierge service could be of help in this arena. I will definately avail myself of this next time I go shopping.

MAIYRA says …

I have been buying groceries at wholefoods for the last 5 years and just for me I spent between 100 to 150 per week. It gets expensive at times because i also have to buy soap, toothpaste, detergent and body creams from there. I have allergies to casein,gluten, perfumes, dyes, preservaties some fruits and vegetables. So even with the limited amount of things that i can eat is expensive. I never find coupons on the things that i buy.

Jessica says …

This is a great challenge, and I'm glad Whole Foods took you up on the bet! As a college student, I don't have a large budget to spend on food, and as much as I love Whole Foods, I never really think I can shop there because I typically associate it with higher prices. I guess I've never really taken the time to examine all of the various deals and specials that are available, but this post helps show that with some effort, it is possible to shop and eat at Whole Foods. I think it's great how this post shows that it is still possible to eat a healthy and nutritious diet even on a limited budget.

Rebecca says …

I have been feeding my family strictly at Whole Foods for about 7 months. There are health issues in our home and I made the decision to go all natural and get the junk out to give our bodies a fighting chance. My weekly food budget is $100 for a family of 5. It breaks down to $2.85 per person per day. It takes careful planning and there have been many times of frustration and tears, but it can be done and we are healthier for it.

Brett Marie says …

I wish we had almost $500 for our monthly grocery budget. We have $200/month for our family of 5; that includes food and non food items such as diapers, cleaning supplies, paper goods, and HABAs. We live in the Northeast where the cost of living is high and the weather is not conducive to year round gardening (nor farmer's markets). I would love to see someone post on how they feed a family of 5 at WholeFoods on a budget of $200/month - that would be inspiring!

Deborah says …

Wow this is really incredible. I usually associate Whole Foods to be more expensive than other grocery stores, but this story shows that with a little extra effort, everyone can afford it. I'm a college student and we're always looking for ways to save money and budget properly. Taking some extra time to check out the deals can add up to saving a lot. This is something I'll definitely have to try. We could open a lot of opportunities by shrinking our food budgets. Deborah Yim Tulane University

Christina says …

@brett... My first thought would be to use cloth diapers, make your own detergents and other cleaners. I spend less than $10 making 10 gallons of laundry detergent. With homemade cleaners, vinegar will become your best friend ;) Sign up with Pinterest. There are so many wonderful, money saving ideas out there!

Mel says …

I haven't looked recently, but when I did last the 'thrifty' budget blew me away! I could feed a family of 12 on what they allotted for my family of 2 adults and 2 school aged children. Circumstances had us on food stamps a couple of years ago, and it was all I could do to use the allowance. I had staples stockpiled for months. I still have beans and rice left, as well as a few cans of beans. I actually used less processed foods during this time than I normally did.

Diane says …

There is one thing missing here. Where do items such as personal hygiene, laundry soaps, household cleaners, toilet paper, etc fall in? In my never ending quest to reduce cost and pollutants, I am using vinegar, baking soda and water as household cleaners.

Emily says …

I have been shopping exclusively at WF for about three years now and love it! With buying sales and smart cooking it can work!! I spend about $400-$450 a month to feed our family of five- and could go lower if need be. I agree with you - keeping a loose menu (or none at all) is the best plan because t allows me to shop the sales and what is fresh to make the most of my budget... Also buying extra meat for the freezer when it is on a good sale! Good job!

Jena says …

Wow! I love all your ideas and I'm going to definantly put some to use. I recently was laid off and I'm a single mother of four year old twins. I just got food stamps and I'm going to have to feed them and my elderly mother on $274 a month. While it is nice she watches them while I seek work I want her and the girls to eat healthy and not processed Mac n cheese with nitrate filled hot dogs! :D. I see myself baking some bread in the future! We even started a garden in the back yard! Oh and until I got my food stamps we were eating solely from our local food bank. Thanks to Whole Foods we learned to be creative with the food they donated! Once I get back on my feet I am hoping to return the favor. ;)

michele says …

More With Less is a helpful book/cookbook on the subject of eating very frugally and healthy. It really is packed cover to cover with helpful information

Mariilyn says …

Great story, and you did well!!!

Nicole says …

To the vegetarian commenters -- I've found the cheapest vegetarian dinners, without going for the chicken or other meat as the center of meal, is stewing up lentils. Get a giant bag of lentils (usually stores owned by middle eastern families, that stock a lot of lentils, have the best prices), and stew them up--lots of recipes online--to have with rice and some cheese. Filling and protein filled, and then all you need is a few fresh veggies.

Jaye-Andrea says …

This is such a positive story. Thank you for sharing it. I think it is marvelous that you donated your money to the local food bank.

Kelsey Wise says …

Great article! Eating right shouldn't cost more than eating bad food. My husband and I are trying to better track our spending, so we set a weekly budget of $100-$125 a week for all food (including any restaurant trips) and purchases from the grocery store, including body care items, pet food, cleaning supplies, and other non-food items. It sounds like a lot of money at first, but when you only give yourself a set amount for all of these kinds of expenses, it really makes you stop and ask yourself, "is it really worth it to eat out tonight?" We shop almost exclusively at Whole Foods, aside from a few items the store doesn't carry, and we try to make as much food from scratch as possible. our spending is a little different as we eat a primarily vegetarian diet, so we have more money to spend on fresh produce and bulk items like dried grains, lentils, beans, nuts, etc. We have been successful so far, meeting or going under our allotted budget. It's fun to see how much of the extra money we can set aside for date nights! :)

Kristi says …

Were you able to avoid all of the GMO foods that Whole Foods sells?

Shari Darnall says …

How will I buy fresh fruits, vegetables, chicken, or fish, dairy product on $78.00 a month. I only can eat fresh or frozen fruit and veggies. I have to eat healthy food and no processed food. Thank you.

Jacquelyn Ritchie says …

Can you share the meals you made

Rita says …

At one time (around 10 years ago), I was feeding my 2 young daughters and myself on roughly $30 a week. I shopped at Trader Joe's mostly. We ate a lot of chicken and rice, as I remember and I prayed a lot.

Denise M Jackson says …

so what you are saying is that whole foods DOES NOT accept food stamps?

Denise M Jackson says …

Thanks you for creating this blog. It is a wonderful way for people who are challenged both with money and how to shop for their families. You create a way to make this happen that is easy and healthy

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@DENISE - All of our US stores accept electronic food stamps.

sasha says …

Hello I work for an agency that works with single mothers in the inner city who are mostly on SNAP/EBT. We are trying to teach them about nutrition, healthy foods and wanted them to experience Whole Foods. My question to you is, dose Whole Food except SNAP/EBT? Thank you.

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