Food and the ‘diet squads’

Interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal the other day about ‘diet squads’. Apparently, the diet squads were “A publicity stunt by Chicago’s health department to prove that nutritious and satisfying meals could also be cheap. Since the beginning of World War I, food prices had shot up; between 1914 and 1920, the cost of food for an average American family more than doubled. Malnourishment was becoming a public health problem, especially in cities. And people were starting to complain about the ‘food pirates who had America by the throat’…”

The article goes on to say how squads of volunteers would submit to a diet that was not to exceed a particular budget. Each group tried to outdo the other by thriving on a smaller budget than the other squads. A group of NYPD rookies subsisted on 25 cents per day (adjusted, that would be $3.93 per day in todays currency.) Eleven of the 12 NYPD rookies, by the way, put on weight in this experiment. Go figure.

The article continues that at the time it was believed the average family of two adults and three kids could be fed for $7.31 a week ( $138.51 in todays world.)

I have a sort of odd curiousity about how little money it can take to contentedly feed someone. Note Im saying how little money it takes, not how little food. Big difference.

When I was in college I recall that during summer session, when students had to fend for themselves without food service, I fed myself on less than five dollars a day. Didn’t get hungry either. The notion that you cannot feed yourself on X dollars is absurd. Minimum wage, at this moment, is a bit above $6 an hour. Anyone who says they cannot feed themselves for one day on $6 is either completely incapable of working a calculator, a stove, a cookbook or all three.

The trick is, of course, shopping wisely. While a dozen eggs may cost $1.50, or 25% of a daily $6 budget, those eggs last six days at two-per-day. Same thing with rice…at twentyfive cents per pound you can spend two days worth of your six dollar budget but wind up with months worth of rice.

What did I make for five bucks a day? I bought ground beef ($1.50 worth as I recall), rice, onion, peppers, tomato sauce, spices and that sort of thing and made a huge bowl of rice and beef. Some for lunch, the rest for dinner and a pair of Cokes from a vending machine. (I had no refrigerator so to get cold pop with dinner I had to go to the more expensive vending machine).

My point is that when a person doesn’t have a lot of money you can still, without much difficulty, manage to feed yourself if you can find one hour of employment per day at the lowest legal wage possible. No one wants to live like a Third World-er but despite their staggering amount of poverty they manage to swell humanities ranks with more warm bodies every year. A tough feat when you’re starving to death. But they’re proof that you can subsist on ‘pennies a day’ (if Sally Struthers is to be believed.)

Wanna eat cheap?
Buy in bulk. Know how to cook and prepare food. Be willing to do some math.

You’re poor and live in a ‘food desert’? Grab a back pack, get on the bus and go where the food is. Too poor for the bus? Walk or ride a bicycle. I can and do regularly stuff several days worth of groceries into a backpack and bring them home on my bicycle. ‘Food desert’ is a convenient way of saying ‘I don’t want to have to walk further than my neighborhood corner store for groceries’.

Food is powerful stuff. Like oxygen, you don’t really think about it until its gone. Hunger makes people do amazing things. Chilean soccer teams in the Andes eat their dead, tribes kill other tribes for cattle, people attack each other in food lines after disasters….when people are truly, genuinely hungry the gloves come off and they revert to the very dangerous primitive human stage. And while on hungry, desperate person is pretty damn dangerous imagine the danger of them in groups.

Moral of the story: it is proven that you don’t need to spend a lot of money to feed yourself. So, take the twenty bucks you were going to spend on porn, beer or Blockbuster this evening and buy some food so that when you do lose your job, or you do lose your house, or your local government collapses you have something to eat.

Seriously dude, if you cant live off whats in your cupboards for at least one solid week you’re doing something wrong.

13 thoughts on “Food and the ‘diet squads’

  1. When I was in my first year of college my dad put me on a food budget of $2 per day. I essentially had $14 per week to work with. I ate a lot of Ramen.

    We routinely attempt to go a week or more without going to the store for anything except maybe milk or bread – and even bread I could make myself if I could get the time. Mostly I do this to help me have the incentive to clear out the fridge, but it keeps the food budget in check too – an added bonus.

  2. Many of the kids from the lowest 20% in economic class have never learned budgeting, cooking, buying or storage methods. I teach a lifeskills class to homeless kids aged from 13-20 and I get sick at the curd they think is proper to eat. Some of them till the class had never eaten a homecooked meal, their diet was fast food, pop, chips etc. I can’t see why these skills can’t be offered to kids now and yes, I’ve taught many to live on 4$ a day and eat damn well.

  3. I worked with that population for a while, too. You’re absolutely right. Many of them have no idea how to budget, and a lot of them have very poor math skills. I’d see young adults who would spend their entire week’s bus fare at the snack machine in one day without even realizing what they’d done until it was too late. Most of them lived on fast food, which is expensive comparitively.

    I survived for years on just a couple of dollars a day for groceries. Peanut butter, eggs, chicken drumsticks, rice and beans, popcorn…there are a lot of things that can be stretched or had inexpensively, especially with the help of coupons. A couple of times in my impoverishment, I formed “dinner co-ops.” A group of us would get together and chip in a few bucks once a week, then cook up a veritable feast. There were 11 of us in the dinner co-op we put together in college. Eleven people kicking in $3 to $5 a person gives you $33 to $55 to spend on one meal. Two of us in the group were “meat-and-potato” raised Americans, but the rest were from India, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, and the things they knew how to do with various (inexpensive) grains was amazing to us! We lived frugally, but once a week we feasted.

  4. And when you’re in the grocery store checkout line, what is it that the foodstampers are buying? The people who would benefit most from some food knowledge. Not the sort of basic, inexpensive foods you talk about, they’re buying prepared, boxed or frozen food. And, often, lots of cigarettes. Gak.

  5. food

    I don’t know if this counts buy my job as a troubleshooter for the power company has me on the road a lot. I have learned to eat like a king on $5 a day. Wendy’s drive thru two Jr. Bacon Cheeseburgers =$2. Walgreens 32oz gatorade for $1 (free ice from Wendy’s), McDonalds sausage/egg mcmuffin $1.60. I don’t buy their drinks or fries and sometimes all I eat in a day is Costco trailmix and water, or summer sausage and crackers/cheese with an occaisional salad. Still I like to pack lunches when it isn’t too hot out from home and it is even cheaper to BBQ extra chicken, hot dogs, meat on Sunday and then have it all week.

  6. Because no one wants to run a business in crack-infested ghettos, many supermarkets have closed down and the residents of those neighborhoods wind up with no food source except 7-11’s and the like. So they get overpriced and unhealthy food. The liberals call this a ‘food desert’, everyone else calls it blatantly obvious economics.

  7. You’ve managed to touch on one of my pet peeves. When and I used to hang out in one of the local coffeehouses drinking whatever unadorned caffeinated brew was on special that day (with free refills) we’d lament the number of people receiving disability payments and unemployment who were guzzling $4.95 frou-frou concoctions by the tanker-load.

    I’ve watched people buy massively overpriced groceries (when they buy groceries at all) at 7-11s and CVS Pharmacies, for chrissakes, then bitch about being poor.

    I learned to cook as a grad student because I couldn’t afford to eat otherwise and I ate surprisingly well for surprisingly little money and surprisingly little effort. I still keep hefty supplies of rice, beans, pasta, oatmeal, grits, canned goods on sale, Ramen noodles on sale (7 cents a package if I look hard enough!), inexpensive condiments, etc on hand for both financial reasons and, as you’ve stated, a hedge against lean times. Yeah, I’ve squandered my share of money, but having grown up with Depression-era parents I feel uncomfortable without something approaching a month’s supply of basic, inexpensive foodstuffs stockpiled.

    During those times I’ve been unemployed I took it as a personal challenge to see how little money I could spend on food and still eat well (though not necessarily healthily). Those skills remain useful–learn to cook, buy in bulk, buy on sale, expend a little effort.

    Of course, I’m preaching to the choir.

  8. Chilean soccer teams in the Andes eat their dead

    I think they call it football- the soccer, not the eating the dead part…

  9. I had a pretty good deal for a year or two in college. One of my housemate’s parents would drive down and buy the most random things in bulk from Sam’s. My housemate told me I was welcome to any of the food as long as I made enough to feed her (since she couldn’t cook and it would go to waste otherwise). Fine by me! I made some fine meals from the case of tomato paste, gazillion pounds of pasta, and hordes of bisquick mix.

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