Anne Radcliffe: Dinner - It's Not Rocket Science


Could You Feed Your Family on a "Hunger Game" Challenge?

Can we live healthy on $5.50 per person per day for a month?


If you came here thinking we were going to talk about Katniss, I'm sorry; we're not fighting a war by lotto. 

This is a different type of adventure, and it evolved from Gwyneth Paltrow during the SNAP challenge and how she brought attention to all the right things, and whoosh, it went over people's heads.

Probably because they were busy arguing over what she was using the limes for (and by the way, my friend and I figure it's for flavouring her water).

RELATED: How To Get Your Kids To Eat More Veggies

I was intrigued by the love-hate response to her taking the SNAP challenge for a week and the speculation and condemnation that erupted from her choices. Mostly, people were peeved because she made healthy choices, and people considered that elitist or something, that she didn't choose peanut butter and Kraft Dinner. Loving to hate Gwynnie aside, I thought she actually made an excellent point of demonstrating the big problem with poverty-income. Fresh, healthy food and low income do not work well together.

Still, I thought it could be done. The nutrient-void high calorie food-bank offerings and preferred low-income diets have always been vexing to me. Convenience food isn't cheap, after all. SURELY there was lots of wiggle room in there if you were willing to put a little effort into it. So I thought (arrogantly): I could do this. I can eat healthy and I know a crap load about scratch cooking. NO PROBLEMO. And I told our YMC Editor Jeni all about this awesome thing I was going to do, doing the SNAP challenge for a freakin' month... while being compliant with the food guide.

Jeni said: challenge accepted.

(Ed. Note: I'll cop to giggling a bit because seriously? Grocery shopping is expensive and time-consuming enough when you're not preoccupied with sticking to a firm budget.)

What I didn't have a clear vision of when I put myself out for this challenge is exactly what the food guide looks like in the US and Canada when you break it down to dollars and cents and the size of food servings. MY idea of healthy, and the government's idea of healthy, are completely at odds. I could feed a dozen people on $5... if I didn't try to meet certain nutritional restrictions. After a few days of price checking and spread-sheet plotting, I realized that under their rules, my initial meal plans were doomed to failure on paper before I even began.

I needed more fruits and vegetables for less money. This intrigued me even more. And also, I wasn't willing to back down from the challenge without a fight. Could it be done? Can a family live on such a very limited budget, and be compliant with the food guide? How does one do this?

And then Jeni and I worked out some rules.

The Hunger Game Rules:


1) The goal is to eat as healthy and as tasty as we can on a budget of $5.50 per person, per day. This is the $4.15 of the SNAP challenge with about 33% added on for the increased cost of food in Canada. The money is to only be used for food, and no other household items. I will generally try to stick to a weekly grocery budget ($115.50), but I may have to borrow a few bucks against the next week here and there, to take advantage of sales and especially in the beginning to cover the pantry outlay.

2) I can't spend an unrealistic amount of time buying and preparing food. It's a good bet that many people on an ultra-low income aren't WAHMs or SAHMs, and even if they are, nobody's got as much time to devote to this project as a curious work-at-home food blogger. Therefore, "weekday" recipes will be all under an hour (or be built for slow-cookers), and shopping excursions (outside of my initial pricing research) will be minimal, brief, and not all over the city every week.

3) My challenge "pantry" consists of only salt and pepper at the start of the challenge, and no unusual equipment in my cupboards. Everything food-related must be purchased (I confided to Jeni if I was this hard up in reality, I'd be sneaking this stuff out of fast food joints, anyway). And I can't whip out any immersion blenders or blow torches to prepare anything (which I don't have anyhow).

4) I will TRY to adhere to the Canada food guide. Mostly. So to break it down, about (2) servings dairy, (2) servings protein, (5) 1-cup or equivalent servings fruit and vegetables, and (4-6) servings of grains per day. Seven to eight 1-cup servings of fruits and vegetables per day (as recommended by CFG) for hubs is probably just not going to happen. In fact, to be brutally honest, this will still give us more fruit and vegetables than hubs and I usually consume. Probably more than a lot of us do.

5) The kid al​ways gets what he needs and will not go hungry. Because trying to adhere to the food guide means that there's very little spare "fat" in the budget, hubs and I can stand to miss part of our daily allotments, if necessary.

6) I will not force my family to eat to meet the food guide if they aren't hungry, I will not make them eat anything they don't want to just to make this challenge work, and I will make sure they have foods that they enjoy. I must somehow find enough room in the budget for treats and "luxury" items. Being poor absolutely doesn't mean you don't deserve to ever treat yourself to a candy bar or your favourite meal. So we are not going to become vegans living exclusively on diets of beans, rice and salads just for the sake of the challenge. Unless they want to. And they don't. 

7) If worst comes to worst, I will borrow from the "food bank" (otherwise known as my old pantry). Hamilton in particular has an (unfortunately) thriving food bank program that helps help keep everyone fed by stretching their groceries with non-perishables. But this program isn't available everywhere, and where it does, it may not be as generous as it is in Hamilton. As I would never take food from someone who really needs it, my existing non-perishables will serve as a destination of last resort for the hungry Radcliffe family, just as if it were one of these resources, and I will document what was needed to continue to eat.

8) I will acknowledge the astonishing limitations and  unusual scenarios that are unique to this project and my household. The initial research took a bunch of time, and documenting throughout the month will take time, and I've got restrictions on best times to photograph. I'm also deliberately simulating limited to no help, adding on the fact that trying to adhere to the food guide makes this extremely challenging, and that food allergies in my household preclude us from some of the easier and cheaper food options such as peanut butter, regular milk, and many bulk bin foods.

As this challenge will last for the month of May, and there will be posts on many subjects, I am ever welcoming of helpful comments and suggestions from readers for stretching the budget!

Who knows, perhaps someone fighting hunger in their household will find our efforts useful.