One week's worth of groceries

Four dollars a day, seven days = $28 and seven ethical dilemmas.

Thanks to the San Francisco Food Bank’s annual Hunger Challenge Campaign last week, my life boiled down to that equation.

The Challenge meant to bring attention to the limited resources available to food stamp recipients who manage on $4 a day. Could foodies, bloggers, journalists, or the combination of the three endure for a week?  Would their temporary pangs  connect others to the hunger sitting right next to many of us?

Here in San Francisco 150,000 San Francisco residents don’t know where they’re going to get their next meal. Some 35 million Americans subsist with the help of food stamps and since January, three million people have joined state-run programs.

Monday: Day 1. Spacing out, shopping and one slice of peanut butter toast (snack), spaghetti with ground turkey bolognese.

I started the day with a $3 Philz Coffee for breakfast then headed to the newsroom. Wait! Philz coffee on $4 a day? My bad. Note to self: No tacos or lattes this week. Time for grocery shopping.

Coming up with a week’s list for $28 was not going to be easy—especially on an empty stomach.

Spaghetti four days in a row.

I scoped out the best deals and here’s what I discovered: Trader Joe’s was the cheapest. Peanut butter, bread, eggs, milk, spaghetti, bananas, apples, spinach, ground turkey, large can of diced tomatoes, pasta sauce and sweet potatoes totaled $21.45. I picked up the remaining necessities of rice and beans at Casa Lucas, splurging on two avocados at 69 cents each. The bill at Casa Lucas was $3.13. My cushion: $3.42.

I made a big pot of spaghetti, but insecurity about my food supplies had already crept in. I only used half of the package. It also dawned on me while I was cooking, that I hadn’t calculated in seasonings. Was I cheating by using the salt, pepper and garlic salt?

Tuesday: scrambled egg sandwich (breakfast), spaghetti (lunch), fruit (dinner). It takes a lot of planning to stay within a budget. Even though I woke up early to make breakfast and pack my lunch, I failed to plan for dinner. It was also my mother’s birthday, so I wasn’t able to take her out or even to enjoy dinner with her. With no money for food, life had become increasingly limited. I ate a couple of fruit skewers from my mother’s fruit sculpture birthday gift. Was this breaking the rules? I decide people on food stamps do have jobs, and they do have friends and family who share food. Nonetheless, I still went to bed hungry.

Wednesday: egg sandwich (b), spaghetti (l), pb and banana sandwich (s), spinach salad w/avocado, two boiled eggs and sweet potato (d), apple w/pb (s). I wake up to grumbling stomach. Fruit on a stick does not make a dinner.  Lesson learned. I pack breakfast lunch and dinner. What working person would really have time every day to make sure they had food for the whole day? Wouldn’t it get annoying carrying around 3 meals? How do you stay positive when you’re not doing this as a cause but this is a way of life? Those questions ran through my head.


The food, and the amount I’m eating, has already shifted. I can’t remember the last time I had a sandwich more than twice a week or the last time I didn’t have a leafy green every day. My spinach supply had to last a week, and already that seemed impossible. That is something else — I’m becoming stingy with portions, afraid of running out.

Thursday: banana & egg sandwich (b), spinach salad (l), pizza (d). The day started out on track. I made breakfast, packed my lunch and dinner. But then it happened. I went somewhere where there was food. And wine! Wine lead to cheese, then salami and then it fell apart when the host decided to order pizza from Delfina. “You’re at a party. People on food stamps go to parties,” she said. She’s right, I thought, they do.

Like an addict set free, I nibbled at the cheese, folded pieces of salami, and then swallowed a biscotti whole. By the end of the night I’d consumed three slices of pizza, cheese, meat and three glasses of wine. I had regrets, but regrets I could live with.

I came home and for penance made a vat of beans and rice. I will eat this for the rest of the week. Promise.

Friday: 2 slices of pb toast (b), trail mix (l), sandwich, calamari salad, crème brulee, quiche, rum punch (d). Last night seems so long ago.  Running late, I whipped up two pieces of toast slathering them with peanut butter as I ran out the door. Halfway to Berkeley, where I would be all day, I stopped short. My beans and rice! They were still at home. ARGH.

Karma got me good. What would someone of limited means do? In San Francisco one in four children lacks the access to food they need to learn, grow and thrive. From April to July of this year, the number of Missionites on food assistance has increased by 3.42 percent and it’s rising.

The San Francisco Food Bank’s 192 pantries step in to provide extra food to meager diets and 500 nonprofits. Following the USDA food pyramid on $4 a day is next to impossible, including ketchup as a vegetable.

I ate the emergency trail mix I keep in the car.

And there was créme brulee

Friday night I usually would have made plans. Instead I decide to go home to my rice and beans, but one invitation later, I was into rationalizing. I won’t eat … I deserve to go after lunching on stale trail mix…Maybe I’ll just have a drink with the $3 cushion.  Then I smelled the intoxicating, sweetened air of burnt sugar and hot frying oil at Fabric 8’s Gallery closing. The Amuse Bouche guy gives me a free glass of a limey rum punch. I say,“Okay just this one drink…”

Down the rabbit hole I fall…

Saturday: scrambled eggs, beans and rice (b), beans and rice (l), toast w/pb (d) The balance sheet: I’m back on the wagon. I find it hard to leave my house, because I don’t want temptations. I drink water for hunger pangs. I want the challenge over. I realize I am going to have to freeze most of the beans I made.

Sunday: croissant (b), roasted sweet potato (l), toast (d) I blow my cushion on a warm flaky croissant from Tartine, then go over my limit by $2 with a latte.

That night I didn’t make a grand feast with my leftovers, which are surprisingly bountiful: spinach, a couple of sweet potatoes, eggs, and slices of bread, meat that’s already in the freezer. Maybe sticking to a food budget isn’t a bad idea. Tomorrow I will be able to eat whatever I want, starting with the food I have.

I didn’t come anywhere near starving and would have had less food if I’d remembered to bring my lunch on multiple days. But it’s difficult to stick to such a paltry budget or eat when you’re not close to home. For someone on the go, working longer hours to just make ends meet it’s easy to understand why the poor end up at McDonalds.

The most important lesson I learned is I spend too much on food. While $28 is too little to buy the proteins and veggies I like to eat, maybe $35 would do. (Plus money for drinks.)

One more day: Sunday afternoon in Dolores Park. Soon this will be me.

The socialization aspect was my hurdle. What’s a young woman in the city to do if not eat and drink?

Food consciousness now has a new meaning for me. It wasn’t about a diet, eating local, lo-carb, organic or raw, if the snugness of my pants is any indicator. It was about having enough energy and not being hungry.

It took more thought than anticipated. Would I be home around dinnertime? What about lunch? Is there Tupperware? Will there be a fridge where I am going? Am I eating a balanced diet?  All of this meant planning, lots of it. For me the week was about surviving. Come to think of it—that’s basically what it must mean for those who live day in and day out on food stamps.

Now back to my so-called life, the preoccupation, or at least that preoccupation with food is gone. I haven’t had breakfast all week. I haven’t even thought about it.

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Brooke Minters was born and raised in Los Angeles, where she developed a taste for culture and cuisine at an early age. A taquería connoisseur and documentary maker, she's eaten her way through most of L.A., Granada, Havana, and New York. It's only fitting that she finds herself on the food beat in the Mission.

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  1. Thanks so much for participating in the Hunger Challenge and writing so well about what it’s like to live on a food stamp budget. You have helped a lot of people gain a better understanding about what it’s like to survive with a constant fear of going hungry.

  2. I’m actually pretty dis-appointed with all of the slip ups. That is in no way a realistic reflection of what happens. When someone without spare cash accidentally leaves the house without her/his lunch or dinner; there is no lunch or dinner, not an accidental calamari salad, rum punch and creme brulee. And frankly, this is true now for a whole lot more than the extremely poor or for those on food stamps. Just a thought.

  3. Nice article, Brooke. There are other resources in San Fran that can offer meals for people who are not using food stamps just to supplement their meager income. There are churches and shelters that offer meals; but the main issue is eating well on such a limited income. Like you said, getting enough greens and proteins is a major issue with a limited budget.

  4. Neat, good article. $4 a day is surprising, but are people on food stamps supposed to have that set their food budget or use them to supplement their income? Either way, I usually feel like if I spend $6-10 on a *meal* then that’s pretty cheap.

    1. You’re absolutely right. Food stamps are a supplement, which is why food banks are so vital. Many people work and have incomes while receiving food stamps, but SF is so expensive it makes you wonder how far THAT money goes. The challenge was to see if you could do it without supplemental income, but I know I found myself growing resentful during the week thinking, “People have other resources besides food stamps, so why can’t I eat this or that?” The fact of the matter is some people do have other sources, but a lot of people don’t.

  5. Congrats on hanging in there all week! I have to agree that the challenge isn’t just financial – it’s also an emotional challenge, particularly when you feel trapped by lack of options and freedom. Really enjoyed your post!

  6. nice read. and it touches on a point that so many people forget when pushing the organic/local/slow food movement: food is expensive!!