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Challenge: Buy 30 Days of Groceries at Whole Foods on a Poverty-Level Budget

Have you ever pictured yourself doing a happy dance in the grocery store because you could afford oranges? No? Me neither, but that’s what happened during my 30-day challenge to feed my family of three at or near the poverty level. There were also moments of frustration and a few tears shed. Here’s how it all started …

I was roaming around a section of the USDA website where they keep track of over 8,000 families and what they spend every month for groceries. This helps them set four different budget levels: Thrifty (near the poverty level), Low, Medium, and Liberal.  Amounts are broken down by gender and age; kids and the elderly account for less money than 20-something guys, for instance. 

If you think this is a futile exercise and a waste of taxpayer money, you’d be wrong. If you’re going through a divorce, it’s likely that the courts will assess child support at the “Low” level, no matter your income. The food that our servicemen and women are served is budgeted at the Liberal level. So this monthly assessment by the government has a bigger effect than you might realize.

When I looked at the numbers, I realized my family was living at the “Low” level, but that wasn’t taking into account how often we eat out (two to three meals per week between lunches and dinner). The amount we spend does reflect us eating a lot of organic foods. Plus, we can sometimes be too wasteful; I cringe some weeks at what we throw away. It’s not just a waste of money, but a waste of resources for the planet.

Could our family live at the Thrifty level? What would it take? And what if I tried doing this while only shopping at Whole Foods, aka “Whole Paycheck”? And then what if I also threw a dinner party for eight as the very last meal?

I contacted Whole Foods and suggested a bet. If I could feed my family of three for 30 days exclusively from items purchased at Whole Foods for $491.10 they would reimburse me for my food. If I didn’t make it, they’d owe me nothing. The budget worked out to $16.31 cents per day total for all three of us. In case you’re wondering, here’s what we bought for the month.

Whole Foods said yes, my family was gung ho, and we were off on January 1st, shopping for over 90 minutes, trying to figure out what we could afford.   

The first two weeks were the hardest. We started with a nearly empty pantry, just a bit of vanilla, salt, pepper, and other dry seasonings and that was it. We had to buy all our staples, which took a huge chunk from the budget. During the second week, we were hoping to be able to afford more veggies than the previous week, but we were thwarted by prices. We did buy quite a bit of canned and frozen veggies, but very little fresh. I cried on the way home, frustrated at what I could provide for my family and wondering how people who lived at this level all the time handled it.

I’d like to point out here that the USDA Thrifty Budget is about 30% higher than the federal SNAP program. There’s no way you can eat healthfully on food stamps; it’s just not possible.

Then we hit the “Madness Sale!” Whole Foods runs a Madness Sale about once a month with some pretty amazing, stock-up-now specials. The big score for us was chicken breast, normally $4.99/pound, for only $2.99/pound! We bought 12 pounds, enough to last us through to the end of the challenge. That freed $24 in the budget that was originally pegged for proteins and we were able to use that for fruits and veggies.

Our next grocery trip I was dancing, literally dancing, as I picked up some oranges and happily placed them in the cart. Our dinner party, something we had fretted over all month, became easy as we had plenty of money for homemade bread, a chicken veggie stir fry, and two types of brownies for dessert. We even had enough to buy three bottles of wine for our guests; the cabernet was surprisingly good for only $3!

What We Learned  

Whole Foods has a Value Tour you can take (just call ahead) where they show you how to save money shopping at the store. It’s really invaluable and you can ask a lot of questions, which they’ll happily answer.

Frozen veggies are a great option, especially if you live in the Northeast like I do. Fresh veggies were at a premium and didn’t always look like they were worth the price, but the frozen varieties were healthy, tasted fresh, and worked great in sauces, stir fries, or even just as a side dish.

The more labor you do, the less it costs. It took me all of 10 minutes prep time to put together two loaves of bread a week, and it only cost $1.25 for both loaves. I saved a ton of money, the bread was fresh, lasted all week, and tasted yummy. There were lots of other instances where it was just so much better to make it from scratch.

Check prices in different areas of the store. Whole Foods offers nuts in bulk bins, plastic containers, and sealed plastic bags. Turns out the ones in the plastic bags are cheapest by volume, but we wouldn’t have known that if we hadn’t checked! This can be true for meats and produce too.

Not all specials are advertised. Whole Foods hypes between 100 and 150 specials per week but they might have as many as 2,000 items on sale.  (Yes it’s that high!) So be open-minded and always check pricing to see what is the best deal. You might be surprised and it can vary week-to-week.

During the month, we ate every meal from my kitchen, including my son’s lunch for school. We also live in Boston, an expensive urban area with a limited supply of fresh produce during the winter; prices do vary considerably depending on where you live.

Do you think you could do it? Here’s a roundup of our entire 30-Day Challenge adventures including weekly posts and frugal recipes. I’d love to see other people try this for themselves and see their results.

It’s been a week or so since our challenge ended and, after a day of eating a ton of junk, we went right back to home cooking. I have a lot more confidence that I can make just about anything taste as good as a local restaurant, and I’m more adventurous now with my cooking.

Lisa Johnson is a food blogger at True Food Movement. A Pilates studio owner and fitness blogger by day, she is a mean scratch cook by night and can frequently be found hanging on Twitter @LisaJohnson. 

Also Read:

Learn How to Coupon to Save on Healthy Groceries

Whole Foods’ Feed 5 for $25 Challenge

20 Affordable Ways to Lose Weight Without a Gym Membership

February 7th, 2012

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(Page 1 of 1, 18 total comments)

Stephanie

I dont understand why everyone is complaining so much about how high your budget was set. We eat 95% organic (%5 the occasional meal out or when I get lunch at work) and it is very expensive. We have very few markets around and even less that actually have organic items. It is very difficult for us to shop. The closest WF is an hour away, Earth fare 45 m away and Trader Joes is aboue 30 m away. We shop AT LEAST once a week for fresh produce. right now we are spending $600 per month for a family of 4. I was hoping for more of an in depth way to save, I.e. making things from scratch and such. For those of you that say after paying bills you have maybe $100 for groceries in the month, you have to prioritize. Your food should come first, that is your health and wellbeing. I choose to eat healthy whole foods over processed artifical junk. But we make it happen on just my small income because we cut back on many other things. So kudos to the author!

posted Jun 4th, 2013 12:11 pm


AJ

It IS possible to feed a family of three on WAY LESS than $491 a month. Unfortunately you chose to shop at Whole Foods, which is VERY expensive. You could've gone to Farmer's Markets if you're worried about organic. Go look in a discount grocery store, such as Aldi and compare prices. My in-laws spent MUCH less than that per month since it was a single mother with three children. She had meals planned out, and they ate a lot of potatoes. Celery, carrots, spinach, potatoes, frozen veggies, a whole chicken...etc are cheaper for a budget.

posted Mar 27th, 2013 5:39 pm


Nurul|Happy Tiffin

Everything is very open with a precise description of the issues. It was really informative. Your site is extremely helpful. Thanks for sharing!

posted Mar 26th, 2013 4:34 pm


Catherine

Well, I found this article helpful. I have a family of four and we easily spend waaaay more than this on our monthly budget. We just haven't been very good at keeping tabs on what we choose to eat. We are foodies so tend not to even bat an eye at paying for more gourmet products. However, I would like to learn how to spend our money more wisely for other reasons and this is a great starting point for me. Also, yes, farmer's markets are cheaper but we don't have access to them for more than a few months of the year because of where we live. Thanks for sharing your journey and for providing some incentive to me to learn how to do this for myself.

posted Nov 29th, 2012 8:45 pm


PT

Is there a reason why this project was undertaken shopping at only Whole Foods? Surely not publicity? I can't imagine it shows either the store or their customers in a particularly good light. BTW, you can get chicken thighs for $0.99 per pound in Safeway. Just saying.

posted Feb 27th, 2012 9:27 pm


mykidsma

Thanks for taking this challenge & showing how WF could be an option for those of us on a budget! I'm shocked that your budget is so high actually though. I have $550/mo for a fam of 5 and it's pretty generous, even though we're land-locked and don't have local fruits/veggies most of the year. We eat 70+% organic and very little prepared food. We also eat out only 1-2 times a month & the kids pack their lunches every day. "Groceries" also includes my 'green' cleaning supplies, toiletries, baby needs & supplements at our house. I'm also part of a national group of bargain shoppers and I know even the Bostoners don't have such budgets! I think I can accomplish this in part because we NEVER shop at WF since they're so expensive, but I do buy eggs & a few other essentials at a natural market. After reading this though, maybe I'll venture a trip for their Madness Sale??!

posted Feb 17th, 2012 6:46 pm


pk

Sorry, but $491/month is more than enough for buying groceries for three. My husband I spend less than $260 per month on groceries and restaurants/dining combined and buy only "healthy" foods from Wegman's and Trader Joe's.

posted Feb 11th, 2012 3:50 pm


Lisa Johnson

Hi there, I'm Lisa, the author of this post. I am surprised by the numbers you guys are quoting me. I did do quite a bit of research online and a few bloggers out there have tried to eat at the food stamp level healthfully and were unable to do it. That's where I got my information from. So for those of you doing it regularly, congratulations and yes, please do write blog posts about it so that those who are struggling can gain from your knowledge.

As for the price point. Please keep in mind two things, 1. I literally live in the most expensive part of the country for food and particularly produce. What costs 25c a pound for you might cost $1 a pound for me. 2. This was literally every meal, even my son's school lunches were packed every day.

Can you do better at ethnic markets, yes definitely! I discovered that during my 30 day shopping challenge and went to one very local to me last week (after the challenge) and was very pleasantly surprised.

Can basic staples be gotten elsewhere cheaper yes, and for the record I used to be a regular shopper of Market Basket and was unimpressed with the quality of their food organic or not.

I do eat as much organic and local and sustainable as possible and I know that pushes my normal budget up, but we didn't eat much organic at all during this challenge, we simply couldn't afford it.

Instead of judging me on what you do in your neck of the woods, why not try judging me based on the parameters that I had. You might be surprised to see that it wasn't that easy.

Cheers, Lisa

posted Feb 11th, 2012 12:04 am


AB

$500 sounds like a very high budget for 3 people, I have my Masters degree and my gross income for the month is 1600, I have to pay my mortgage, insurance, gas, utilities, everything - I'm lucky if we have $100 for groceries for the month.

posted Feb 10th, 2012 7:15 pm


Katrina (GF Gidget)

My husband and I both eat gluten free, organic, and I eat dairy free. We make most things at home, and really only eat out if we have a Groupon for a restaurant. I would say that we easily fall in the "Thrifty" category of spending even shopping for specialty items at stores like Whole Foods. We shop the sales, limit our meat intake, and try to use everything in our pantry. Leftover Quinoa = Fried Rice, etc...

posted Feb 10th, 2012 12:40 pm


Elizabeth

I have a big problem with the statement that "There??s no way you can eat healthfully on food stamps; it??s just not possible." Perhaps there is no way to 'eat everything from whole foods' on food stamps, but it is possible. By exclusively purchasing raw vegetables, proteins, bulk starches and fresh dairy, I feed my family of four for a flat $200 a month. Every meal is home cooked, seasoned well, balances and nutritious, without any processed ingredients, chemicals, preservatives or excess fats and sugars. Our secret? We shop at a produce market, a meat market and a local dairy shop. By eliminating the convenience of an American SuperMarket, it is entirely possible to eat the healthiest diets on next to nothing.

posted Feb 10th, 2012 1:07 am


Millie

I am all for eating healthy. Great! But how ignorant is it to think that 500 a month on groceries is poverty level... for 3 people?!? I have a family of 5 and we have to do that on much less sometimes. We have learned to eat what is on sale. Not junk either. We buy whats on 2 for 1 and look for discounted items. This includes healthy foods. I cook at home for my family everyday and provide more than any "suggested" amounts of fruits/veggies and good proteins. I have received food stamps in the past and am proud to say that "healthfully" eating is possible. Good for you for the positive changes you made in one month... but research a bit more before you begin to think you have done an awesome, impossible feat. Many others have done it on much less and during much harder times.

posted Feb 9th, 2012 11:32 pm


Benny G.

This approach is troubling because it assumes that shopping at Whole Foods is the only way to be "healthy". Other grocery stores (including the Boston-local thrifty choice, Market Basket) carry some of the EXACT same products as WF, but for literally half the price. For instance, I recently saw Cabot cheddar cheese on sale at MB for $2.00 (regular price $2.50). The regular price for the exact same block of Cabot cheese at WF was $3.99. Same goes for MOST of the ethnic foods staples that WF carries. Go to your local Mexican or Indian grocery and you will find the same brand of spices and sauces for less than half the price. Say what you want about organic produce, etc., but for many kitchen staples, shopping at WF is simply buying in to their extortion. Shopping thoughtfully at Market Basket would probably have saved you 50% (plus they now have organic sections if that is your thing).

posted Feb 8th, 2012 8:47 pm


Amy

Why is it not possible to eat healthy on food stamps? I an curious as to why you think it's just not possible to eat healthy while using food stamps. It is challenging, yes, but not impossible. We had to do it for 3 years. It came down to choices. We shopped the sales. When apples were on sale, we loaded up on them. Romaine lettuce cheaper this week, that's what we ate. We learned to make bread and yogurt at home. It's not ideal, but it's possible and not everyone on food stamps is surviving off of boxed mac and cheese and ramen noodles. We don't shop at Whole Foods, but we do shop at another local health food store. The key is being flexible in what you buy and eat, making what you can from home, and diligent shopping.

posted Feb 8th, 2012 5:53 pm


jenifer

You need to really re-think what you call poverty level budget. Ugh!

posted Feb 8th, 2012 12:17 am


nicie williams

hello, your comment about unable to eat healthy using food stamps (a month) is not true. I have done it many times with a family of 3-4 with $400 worth of food stamps. Now maybe your talking organics. Im talking,, no processed foods, junk food, any items with high frutose corn additives, other sweeteners additives. a 5 pound bag of sugar, all wheat, grains, (only) etc carbs, fresh fruit, fresh or frozen veggie, no soda, water, 100% juices, etc. it can be done. one month im going to try your challenge your article is great! thanx

posted Feb 7th, 2012 11:54 pm


Debra

Wow! I feed my family of 3 for $200 a month. It seems crazy to me to be able to spend $491 on food in one month!

posted Feb 7th, 2012 10:02 pm


Gary W

Incredible! Thanks for sharing. I shop at Whole Foods sparingly due to the prices. I often compare their prices to prices at local farmers' markets.

posted Feb 7th, 2012 6:22 pm



   
 

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