It’s a SNAP: Living on Four Bucks a Day

Peter Biro, husband of LeadBoston alum Nova Biro

I rarely decline a cappuccino any time of day, and certainly never first thing in the morning, but last Thursday I had no choice.  To support my wife Nova, our family went on a diet.  We were trying to shave not calories, but dollars: her mission was to complete the “SNAP Challenge” as part of her LeadBoston program, and experience issues of poverty firsthand by limiting our daily food spend to what poor families can afford.  That number, per person, is only four dollars a day.  

So, the Thursday morning cappuccino that rang in at $4.25 was not in the budget.

If you are lucky enough never to have thought about the breakdown on four bucks a day, as many reading this have not, you eventually arrive at a few other non-obvious conclusions.  First, you have to allocate the $4 among your meals – say, 50 cents for breakfast, 1 dollar for lunch, 2 dollars for dinner, and 50 cents for “other”.  50 cents for other is just not a lot.  In that world, if someone offers you free food, whatever the kind, you probably take it.  Second, as characters in Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” about growing up poor in Ireland could tell you, alcohol is a budget-killer.  Say your addiction is on the opposite end of the spectrum like mine and you need a cup of coffee.  Cheap will do.  That’s about $0.25 if you make it yourself.  

The issue in both cases is that the $0.25 has to come from somewhere.  So taking your children out for a ice cream or a treat is a non-starter.  

What are some cheap nutritious foods?  In no particular order, the Biro family’s diet last week consisted of rice, beans, potatoes, inexpensive meat (specifically split chicken breasts on sale, and stew meat on sale), bananas, eggs, carrots (but you have to peel them yourself – having the factory do the work for you and turn them into baby carrots costs too much), pasta, homemade pancakes, nuts, oatmeal and super cheap granola bars we bought in bulk (more on this later).  We bought a small crate of “Clementine” oranges on sale for $6, or $0.20 apiece.  We made homemade pizza one night, with dough from scratch costing roughly $0.40, the sauce about $1 and mozzarella at $3, totaling not quite $5 for 2 pizzas, with leftovers for lunch.  We did buy fresh broccoli, which is expensive at $0.30 per serving, so we didn’t have much.  Frozen vegetables are usually cheaper, but not always.  Lentils are cheap and high-quality calories but we didn’t get those in.  

Greasy tortilla chips are cheap – low quality, to be sure, but cheap.  It is true, as has been noted many times by those studying childhood obesity, that 2 liters of soda (for about $1 on sale) are much cheaper than a half gallon of orange juice (about $3.50 on sale) or milk.  

Besides designer coffee served by a disgruntled barista, other luxuries were out.  Berries.  Flank and high-quality steak.  Lamb.  Brand names.  Good apples out of season cost $1.33 each.  So, you can eat a granny smith in March, but you have to give something up.  

My daughter Sophie and I typically spend Tuesday afternoons together and share a piece of cake ($4) and bring one home for my wife and other daughter ($4).  We knew this had to go.  So, last week, Sophie and I split a mini-cupcake for $1.  

We worked over the crumbs for a while.  This was a theme all week.

This experience with my daughter really got my attention.  My wife and I know how to improvise in the kitchen, and the convenience of leftovers makes them a way of life for us already, so fitting different ingredients into this model didn’t jar us.  For Sophie and me to go without our usual dessert was not that big of a deal either, because in truth, we knew we could resume it next week.  It was temporary.  But poverty is rarely temporary.  And on the best day, you can either have a cup of coffee yourself, or give your child a treat, but never both.  

My family adapted.  Sophie resiliently offered, “That’s OK dad, I don’t need the big piece anyway.”  I checked the daily sales at our local supermarket and, for example, bought a “Five Buck Cluck”, a pre-roasted chicken on sale on Thursdays for $5.  That’s meat for 4 of us, plus a little extra, plus the basis to make stock instead of buying broth at $0.80 per can.  We used things that we had bought before in bulk — on a per-serving basis, much cheaper.  A granola bar from a small box cost $0.40, but from a Costco-sized box, it’s about $0.10.  

But families in poverty, I imagine, cannot adapt this way.  They might not have time to check in at  the market every single day.  Yes, shopping at Costco saves money in the long run.  But if you are poor, it’s not in your neighborhood.  How do you get there?  How do you have the money upfront to pay for everything?  How do you get it back home?  Where would you store it?  And  you can’t spend, in the form of foregone wages, nearly $22 to make the 3-hour round trip.  $22 is food for 6 days.  At the same time, you probably have to shop for food much more frequently, which is a tremendous time burden for people already stretched to the limit.

This made us think about the broader issues.  

Tight food budgets bring the pervasiveness of cheap processed foods into sharp view.      
I don’t know what happens to the economy if the minimum wage goes up $1.  I do know, that an extra $1 equals $40 per week and would increase the food budget of a family of four by almost 35%.  A huge impact.    

Most importantly, I remember the anxious feeling after exhausting the daily $4.  Not hunger pangs — we had full pantries in a warm spacious house in a safe neighborhood. The anxiety was rooted in this: for someone on $4 per day for food, food insecurity is rarely the greatest of their challenges.