Tuesday, July 26, 2016

How We Ate on Five Dollars per Day and the YMCA Summer Food Program Helping Kids in Need

This post was sponsored by Y-USA as part of an Influencer Activation for Influence Central.

I started this blog when I was laid off from my job at 7 months pregnant. As we kissed our 2nd income goodbye, we worried about how we would pay our bills, our mortgage, and buy food for our family. Since we were living within a trifecta of 3 Walmarts, 4 grocery stores, and a big box store, it was easy for us to stock up on affordable staples, and healthy, nutritious food. Many families are not so lucky. This week, we teamed up with the YMCA and Walmart Foundation to see what it is like to feed our family in a food desert on an extremely limited income.

When money is an issue, living too far away from an actual grocery store intensifies the problem. In low income communities, especially those that lie in so called "food deserts", families rely on schools to provide meals for their children through breakfast and lunch programs.

During the summer, when kids are out of school, children can literally go hungry. Every county in the States is affected from 4 percent of the population in Slope County, ND to a whopping 33 percent in Humphreys County, MS.

This is where programs like Y's Summer Food Program with support from the Walmart Foundation steps in to provide up to 5 million meals and snacks for kids up to 18 years old at 1,500 locations. 250,000 children who are affected by food insecurity will get meals as well as have an opportunity to enjoy learning and recreational activities at the YMCA.

In order to help spread awareness for the Y's Summer Food Program we were asked to participate in the Food Desert Challenge. I hoped it would be an enlightening experience for our family. We are currently living in Japan, where we do not have a car, and we do not live within walking distance to a grocery store that is anything near the size or variety that we are used to at home.

In a way, we are already living in a virtual food desert. The big difference is that we were asked to live on $5 per person per day for 3 full days.

Our Food Desert Challenge - Starting Out with $60 and a Dream

In retrospect, starting this challenge out with the idea that it would be "fun" probably meant that I deserved just how problematic and troublesome it was going to be. I always have these fantasies, before I do anything that never take into account that I have two unruly children that don't ever cooperate. For all the budgeting and strategizing that I planned on doing, I failed to allow for all the complaining, crying, distraction, and impatience that kids factor in indiscriminately.

In our neighborhood, we have a very small natural food store where I do most of my shopping, however, they are much too pricey to afford enough groceries for 3 days so we would be skipping that place. Also, they do not sell much fruit - we walk to a small fruit store for that. I decided that would be my first stop and it immediately became my first source of anxiety. 

For this challenge, you need to know that the exchange rate for yen is very slightly more than USD. So when I have $1.00 it converts to about 104 yen. I get a tiny bit more for my money here. I'm naively happy about this and the fact that 2 of my kids are small so I feel like this could work to our advantage.

Here we are hitting the road for our nearly 1 mile walk to the grocery store!

So with the two kids in tow at the fruit store, one begging for and touching everything we aren't going to buy, and the other one crying to get out of the stroller, I hastily grab 4 items which come to a total of 1,478 yen which is about $14.11. I am immediately overwhelmed with the fact that I have spent this much on a few pieces of fruit and the peaches were EXPENSIVE. I bought them because they were the largest peaches I had ever seen and the shopkeeper told me they were "delicious" in English.

After our first purchase, we head home because there is only so much food I can carry while pushing a stroller and my plan is to make a second trip to load up on the rest of the food for the next three days.

Meanwhile, I'm beating myself up over the scary fact that I only have $46 left for actual food when fruit seems to get wasted, smashed, and picked at a lot more than I like by my children. However, I'm determined to keep it healthy and I have a plan. I am going to ration out everything to make sure it lasts us three whole days and nothing gets wasted.

After cutting up all our melon, I pack up the two uncontrollable children, to head back out into the unbearable heat and humidity to shop some more.

The next options are a 7-Eleven or Circle K which are about as close to us as the fruit store. I humored myself by visiting 7-Eleven and I confirmed that they definitely did not carry enough healthy vegan food that would fit into the budget nor would last for 3 days.

All of these stores I mentioned so far are about 4-6 blocks from our apartment but at this point I opted to head out to a very small grocery store that is roughly a mile away. To make it easier on my 4 year old, I have him ride his scooter and put the baby back in the stroller.

Again, my challenge is much more than simply doing some price comparisons and meal planning as I had imagined. It is explaining to a sweaty and hungry little boy why we are not buying ice pops or why he can't pick up a mini-basket that they place in the candy aisle (which by the way, I really wish the mini-baskets were near the fresh veggies because only a "rotten" mom ruins this junior shopping experience for her little consumers in training). These small baskets usually buy me the time I need to finish my shopping but today, it is not in the budget, and a source for contention, and the catalyst for a revolt.

I make some tough and rash decisions in this store. There really is NO time to use my calculator or make notes like I had fantasized about so I could stay in budget and purchase the perfect assortment of healthy food.

I consider a frozen pizza but opt out because we want meals that will result in leftovers and the baby and I don't eat cheese. I can't buy the peanut butter I usually buy and choose a smaller, much cheaper jar.

The bread I want is expensive, so I buy just 1 mini loaf  of wheat and get some white bread so I have enough.

I thought I would buy a big bag of nuts for snacking but at $9 a bag, I go for an inexpensive bag of snack packs instead.

I want the whole wheat crackers, but grab the cheaper and less nutritious ones just in case and accidentally end up buying both.

I load up on broccoli and carrots because they're nutritious and inexpensive. I grab a small bunch of bananas because I'm afraid about how quickly my kids plow through fruit.

At this point, the kids are over this shopping experience which has proved to be much longer and way less rewarding than they are used to. I hastily grab 3 colored peppers at a whopping $7 because I know everyone likes them and that is important, too.

I kick myself all the way home about the peppers.

They were soooo small and will be gone quickly providing no leftovers. When I get home and unpack, I realize one has mold growing on the stem and I have to cut the top off.

When you walk a mile, dripping sweat, wearing the baby (because I pull her out and use the stroller to carry the groceries) pushing a heavy load while stressing at every intersection that your 4 year old skid-stops his scooter on, you are NOT going back, trying to translate to customer service that you want your money back for a moldy pepper.

Days later, I am shopping for a baby gift for a friend 3 subway stops (and $5 round-trip subway fare) away and see a produce stand where colored peppers are twice the size, not moldy and $1.00. ONE DOLLAR!!! My moldy pepper weighs heavily on my mind.

It is not all bad. I scored some crazy good deals on tofu ( 2/$1.00) and soba noodles at .28 cents each. However, with the soba noodles, the spaghetti, the rice, and the white bread I purchased and NOTHING is labeled 'organic' I'm still questioning the nutritional value of my groceries.

Tofu was a good and very inexpensive source for protein for our family at less than 50 cents per block.

There are a lot of empty calories in my cart, no whole grains except for a small box of crackers and 3 slices of wheat bread, and the jars of sauce and peanut butter are tiny.

I'm not sure how I'm going to make everything taste good if I don't have money for extra sauce, dressing, bouillon, olive oil or spices?! I decide that a small amount of oil, bouillon, and salt, pepper and spices that I have on hand should be acceptable without totally blowing it.

This is literally what my stroller looks like on a daily basis. Without a car, we carry everything we buy or pile it on here. I throw the scooter on top when my 4 year old can't ride or we need to take a subway. The amount of time and effort it takes to get around makes shopping that much more difficult, time consuming, and costly.

Here's the final grocery breakdown:

Fruit (Watermelon, grapes, peaches, green melon) 1478 yen

Rice 280 yen
Noodles 28 x 2
Tofu 48 x 2
Beans 370
Bread 78 (8 regular thickness slices)
Wheat Bread (3 thick slices) 105
Carrots (3) 178
Bananas (4) 198
Broccoli 158 x4
Peppers 238 x3
Marinara Sauce 298
Pasta 128
Nuts 238
Peanut Butter 284
Jelly 288
Wheat Crackers 218
Crackers 160
Total = 4321 yen ($41.26 USD)

Groceries and Fruit Total:
5732 yen which is $54.73 US which leaves me with $5.27 or 552 yen leftover

I spent the remainder of the budget on another trip to the store in 92 degree heat walking with 2 kids where I purchased the following:

Ramen 170 x 2
Tofu 48 x 2
Fried Tofu 224

...and we scored:

Cucumbers (2) FREE from the garden (call it cheating if you will but when you have been doing this challenge for 2 days and trying to grow cucumbers for 3 months - you don't waste what you grow!)

Irrational Rationing - How Four People Ate for 3 Days on $60

I'd like to say I had this all planned out, but I didn't. There's something about a "challenge" that makes me want to "win" by getting the perfect meals, with correct amount of calories and nutrition in each serving. I wanted to employ the best strategy and do everything the best way I possibly could.

As you probably guessed from my scattered and sloppy shopping experience the meals weren't exactly well put-together either. There were a lot of crackers, which were great because my kids love snacking, but not really enough peanut butter to go on all the bread and crackers. My peanut butter jar was SMALL, so I had to carefully ration what I was going to use.

Rationing became my best friend for this challenge. I cut the carrots, deciding to not use more than one/day and to try to skip the first day so we could have some cooked with a dinner.

I rationed the bread, by slicing the thick wheat pieces in half. I rationed the nuts.

I made sure there were enough bread slices set aside so Dad could take sandwiches to work for 2 days because I could tell there was not going to be enough marinara sauce for him to have spaghetti leftovers for work by the first night.

I made sure we were rationing the fruit, and the uneaten pieces of fruit, cucumber, carrot, and banana got either eaten by me or it was boxed up and put in the freezer for my "garbage can" smoothies for day 3. This was my insurance policy that we would have a healthy smoothie on day 3 no matter how much fruit was or wasn't left in the fridge.

All this rationing seemed a bit "irrational". When your kids want an extra piece of fruit you want to be able to give it to them. When your tummy is rumbling or you have a food craving, you want to be able to eat what will make you happy, or healthy, or satisfied.

However, rationing became my family's survival strategy. Here's how it broke down, more or less, to the best of my ability.

Day 1
Breakfast - Cooked tofu and fruit cup
Snack - 1/2 banana, nuts, and crackers
Lunch - PB&J, Grapes, Yellow Pepper (Hubby got PB&J, Fruit, Nuts, and Crackers)
Snack - Crackers and PB and watermelon pieces
Dinner - Pasta, sauce, and broccoli

Day 2
Breakfast - Toast with PB and sliced peaches
Snack - 1/2 banana, nuts, crackers and PB, carrot sticks
Lunch - Leftover pasta and broccoli with carrot sticks and cucumber sticks (hubby got a PB&J, carrots, nuts, and crackers)
Snack - crackers, grapes, red pepper
Dinner - rice and beans, orange pepper and cooked carrots

Day 3
Breakfast - stir fried tofu, "Garbage can" smoothie (made from uneaten and leftover fruit and veggies), rice and beans
Snack - carrot sticks and crackers
Lunch - leftover rice and beans
Snack - cucumber sticks and crackers
Dinner - ramen, fried tofu, broccoli

Day 1 Pictures:

Low and slow. This is how I cook the tofu. Once dry and golden browned, I put a little salt, pepper, paprika, garlic and onion powder. This is $1 worth of tofu for our breakfast. We also each had a fruit cup.

The loaves of bread are very small as was the jar of peanut butter and jelly. It would take a lot of forethought and rationing effort to make sure we had enough to go around.

The wheat bread comes with only 3 thick slices. I have learned, here in Japan, to slice them in half very carefully to make 1 slice split into two for a sandwich.

I bought the cheap snack pack of nuts and found that they were mostly peanuts with some spicy junk food cracker things mixed in. I took one for the team and ate those so the kids could have the nuts.

I usually give my kids a whole sandwich, but they leave a lot of bread and crust so I rationed them down to 3 triangles, I had two and finished off by eating all their crusts.

This was my husband's lunch. He usually eats out but there was nothing he could buy near his job that would fit in the budget. He seemed happy enough.

The kids were more than happy to snack on crackers and peanut butter. I think I went waaaay too heavy on the PB for the first round. Toward the end of the challenge, there was no peanut butter left for the crackers.

Dinner was good. I tried to ration the sauce so we would have some for lunch but everyone was hungry so we decided that my husband would have a sandwich the next day instead of leftovers.

Day 2 Pictures:

We had peanut butter toast and fruit for breakfast. 

The carrots in Japan are really FAT which is fantastic. I wish we could have squeezed some hummus ingredients into the budget but not everyone likes hummus and that is where it gets tricky because I started buying things that EVERYONE liked and skipping foods that were individual favorites. I could see how living like this could be very difficult to ever get your favorite food unless it is off the dollar menu at fast food... We have one fast food place nearby and NO... just no.

Hubby's simple lunch... Again he said he was happy.

There is a salty underbelly to a lot of the snacks I got for my family. The unsalted nuts were just too expensive! 

After she made a mess of this banana and left a few of the carrots half eaten I cleaned them off and saved them (froze banana, and bagged the carrots in the fridge) for my 3rd day "garbage can smoothie". I got a god deal of pleasure from my slightly used fruit and veggie collection.

I have to admit, spaghetti leftovers are pretty good stuff!

Day 3 Pictures:

So we went with more tofu because the kids love it!

My used fruit smoothies were pretty delicious! I added whatever fresh I had on hand. They are a little of everything - peach, banana, carrot, watermelon, green melon, and cucumber.

These were the leftovers of beans and rice. For those of you paying attention I actually purchased black beans and ended up cooking pinto that I had on hand because I forgot and thought I had a choice when I cooked them last night. 

Choices are nice. People don't always have them when they are on such a limited budget. Beans were great and really could go a long way if you need a lot of nutritious vegan food on a very limited budget. I could definitely see where they could get tiresome, though. After a couple days of beans my kids are over. it.

So, to have something tasty and get these beans away from us, we had a couple packs of flavorful vegan curry flavor ramen with some fried tofu and the broccoli that was left. Hubs said he was hungry still after this meal, but hey, there were still beans and rice for the still hungry people...

What I Learned from Our Food Desert Challenge

Not only was this experience eye-opening, but it was frustrating, stressful, and downright difficult to do. I strategized and shared our grocery shopping and meal planning but most of all, I hope I can convey how important it is that YOU help ME spread awareness about the Y's Summer Food Program to make sure children do not have to skip meals and go hungry until they get back into school. People who can barely spare enough money to buy food, and when they set out to buy it, have to walk, or waste money on public transportation, or go to places with dollar menus, need our help by getting the word out.

Also, if you would like to get a feeling of what it is truly like to live in a Food Desert with very little cash left over after rent and bills to spend on food, I encourage everyone try to see what they can do with $5 per person per day. It is not easy, but it definitely gave us a new perspective and drove us to want to help others who are in this position all the time. We have learned a lot from living in our virtual food desert. One of the main things we've learned is to STOP WASTING FOOD.

Please comment and share this post. Please go to the Y's Summer Food Program website. Please like their Facebook pagetheir Twitter and their Instagram as well as liking my posts about this on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram. Get the word out and help us make sure kids don't go hungry in the summertime at the very least.

And, if you have tips on how to make healthy, vegan food on a tiny budget, feel free to share in the comments below.

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