Book Review: On a Dollar a Day

Could you survive on one dollar's worth of food per day? Vegan high school teachers Kerri Leonard and Christopher Greenslate endured a one month experiment where each of them consumed one dollar of food per day. In On a Dollar a Day: One Couple's Unlikely Adventures in Eating in America (affiliate link), they described their experience and an array of social issues relating to the cost of food.

The book is divided into three sections detailing the three food spending plans the couple chose. The first section detailed their month of eating on a dollar a day, the second describes their experiment in eating on the average food stamp recipient's allotment, and the third is where they had no spending restrictions but tried to eat more healthily. Each section has alternate chapters written by Leonard and Greenslate.

The first experiment of eating on a dollar a day was actually quite difficult to read because this couple was obviously torturing themselves. Although they say that they were able to eat an adequate portion, there were many passages where they described their hunger and stress while on this plan. One rule they set was that they would not eat any food they can get for free unless everyone else has access to it. Due to this rule they did not eat the free foods they had access to at work and other venues, and I thought that was silly because any of those leftover free foods were probably wasted.

The second section of the book describes how the vegan couple tried to follow the Thrifty Food Plan recommended by the USDA and live on a little over $4 per day for a month. They fared a lot better on this, but found that it was still difficult to eat in a very healthy manner because nutritious and fresh foods cost more than processed foods with plenty of calories. This reminded me of Philip Brewer's excellent post The new face of poverty is fat where he writes about why poor people are obese.

The final section of the book focuses on eating for health, and it also seems like the couple have become more savvy shoppers after their months of challenges. The conclusion is that they found that it was possible to plan healthy and delicious meals that do not cost very much.

What I found most entertaining about this book was how these food plans affected the relationship between the authors. It was Greenslate's idea to start the original project, and Leonard played the part of a supportive girlfriend. However, later on it was clear that Leonard was doing most of the work in planning and preparing these meals, and it took a toll on her. Greenslate briefly wrote about how the preparation of food from the grocery store to the table is traditionally the work of women, but I think it would have been more interesting if Leonard wrote her thoughts on the subject.

Finally, there is a short chapter in the book about how to save on food, but those who want to live on a dollar of food a day will not find this book to be a very good guide. Although I felt that the one dollar a day food challenge was a bit forced, I do like the message in the book that you can eat healthily on a small budget. If you want to read more about the project, the authors have a blog at One Dollar Diet Project where they write about food related issues

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book and this post contains an affiliate link.

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Guest's picture

Never read this book, but I will say that most Americans over eat and that is why they are overweight. You really can survive on less food than you think. I know this because I lost about 37 pounds in the last year or so, and I did it by eating less. Portion control.

I did not diet, I did not exercise. I just ate less food and drank lots of water. And it worked.

Guest's picture

That some people who are overweight actually do not eat junk food and do not overeat. They also are rigorous in eating fresh, healthy and in proper portion sizes.

And that there are thin people who eat, quite literally, like pigs and never gain weight, but have high blood pressure and bad cholesterol.

It's not simple for everyone to lose weight. If it were, all the people who cut calories, exercise and don't eat junk food would be slim. But they aren't.

And don't forget the people who are on meds for non-weight-related health issues. They hardly eat and carry around weight.

Guest's picture

Thank you for this response! It's excellent.

Guest's picture

To the second commenter:

Weight is just a convenient stand-in for the things that have real medical significance: accumulations of fat around the organs, high blood pressure, clogged arteries, and a lack of proper nutrients.

It is possible to be heavy for your height and not have excess visceral fat (for example, if you are a body builder). But in general, weight is still a useful indicator. If you need a more accurate at-home indicator, try a measuring tape around your belly.

About the book:

It's not surprising that people would have trouble following the USDA's Thrifty Food Plan while sticking to organic vegan foods. The TFP is designed to be as close as possible to the current diet and cooking habits of poor Americans, while still providing all necessary nutrients and not costing any more (in inflation-adjusted dollars) than the previous TFP market basket.

If you are willing to have a diet radically different from what poor Americans usually eat and do much more cooking from scratch, you can get healthier and cheaper food than the TFP suggests. Easier said than done, though.

For June 2009, a young woman in a 4-person family following the TFP would have had to spend about $4.92 a day on food.

Guest's picture

@ post #2

Are you talking about me?

My wife and I cook from scratch basically all we eat. And when I say scratch, I mean everything is done with fresh produce, no boxes. Our dinners are vegetarian. When we eat bread we bake it ourselves, using 100% whole grains. Portion control, you say? we eat five small (calories measured) meals along the day. Drink lots of (and only) water.
We exercise daily, moderately but every day. Plus, clean our house ourselves and bike to the store, which has to count for some exercise.
Plenty of sleep as well.
We've been doing this for a long time.
And guess what, this might be a very healthy lifestyle, but both of us are overweight. Under the BMI calculation, we are actually obese (barely but obese anyhow).
As you can see we carry this lifestyle because we believe it makes us healthier. It's obviously not because the weight results are encourging.

I'm sure that somebody will come and disect my life and tell me what I'm doing wrong and what I should be doing right.

The reality is that we do a lot more than a lot of people and still....

I'm glad for the people that have found a long lasting way to be healthy and at their weight, but it is not so easy and straightforward for everybody.

Guest's picture

I just finished this book last night. My take is that the authors were talking more about the politics of food than trying to give tips on eating for less.

They talked about how most of the world eats only $1 of food or less per day. Their experiment showed how hard it is to be productive and learn while worrying about your next meal.

It was an unreal experiment in many ways, because the authors had transportation to get the food, and they had upfront money to buy in bulk. So most people would have even less food than the authors did.

For their second experiment, the authors pointed out how difficult it is for people living in poor areas, or "food apartheid," to get nutritious, fresh food (such as vegetables) at a reasonable cost, or to have access to it at all. They visited a poor area in San Diego and saw that there were few or no grocery stores, just small shops that can't get the price breaks of a WalMart or supermarket chain.

I have lived in areas such as this and it is true, the high calorie processed food (such as mac and cheese) is much cheaper than fresh, healthy food. And these foods, high in saturated fat, simple carbs, sodium and artificial ingredients, tend to contribute to weight gain.

The other part to this experiment was to follow the meal planning guidelines and recipes suggested by the food stamp program (which is called different things in different states). The recipes seemed to encourage use of highly processed foods. The meal plan did not take into account that the adults in the family might be working and not able to fry up some chicken for a mid-day meal.

Overall, I thought the book could have gone more into depth about what the people in the world who do eat on $1 a day or less actually eat. I would have liked to see more discussion on how poor nutrition affects people's ability to work and learn.

But the authors at least started the discussion.

Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

One thing that makes the $1 a day unrealistic is that $1 possibly buys a lot more food in other parts of the world because of the exchange rate.  Yes I think it would have been interesting to read about what people in other parts of the world eat, too, but they were focusing on America. 

Guest's picture

I'm loving how the man makes the decision to do this experiment, and then the woman does all the work! LOL!

As for the $1 a day, it's definitely possible. You'd be eating rice and beans, oatmeal, and maybe, if it's a special occasion, an egg or some other form of animal protein. No doubt it would be healthier for you. But it would be torture.

I can't wait for my library to get this book in stock!

Guest's picture

I see no point in trying to eat on a dollar a day, but my monthly budget is $45 a week and I easily meet it. Last year I trended to $172/month, or under $6 a day. I eat very, very well and do not feel deprived at all. I eat mostly veg, but some meat and fish each week. My meals are the envy of my friends. And I could eat for even less if I gave up meat completely.

What I do however is to cook everything from scratch, never buy single servings, don't drink juice or soda, and shop carefully including many ethnic markets. To me, where I buy my food, and cooking frugally and healthfully, and thinking about what I buy and why is way more important than an arbitrary dollar limit. Frankly, food is one of my smaller budget categories and expenses. Sure, I could contort to get it down further, but it's way, way less than I spend on my transportation or medical insurance at this point.

Guest's picture

There are four of us. No little kids. Our youngest is 14. We use the free bread box at church, have a small garden, and frequent a local bump and dent grocery near us. People without these options can get ideas on how to manage at Hillbilly Housewife and $5 Dinner Mom. I think it would be impossible to do $1 a day for our sons as they are at the "human vacuum cleaner" age. Once past that perhaps....

Guest's picture

In regards to weight, the formula is pretty simple. Every pereson needs a certain amount of food to maintain their weight. For those who have a fast matabalism, they need to eat more, for those who have a slow matabalism, they need to eat less. Now, to lose weight, you have to eat less than what you need to maintain your weight, which can mean exercising more, or eating a less. How fast you lose the weight will depend on how much you exercise or how much you cut down your eating. For those wanting to lose weight, try cutting your meals down, and increasing your exercise. Once you hit your goal weight, you can go back to eating the amount of food you need to maintain your weight. Good luck!

Guest's picture

Unless you are forced to live on a dollar a day you cannot know what it means to do so. there are a lot of other factors that go into why you are eating this way. do you buy toilet paper or banannas? will it be roast or bleach and detergent? a dollar a day indeed...!!!!

Guest's picture

You are very right here. My family grew up dirt poor. My parents didn't want to work and lived off handouts. My mother got $136 in food stamps for the 4 of us. During the school year we were ok - free breakfast and lunch. During the summer my brother and I would take turns watching for mom or dad just so we could share a can of corn for our breakfast/lunch. Dinners barely fed our family especially when dad thought he deserved a bigger portion cause "he is the man".

I honestly don't know what my family would have done without Salvation Army to supplement our food stamps. People don't understand when these very real decisions are made or even worse, having to be made by children because the adults in the home don't care if the kids eat.