On September 17, Slow Food USA held a national day of action where they challenged people in the US to make meals for less than $5 per person, saying, “The $5 Challenge is a response to the First Lady’s challenge to the nation to end the childhood obesity epidemic in a generation. In addition to Michelle Obama, a handful of other influencers such as celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and author Michael Pollan have increased public concern about the impact the industrial food system has on our health and the environment. The campaign is a way for everyday people to build and to share their own solutions.” The challenge: “I pledge to share a fresh, healthy meal that costs less than $5 — because slow food shouldn’t have to cost more than fast food.”
OK. Now, I am a huge proponent of “slow food” (not the organization), and of eating fresh and local, with friends, and not at chain restaurants, but when I heard about this campaign, I thought to myself, “Are you serious?”
This is a flashing red light telling me how much the nonprofit food movement is out of touch with the way most Americans live.
I know this because I live in a household with three other adults, and we share our food (including inexpensive wine). We add up all the receipts and divide them at the end of the month. Because of this system, I know that we spend between $4.50 and $6 per person PER DAY on any given month, and I FEEL GLUTTONOUS. Like, I have all the food I want to eat. (And I feel kind of nerdy that I know these stats.)
Sure, we definitely eat out too and we are primarily vegetarian, but still, we’re spending at about a third the rate of this challenge. If we didn’t buy a bunch of fancy cheese, local organic produce and dairy products, wine, sparkling water, and loads of baking supplies, or have friends over for dinner so much, we could probably spend a lot less. One blogger said: “The thing is, I feel like most of us who cook real food at home do this everyday, often for far less money than that. I bet if you (yes, you!) did a calculation around what you made for dinner this Monday night, one serving would come in at less than the cost of a McDonald’s meal.”
I really want to know how spending less than $5 on a home cooked meal is a challenge for anyone. On Twitter, Manjula Martin said, “$5 is a feast for most Americans, and #5challenge is for rich people.” I guess a perfect example of this is Joe Yonan, who talks about his $5 Challenge Meal here. Although I typically enjoy his writing, this is a perfect example of the kind of person that $5 is difficult for. Do most people eat like that on a normal night (ie three prepared courses and a dessert, each with five to 12 different ingredients)? No. Can you have a great, fresh, yummy, much-easier-to-prepare meal most nights for less than $5? Yes. I kind of feel the need to post some menus of our typical dinners here to prove that we’re not being austere.
Aside from those of us with enough privilege and access to eat local organic food all the time, eating on less than $5 a meal seems, well, obvious. The New York Times estimates that at least 15% of Americans live in poverty – the poverty line in 2010 for a family of four was $22,314. They sure as hell make due on less than $5 a meal, every single day. Can anyone who participates in the Slow Food $5 Challenge even imagine living on $22K a year?
So what are the real questions here? Why aren’t people eating at home? Partially the problem is creating an economic system and culture where people value (and have the space and time) to cook and share food at home. This means thinking about our whole system of how we work and socialize and organize ourselves. I think about how sharing food with others is an integral part of my life, and how helping and encouraging others around me is one small step toward making this happen on a bigger scale.
Here are a few notable things around the web on the same topic:
- Mark Bittman’s article in last week’s New York Times, “Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?” is really awesome: “THE ‘fact’ that junk food is cheaper than real food has become a reflexive part of how we explain why so many Americans are overweight, particularly those with lower incomes. I frequently read confident statements like, ‘when a bag of chips is cheaper than a head of broccoli …’ or ‘it’s more affordable to feed a family of four at McDonald’s than to cook a healthy meal for them at home.’ This is just plain wrong.” He goes on to do some price breakdowns of what it costs to eat at McDonald’s, and also addresses some of the complexities: food deserts, convenience, time to cook, etc.
- My friend Erin is writing a blog about spending only $5 a day for food. If you think it’s only possible if you eat communally, check out how she does it at Organic Bella.
- One of my favorite writer’s on the subject of food? Raj Patel. Of course I also love Michael Pollan’s Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (though I didn’t really like his other books that much.)