7 days on food stamps – Day 3: Trade offs

This morning Christy drank her free nasty work coffee, then took a tums to counter the acid reflux.

“So you’d rather take medicine to maintain your addiction?” I retorted when she told me later.

Day 3 of our experiment to live on $2.83 per person per day has been about trade offs. I skipped breakfast again and then gorged on a big whopping plate of beans and rice over a lunch meeting. That kept me filled for the whole day, which explains why 2 billion people eat rice every day.

At dinner I had plenty to spend. We each had a yummy homemade burrito, but the other staples were getting monotonous. I looked around the house for something besides popcorn, rice, bread, or pasta, before deciding to finish eating the pot o beans and bake a $0.17 potato with butter and salt.

After dinner I was up to $1.40 for the day, and I was too full to finish the potato. My stomach was tired of it I guess.

Christy only ate half her burrito too. Same thing.

So we went shopping in advance of the DC blizzard, and bought $11.50 more of groceries:

shopping day 3 11.50 of food

Here you can see that we’ve got a mix of healthy foods to make us feel normal and totally-carb foods to make us feel full. The mac-n-cheese was only 50 cents and contains over 1000 calories! Woo hoo! As a bonus, the disclaimer says “it may contain milk.” I’m hoping there are traces of milk; I need the dairy.

But in general, I’m trading better nutrition for the feeling of a full stomach.

Having lived around the world and fasted, hunger-struck, and Peace Corps dieted in the past, I thought it would be helpful to compare what can you eat in Africa or America for similar prices:

benachinBenachin (chebuchin), Senegalese/Gambian staple dish ($0.40)cheap bowl o ramenRamen noodles ($0.20)

mukimo-kenyan-foodMukimo (mashed potatoes & maize & collards), Kenyan staple ($0.30)

steamed cabbageSteamed Cabbage ($0.50)

sukumawikiSukuma wiki & ugali (collard greens and pounded maize), Kenyan Staple ($0.50)

baked potatoBaked Potato & butter, ($0.25)

ugandan lunch plateTubers, peas, french beans, rice & carrots — The standard Ugandan lunch ($0.90)

pasta and sauceSpaghetti and red sauce ($0.40)

In most cases, I prefer the African food to the American one. They’re getting more nutritious food and more of it for the same price (my cost estimates are restaurant prices, not home-baked ones).

This drives home an important point: Going hungry in America means depriving oneself of more calories and nutrition than those living on a meager income in Africa do.

Few Americans would believe that. How can food stamps recipients possibly be worse off than Africans living on $2 a day?

happy measuring stick

Economists define “prosperity” – the yardstick that we use to parse better off from worse off – too narrowly. Poverty should not be calculated by taking what you lack and dividing it by what you earn. It should be corrected for strong/weak community support, because resilient communities sustain their poorest. Membership in a group counts for something in Africa, and in America, the poor must look to non-government support networks to survive. That’s why the poor flock to churches or maintain strong ethnic ties to their heritage groups. Otherwise, they’d be starving alone.

If I were an economist, I’d calculate “social prosperity” – the kind of well-being that comes at a discount when communities work together. Trying to survive alone on $2.83 a day is unrealistic. And when people actually do factor more than just needs and wealth into poverty calculations – Costa Rica comes up as the country whose citizens enjoy the highest quality of life (and happiness) on Earth.

And when socio-ecological-efficiency is factored into the prosperity measurement, the United States of America ranks 105 out of 151 countries. Over 100 countries provide their citizens with more using fewer resources!

Day 0: Menu

Day 1

Day 2

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