Good food only for the elite? Working to dispel the myth

When I discovered the "What-If" Food Challenge on the Wedge Co-op's website, I had to learn more. I love the idea of testing ourselves and learning by doing. By the time I even found it, there was only one more post left so there was plenty of reading to do. I read through each post, which painstakingly documents Elizabeth Archerd's daily discoveries while living on a tight food budget.


The premise is one that has been tested by others, but not exactly in this way, nor with this amount of disclosure and honesty. Archerd decided to take on this food challenge after reading about a similar challenge by Kevin Winge, Executive Director of Open Arms of Minnesota. Except, Archerd thought that she could take it one step further. The SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - the federal program formerly known as "food stamps") challenges heralded by Open Arms choose their amount of money to spend by calculating the average amount that folks in the SNAP program have to spend, which comes out to about $30 per week. Archerd was more interested in those people who receive the maximum amount from SNAP, in other words, those folks who probably really have no other income to spend on food at all...period. She also noticed that the Open Arms challenge has folks shopping at Cub, Walgreens, etc. and making things from prepared box mixes and other processed foods. It just seems to beg the question: what about those who want to shop at a natural foods store? Is it even possible? 

An original flyer promoting the creation of a new co-op, to become The Wedge Co-op.An original flyer promoting the creation of a new co-op, to become The Wedge Co-op.

It quickly turns into a mission to reverse the trend to call organic, local food lovers elitist, a test to an all too common response: "Well, that's great, if you can afford it." Archerd was willing and ready to accept the challenge and is quick to point out that co-ops were originally founded as a response to rising food prices.


Her challenge looked like this:


  • Budget of $367 for the month, the maximum available for a two person household (yes her husband was on board for this challenge).


  • SNAP allotments are disbursed in full at the beginning of each month, so you have in hand your food budget for the month right away.


  • Shopping exclusively at the Wedge Co-op where she is a member. She would use her monthly member discount and take advantage of any member specials.


  • Use "elitist" foods when possible, such as local, organic and fair trade products, with an emphasis on those things produced by a cooperatively run business and available in bulk.


  • Tracking of time. Another assumption is that cooking at home takes too much time for the normal working person, so why not test that theory out as well.


As I thought about this, I really started to wonder too. As someone who loves food and spends most of my extra cash on it, I seriously pondered living on less than $100/week for my entire food budget. Remember, this includes going out, snacks, everything. I knew it would make me slightly uncomfortable if it was even possible. And then I remembered it was for two people. $50 each, at 3 meals a day: that's $2.38 per meal, not including snacks or coffee or wine. No way. I was ready to wave my elitist white flag and start complaining right away. Surely if I whined loud enough, someone would come to my rescue and tell me it would all be ok if I continued to live amongst uppity co-op shoppers.


So, I skipped to the very end of her list of blog posts to find out if there was any hope. And there was. Not only did Archerd and her husband survive, they actually over-bought. They had cupboards full of extra grains, beans, pastas and even a little chicken. The freezer was stocked with leftovers. They drank coffee! There was bounty for sure and it gave me hope. Even better were the list of lessons that Elizabeth gave me when I sat down to talk to her about the experience.


Lessons learned from the "What-If" food challenge:

  • First, she was bubbling over about the revelation of what food is actually used. By taking this challenge, she had to clean out her cupboards and come face to face with what food she actually uses compared to what she might imagine she would use. If you don't shop to a plan, random things end up in your pantry and there they stay. You also may not have the luxury of stuffing leftovers in the back of the freezer and forgetting about them for the next decade. Every has a value and a use. 


  • Naturally, lesson two is the importance of shopping to a plan when on a budget. Less money, fewer shopping trips, less randomness. A plan not only saves time, but also money. You only buy what you will use and the proper amounts as well. This is especially important with perishables. When you develop a plan, also consider where you can overlap. Beans were an example that Archerd used to success. Not only did she have a great use for breakfast beans, but then those beans end up in lunch and dinner as well. (Other great multi-use foods are chicken, pastas, rice and other grains ) All because of a plan.


  • By accident or because of the planning, the cooking ended up being more simple than expected. Not only was the weekly cooking quicker and more efficient, very few kitchen implements were needed and definitely nothing fancier than a slow cooker or a blender.


  • Flexibility was greater. By planning ahead and making larger batches to last for a few days, greater flexibility was achieved. This is extremely valuable for anyone, but especially those of us who work long weeks. If something comes up, there tends to be food ready made in the fridge or freezer.


  • The bulk department is your friend. Archerd admitted that she had to "relearn" the bulk section at the Wedge and was glad to do it. There is amazing diversity there and great value. You will notice in her writings a surprising lack of prepackaged or prepared foods.


  • You waste less. A natural result of a raised awareness and having a plan means that you will waste considerably less food. Not only that, when you know that your budget is extremely limited, you will begin to consider freezing those leftovers in the fridge before they turn sour.


  • Master that slow cooker. It is the god send of the person with a limited budget and little free time. It may take a while to get a stash of slow cooker recipes in hand, but when you do life will get a bit easier. Imagine coming home from work with food ready to go or waking up in the morning to a prepared, sumptious dish.


  • Finally, get the family involved. One way to survive on a budget is to make sure that the whole family is kept in the loop, from your spouse, down to your kids. Not only should they help develop the plan, they should help in the kitchen. If everyone is on the same page, everything happens better, quicker and more efficiently. 



In the end, it really makes me feel good to know that I could shop at a natural foods store on a strict budget. Not only that, I would probably be even healthier. It truly comes down to what you buy and even though I know to stay away from those middle aisles with their fancy boxes and packaging and high prices, food is too varied and fun if you have the means. The important part is to know that its all about choice. You could shop at a Co-op and be very thrifty or go to a huge discount supermarket and spend a ton on prepared foods or vice versa. It goes both ways. Folks who shop for their food at a big box store may then go out and spend $100 on a dinner out at a restaurant. Does that make them frugal or elitist? And why does it even matter? The labels only apply if you let them. You can shop however you decide, wherever you decide. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.


Too often we get lost in taking sides of an argument, which distract us from paying attention to the details. Organic vs. conventional. Local vs global. High price vs discount. These are very important things to consider for sure, but if we get wrapped up in these arguments I think we may lose the ability to think clearly about what we are buying. It can be extremely useful to consider the subtle cues that cause you to throw something in your cart. If you only consider organic, you may miss out on some valuable local foods. If you only consider local, you may be buying something with low quality ingredients that is terribly overpriced. Slow down, simplify and purchase food with intention: these are lessons that I take from this challenge.


Let's get back to reality and take back our food. We spend lots of money on the way things are packaged as well as unnecessary non-essential "food" items. The moment we refuse to buy overpriced, processed food is the moment we give the power back to the local, sustainable, small producer. If we continue to give our money to those who are responsibly producing our grains, beans and meats, the prices will go down or at least remain stable. It is time to get rid of the myth that eating healthy costs too much money. Make the choice, create your own challenge and let us know what you learn.


Lawrence Black is a writer and editor at 
Simple, Good and Tasty.  He can be reached at