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Eating Vegan on $21.00 A Week: The Food Stamp Budget

In life there are many different social classes, interest groups and economic situations. But no matter what a person’s financial status, not a soul should be denied healthy, sustainable food based on income. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Even in a good economy, more families fall into a lower income tier than into a wealthy one. This means severe rationing of portions and supplies - most of the time at the expense of fruits and vegetables, with quick meals and chips and soda being cheaper options. It shouldn’t be a luxury to be able to eat healthily and ethically. Vegan Hope posits a challenge to turn this “status” quo around. Here are their guidelines:

1. For one week you agree to live on a $21.00 food budget (per person in your household). This is the Food Stamp Budget.
2. Do not use any equipment that costs more than $15.00, with the exception of the following: oven, microwave.
3. Spices that you currently have can be used, but you should subtract $3.00 from your total food budget per person.
4.I personally use no oil or spray oil (nor do I recommend anyone use it). However, that is not the purpose of this challenge, if you are someone who uses it I will be asking you to deduct $3.00 from your food budget.
5. Write about the dishes you make including ingredients and the cost per meal.
6. Include a shopping list.

I was pumped about this task for a few reasons.

A. I am faced with budgeting for food on a 20-something’s income
B. I am limited as far as where I can do my food shopping - my feet, public transportation or a bike has to be able to take me there. This is a problem many low-income families face as well. Limited transportation and limited resources make eating healthy (or gasp, vegan) even harder.
C. It is a chance to show just what kind of choices families have to make when trying to stretch $3.oo a day as far as they can.

So here’s how I ate. For one week. On $3.oo a day. Journal style.

I tweaked the spice allowance slightly by combining only the few extras I used into one $3.00 subtraction. My initial $3.00 deduction includes: oil/vinegar, mustard, peanut butter, and salt/pepper in very small rations. So I started the week with $18.00 to spare. ($21.00- $3.00 for spices/butter = $18.00)

I started the week by making a careful list of what I would eat using the items I already had in my house. My first breakfast was to ration a package of Vans Vegan/Gluten Free Waffles laying in my freezer. ($3.00 for 8 waffles) I allowed myself 1 waffle. (Total $0.38) *Check out the shopping list at the end of the post for full items and prices for each. It’s ok, you can check my math.

consisted of a peanut butter & banana sandwich (ahem, thank you Elvis), using a banana I had ($0.20), 2 tbsp. peanut butter (included in my $3.00 spice allotment) and two slices of bread ($0.30). (Total $0.50)

Dinner was leftovers! Nothing gets thrown away when you have to make every penny count. A leftover taco salad helped me save money. It is a simple recipe (and it’s one of my favorites). Using 1 red tomato, shredded lettuce, black beans, re-fried beans and tortilla chips, it’s a healthy and tasty meal on the cheap. And the cost? Well, let’s get ready for some slightly complicated math (come on, I majored in Journalism). I had half of the original meal leftover (from before the challenge). I ate half of that for dinner. So we’ll be dividing the prices in fourths. (1/4 red tomato $0.25 + shredded lettuce $0.15 + tortilla chips $0.50 + 1/4 can black beans $0.45 + 1/4 can re-fried beans $0.37 = $1.72)

Day 1 total: $0.38 + $0.50 + $1.72 = $2.60
$18.00- $2.60 = $15.40 left for Day 2

Repetition is the name of Day 2 as I have a tendency to run late for work.

Breakfast: 1 Vans Vegan/Gluten Free Waffle (Total $0.38)

Lunch: I made a salad and took it to work. It was simple and healthy and consisted of lettuce ($0.20), 1/4 tomato ($0.25), 1/2 cucumber ($0.50), oil/vinegar (included in the initial $3.00 spice allotment) and a FREE banana that my office sets out on Monday mornings, much to my approval. (Total: $0.95)

Dinner: Craving something resembling a carb after walking in 100-degree heat I made cold pasta salad. You’ll notice I use the term “salad” for anything I decide to throw together in a pot or bowl. The whole thing was, just my style, easy and cheap. Using a coupon for a $1.00 box of generic wheat pasta (1/4 box for $0.25) with oil/vinegar and salt/pepper (included in allotted $3.00 for spices) and 1/2 red tomato ($0.50) it was a nice refreshing dinner for a total of $0.75.

Day 2 total: $0.38 + $0.95 + $0.75 = $2.08
$15.40 – $2.08 = $13.32 left for Day 3

Another thing to point out is that I live within walking distance to a farmer’s market. That is how I can afford super cheap veggies. BUT many farmer’s market do not take the food stamps debit card that now replaces paper food stamps because they don’t have the equipment to run them. Without the leisure of cash, people relying on public transportation and food stamps may have even more limited resources for healthy food.

It’s the story of my life: I was running late and forgot to eat breakfast…which made lunch harder to wait for, but I didn’t want to spend any extra dough–However misfortune (a.k.a lack of planning) struck again and I realized I forgot my lunch. Dun dun dun, this isn’t starting off well. (Note: I’m emphasizing this lack of planning to say that people living on a very thin budget have extra stresses every morning to plan out how NOT to spend money. How many times have you been faced with that struggle?) Luckily, nuzzled in the back of the work freezer I found my lone Amy’s Black Bean Vegetable Burrito, which cost more than I would’ve wanted to spend had I brought home-cooked food — racking up $1.79. I also grazed the free snacks at work–which once again, I realize not everyone has the luxury of doing.

Once at home I decided to chow down on the last of the taco salad for fear of it going bad. For a total of $1.72. (See Day 1 for taco salad calculations).

Day 3 total = $3.51 ($1.72 + 1.79)
$13.32 – $3.51 = $9.81 left for Day 4 (To put it in perspective this is now $2.45 per day)

In the morning I survived on free coffee at work to get me through to lunch. I guess I’m not much of a breakfast person. Shun me if you must.

Lunch: I brought a homemade sandwich [(2 slices of bread ($0.30), lettuce ($0.15) and onions ($0.10)] using a small amount of mustard (included in my $3.00 initial deduction) Lunch total = $0.55

Dinner: Brown Rice and Greens

  • 2 cups spinach ($0.50)
  • 1 cup brown rice ($0.32) with salt/pepper

I only ate half of the recipe and saved half for work the next day. ($0.82 divided by 2 = total of $0.41)

Day 4 total: $0.55 + $0.41 = $0.96
$9.81 – $0.96 = $8.85 left for Day 5

Breakfast: 1 slice of toast ($0.15)

Lunch: Brown Rice & Greens leftovers from last night ($0.41)

Dinner: Hodge-podge stir-fry

  • sauteed zucchini ($0.50)
  • onions ($0.10)
  • red bell pepper ($1.00)
  • 1/2 package frozen spinach ($0.50)
  • salt/pepper (included in original $3.00 subtraction)

Dinner came to a total of $2.10 divided by 2 = $1.05

Day 5 total: $0.15 + $0.41 + $1.05 = $1.61
$8.85 – $1.61 = $7.24 left for Day 6

Back to my old tricks for breakfast, I grabbed a vegan waffle on my way out of the house. Not quite “Lego my Eggo” for a measly $0.38.

Lunch: Finally getting the hang of eating half and saving half, I enjoyed my zucchini stir-fry from the night before, totaling $1.05.

Dinner: Lazy Rice and Beans (A variation of this recipe).

  • 1 can black beans ($1.75)
  • 1 tomato ($1.00)
  • 1 onion ($0.10)
  • salt/pepper (included in $3.00 deduction)
  • 1 stalk celery ($0.50)
  • 1 cup brown rice ($0.32)

It isn’t quite the creole cuisine you southerners have become accustomed to but if you use enough pepper, it’s ALMOST like Sriracha. (I’m just kidding Sriracha, you know I love you.) Using only half, this dinner dish cost $1.84 ($3.67 divided by 2)

Day 6 total: $0.38 + $1.05 + $1.84 = $3.27
$7.24 – $3.27 = $3.98 left for DAY 7

Breakfast involved, guess what? A WAFFLE. ($0.38) Luckily I love them.

Lunch: Leftover faux Red beans & Rice for $1.84.

DINNER of DAY 7: My favorite thing ever. 1 Taco Bell bean burrito. Not the healthiest. But an end of the week, Friday night treat. Sales tax aside, this little baby with no cheese and done up the Fresco way cost a lovely $0.89.

Day 7 total: $0.38 + $1.84 + $0.89 = $3.11
$3.98 – $3.11 = (drumroll?) $0.87 to spare at the end of Day 7. You know what this will buy me? A delicious COLT 45. (Well, with the help of a little spare change.)

A lesson to be learned. Plan ahead. Only buy what you need. And save up for a wonderful Friday treat.


My food items :
2 cans of black beans (estimated $1.75/can)
1 can re-fried beans ($1.48/can)
Tomatoes (A bunch of 4 is $4.00, so one is $1.00)
Head of lettuce (From farmer’s market for $0.75)
Package of pasta (3 packages for $3.00)
Package of vegan waffles ($3.00 for package of 8)
Tortilla chips ($2.00/bag)
Onions ($2.00/bag)
Potatoes ($2.00/ bag–$0.20 for one 8 oz potato)
Frozen spinach ($1.00/bag)
Brown rice, precooked ($0.16 for 1/2 cup)
Bread, whole grain ($1.79/loaf or 12 slices)
Banana ($0.20 per banana at the farmer’s market)
Zucchini ($1.00 for 1)
Cucumber ($1.00 for 1)
Celery (1 stalk about $0.50)
Red bell pepper ($1.00)

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About the Author

Jessi Stafford Graduate of MU Journalism program. Love mustaches, vegan-things, LOST and beer.

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  • Meg

    I think it’s an interesting challenge, and probably one well worth doing. As you do touch on, it is very important to realize that one’s food budget alone is not the only issue for many poor people trying to obtain healthy food. Access is a huge issue. Many do not have good grocery stores nearby and they often have very limited transportation. Many also work long hours which limits how much time one has to shop and cook, as well as what stores are open when one is able to shop. Being at the mercy of the corner store usually means higher prices and much fewer fresh foods.

    There’s a great blog post on this subject here:

  • Elaine Vigneault

    Meg, with all due respect, the original Food Stamp Challenge was merely to force people accustomed to not using food stamps to realize just how far (or rather, how not far) they go to feed people. As I understand it, the original challenge was aimed at encouraging a change in the Farm bill to increase food stamp allowances.

    This challenge is a play on that challenge. This challenge is simply to point out that the most expensive protein sources are often of animal origin. If people switch to beans and rice or peanut butter sandwiches, then their money goes farther.

    Granted, there are definitely problems with access to healthy foods in poor communities. And I completely understand the issue, having grown up in a trailer park with a single mom and having lived in some situations as an adult that made me feel like veganism was impossible. But that’s just how I *felt.* That wasn’t reality. I surely managed to eat a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet without any financial struggles from the time I was 6. The fact is: virtually everyone can be vegan.

    The challenge’s creator said: “Let’s help people who are on a very limited budget by showing them that not only can they be Vegan, but they can do so in a healthy way and have enjoyable meals.”
    She wants to help people. She’s not pretending we can solve all food insecurity problems and save the world simply by blogging about cheap vegan eats; she’s just offering some solutions to some people.

  • Guest

    This is not a health diet. A single waffle for breakfast? Are you joking? The rest of it is awful too. How much weight did you lose? And what kind of job do you do?

  • Meg

    Hi Elaine,

    You may have misunderstood me. I am not criticizing the author of this post, nor the challenge. Just pointing out issues for readers who may not understand the other challenges that many people are indeed facing. I am doing this because I know there are people who will point to something like this and say, “See! It’s easy to eat healthy and cheap! Those people are just lazy fatasses who don’t give a damn!” (Again, not saying at all that the author or the creator of the challenge are among those people.)

    Anyone *can* indeed go vegan because veganism asks that we do only as much as “possible and practicable”. For some, though, that may include foods that are not otherwise vegan because their choices are so limited. Everyone’s situation is different. And people who are facing the sort of issues described Challenge Oppression’s post and worst have to worry about their own survival first and foremost. I myself grew up with a single mom and a very low income in a very rural area and many of the people around me were truly poor, sometimes even lacking basics like regular running water and proper homes (for example, in homes where there might not even be a floor inside part of their trailer, or where they were living in tents or old campers).

    I’m not saying that it is o.k. that they are eating animal products. But, in some circumstances, I do believe that it is morally excusable for them to do so and that the real problem is that not everyone has access to healthy and vegan food. And because of that, education will only help so much — especially when so many of the poor do not have easy access to computers even, nor the time to use them.

  • Jessi Stafford

    Two things to point out: My job involves sitting at a desk all day — not many calories being burned there. But also that this shows it’s hard to eat a healthy diet very cheaply in neighborhoods with low access — Without proper planning, eating unhealthy seems like the easiest option. Though also — I love waffles.

  • Jessi Stafford

    Good blog link — these were the exact issues I was attempting to point out. I live in a neighborhood, though rising in popularity, once was deemed poor. There are few stores within walking distance (though luckily there is a farmer’s market –food stamps in debit form are not accepted at all stands — nor is it open at convenient hours) so really the options are to take public transportation, purchase what you can carry from the Walgreens that doesn’t sell produce, and make due with that. I think you make very valid points — and I was not attempting at all to say it’s easy to eat healthy — it’s not, and my lack of planning proved that.

  • Skinny101

    agree,yes i need to be on budget!.. but looks like your diet plan consist lots of carbs!..

  • Tsnengpr

    While I understand the point of this exercise, I would also like to point out that if you are living a lifestyle that requires you to watch every penny, I would agree that this was a way to do it.  But if you are also concerned with health, than I suggest that you stay away from canned foods as their processing takes almost all of the nutrition away and adds way too much salt to your diet.  I am disappointed in the choices made for your week’s vegan diet was very little on the fresh food front.

  • MarieFromOttawa

    I also would never recommend this – a waffle for breakfast? or coffee for breakfast? Sure you can “live” on this plan, but will you be healthy and happy?

  • Seaghn White

    Interest in concept, followed by tepid response to execution of concept. Probability hipster was on food stamps: 86.29%. Probability hipster is still on food stamps: 71.72%. Probability of hipster contributing meaningfully to like-minded-friends: 13.44%. Probability of hipster contributing meaningfully to society: Negligible. Probability of hipster pouring water-based paint down trousers in a public space, masturbating in front of awe-struck-audience-including-young-children, and being photographed doing in exchange for bulk quinoa, simulating birth of a bearded Dachshund, which is to be skinned, whilst quoting Germaine Greer: 100%.

  • Justine

    I would be so hungry. Looking at Day 3, that’s maybe 300 calories all day until dinnertime. I just can’t eat so little.

  • Justine

    Day 2, I mean

  • Guest

    Hi! I really enjoyed this posting because it was realistic and not condescending. I was curious about what brand of vegan bread you can buy for $1.79 a loaf? Where I live a loaf of vegan bread costs me at least $5.

    To the guest who said “this is not a healthy diet.” I am not trying to speak for the author, but I believe the point of this challenge is to eat on a food stamp budget, not eat as healthy as possible. Doing both is difficult, as the author demonstrates.

    I am so sick of the “it’s so easy! Just eat beans and rice” rhetoric. You people do realize rice has almost no nutritional value, right?

  • Arletta Sloan

    In fairness, I don’t think this was supposed to be a health plan.I think it was supposed to be an experiment to see if it could be accomplished well enough to remain healthy.

    I could be wrong, but, that’s what I think. Why? Because, no one is saying “Eat this way and you will be healthy.” They are saying it’s a challenge.

    Instead of nit-picking what they did, you are supposed to be fired up to see what you can do. I have seen there is at least one person who posted something along those lines.

    Even though I do not accept the challenge, for a reason stated in a different comment, I will try to remember to get back here and post how I’ve done if and when I get signed up for food stamps, again; because, it is important to show people that it can be done.

    That’s one of the things that kept me reading this post, because, I am writing a diet book, of sorts, based on just this kind of thinking and in regards to people with needs such as mine, in the hopes that it will help others; and, yes, that there will be enough sales (at as low of a cost as possible) to help me. Most diet plans, even the ones that claim to be low budget and easy are full of things I simply can never, or seldom, afford, like juice, bagels, meat, eggs, quinoa, nuts.

    Though, I could afford quinoa, if I could get to the right store while they were having a sale. I just mostly cannot get there. But, I digress.

    The main focus of my plan, that I am attempting to devise to help myself, is that it must be incredibly cheap and fairly easy, as well as incredibly healthy; and, it must be sustainable, barring complete and utter chaos caused by war, blight or famine, so that fat poor people can, hopefully, be thin, slightly less poor, definitely less stressed out people.

    I commend the person who posted this for making the challenge.

  • Jen

    A lot of breads are already vegan. If you go with white bread, you can probably find a loaf for under a dollar in some places; for whole wheat bread, you can probably find loaves under $2 in most places.

  • Shari

    This is great you tried this, but literally this is barely surviving and not counting even 1200 calories; it is severely low in calories and tho vegan, also in overall nutrition. This diet for many months to years would lead to a host of illnesses. The real person on food stamps would likely be tired often, lose their min wage job and not live long…

  • Shari

    I too will try this challenge. This week. I will also try to find a homeless person or family that wants to be vegetarian/vegan to support after seeing this.

  • Joanna

    So much of what you see now a days is people with extremely closed minds putting down anything they couldnt imagine.
    1) Depending on your location food cost ranges, even store to store.
    2) an Individual’s needs DO vary, case to case basis
    3) What do you do to listen to what your body tells you it needs?
    SO SPOILED to a point of ignorance. So to any and all rude critics how are you so much better? humble yourselves, open your mind and free your precious spirit with another point of view without searching for ways to deem anything inferior. Bully, ignorant humans remember You get what You give, you have hardened your own hearts and only you have to live with it.

    Wonderful article my dear! I will be doing this with my family, how exciting!
    i cook enough to serve only, no leftovers hahaha, but i appreciate that if you make too much you dont trash it. However i am a crave eater, i dont eat as often so it may work out, if not Ill just have to fine tune a bit more.
    Thank you for sharing your life experience!

  • You actually have to be pretty careful. Most store-bought brands of whole wheat bread I’ve run across contain whey and other milk products (I’m more flexible about sugar…most of which is not vegan…but others aren’t).

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