The Great Rice and Beans Experiment

April 9, 2008 at 11:54 am 18 comments

MariaPic Hi, my name is Maria and I’m about to live for 30 days on $30 worth of food. I’m doing this primarily to raise money for Blandford Nature Center and Mixed Greens, but I also hope to raise awareness about the limited diet available to people living on a low income.

Between April 10 and May 9, 2008, I will not spend more than $30 TOTAL for food. In a typical month, I spend about $250 on groceries, coffee, and restaurant meals, so this is a big reduction for me. At the end of the month I’ll donate the difference to Blandford Nature Center and Mixed Greens. Along the way, I’ll be sharing my experiences on this blog. You can follow along as I attempt to survive on a diet heavy on starch, local food that I’ve traded labor for, and foraged food like dandelion greens. I promise there will be lots of pictures and maybe even some video.

Who Am I and Why Am Doing This To Myself?

You may be wondering why any human being would voluntarily live under these types of restrictions for a month. Aside from the fact that I enjoy being contrary, I really support the work that Blandford Nature Center and Mixed Greens is doing to make sure that urban kids have access to local, healthy food and the local ecology.

I grew up in a rural area of West Michigan in a working class family. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we always ate really well. I had fresh veggies from my mom’s huge garden (which I didn’t appreciate at all at the time!), fruit that we picked ourselves from a farmer friend’s trees, and lots of preservative free, home cooked meals.

Now I’m taller and my day job is researching nonprofit organizations. In my (copious amounts of) free time I write a blog about personal and organizational change. So I’m very interested in how nonprofits move our society forward and how they can do this more effectively. I met the super-awesome Lisa Rose Starner when we were both students in Grand Valley State University’s MPA program and was immediately impressed by her vision of creating an organization that leveraged a lot of system resources to create change (sorry if this is starting to sound too academic!). Once she founded Mixed Greens and later when it merged with Blandford Nature Center, I became even more impressed with the work of this organization. They are employing a very simple mechanism (vegetable gardening) to address a number of complex issues (nutrition, food equity, social skills, planning skills, confidence, etc, etc, etc) and they are doing it well. What I like best is that they are making it possible for urban kids to have access to high quality fresh, local foods just like I had as a country kid.

A few months ago, when browsing on the Internet in my pajamas, I came across this crazy site called Hungry for a Month. Evan, the man who wrote the blog, lived on $1 a day worth of food for a month. At the end of the month, he donated the rest of his normal grocery budget to a food bank. It was a crazy, awesome idea but in my analysis he did one thing wrong – he DIDN’T INVOLVE THE FOOD BANK in his project. Because I’ve been working in nonprofits for many years, I know that by creating a relationship with the org he was targeting for his donation, he could have leveraged his effort to raise A LOT more money.

I thought to myself, “Self, this sounds cool. Do you know of any innovative, food related organizations that have super-cool staff members that would be interested in a fundraiser like this?” And Self responded, “How about Mixed Greens? They’re super-cool.” A quick email to Lisa later, and an idea was born.

What Are the Rules?

I’ve decided to structure my rules a bit differently than Evan. Here’s the summary:

  1. I can spend up to $30 in the next 30 days for food.
  2. I can barter for locally grown food. In this case, “local” means anything within a 100 mile radius of my workplace in downtown Grand Rapids.
  3. I can forage for food such as wild onions, wild garlic, and dandelion greens. Stay tuned for more on this.
  4. “Gift food” is forbidden. This means no coffee and donuts from the office, no friends buying me dinner, and none of mom’s cookies (sorry Mom!) for the month.
  5. DRY Spices are excepted from all of this. According to my estimates, I spend far less than $.01 per day on basic spices like salt, pepper, and oregano so I won’t count them. Wet spices like sauces and condiments DO count in my $ figures – even ketchup packets.

My reasoning for these rules is that most people in the world don’t have access to fancy office jobs that provide free coffee, treats on an almost daily basis, and a nice cafeteria with all of the ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise packets that you care to steal. They also don’t usually have friends with the disposable income to just buy them food during lean times. In my experience, however, they do have social networks that are willing to barter and share what they have in their pantries and freezers. People who live in the country (at least where I grew up) also often have a bit of land available to them for gardening and access to undeveloped land where lots of “weeds” that happen to be edible grow. Now I’m learning that people who live in urban areas can gain access to these types of resources as well

In addition, since Blandford Nature Center and Mixed Greens emphasizes connecting with the local ecology and food production system, I want to focus on eating local foods as much as possible. Obviously, Michigan in April is not the best place to find local foods, but you may be surprised at how many edible “weeds” and frozen or canned local food I can turn up. I think it’s going to be a fun challenge!

Oh, and unlike Evan’s $.09 hot dogs (scroll to Day 18) I’ll be trying to eat as healthy as possible.

How Can You Help?

If you would like to support this project, you can help in many ways. For example you can:

  • Eat for one day for $1 and donate the rest of your normal daily food spending. (We’ll have an online donation button up on this blog very soon.)
  • Share the blog and information about Blandford Nature Center and Mixed Greens with your friends and family.
  • Subscribe to the blog’s RSS feed, email updates or bookmark it and come back often.
  • If you participate in social media like Facebook, StumbleUpon, or Digg, submit your favorite posts and share them with your networks.
  • Support local food by visiting the early farmers’ markets this spring.
  • Plant a garden. You can start with peas and lettuce right now.

I’m really looking forward to this experiment. It’s going to be a challenge, but also a lot of fun. I hope you’ll join me for the journey.

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Please Don’t Feed Maria

18 Comments Add your own

  • 1. bigbinder  |  April 9, 2008 at 10:01 pm

    This is fascinating! I just did a post about you on my blog and will follow along with your experience.

    Reply
  • 2. Korrie  |  April 10, 2008 at 8:22 am

    Just wanted to say I am so proud to know someone who is undertaking something so great (Hope this doesn’t make you gag, you can’t afford to lose any nutrition).

    Reply
  • 3. ricebeansmixedgreens  |  April 10, 2008 at 8:52 am

    @bigbinder – thanks so much for the nice things you posted on your blog!

    @Korrie – Aw, shucks. I promise not to gag and it’s great to know I have your support.

    Reply
  • 4. valereee  |  April 13, 2008 at 8:40 am

    A dollar a day seems like a pretty low goal. Even food stamps provides about $21/week, I think.

    My recommendation: Buy oats in the largest package! This will provide a huge amount of calories per penny, and it’s something you can eat every day for breakfast and not feel deprived.

    I’m going to add you to my blogroll! Best wishes!

    Reply
  • 5. ricebeansmixedgreens  |  April 14, 2008 at 8:46 am

    @valeree – Thank you for adding this site to your blogroll! The $1 day amount is a big stretch, and I don’t think it’s sustainable over the long term, but Evan did it and lived, so I think I will too.

    Good suggestion about the oats – I’ve actually bought 2 huge tubs, totaling 60 1/2 cup servings.

    Reply
  • 6. jeo  |  April 15, 2008 at 12:08 am

    Please make sure you can tell the difference between wild onions and poisonous lookalikes. Peterson’s Field Guides are your friends….

    Reply
  • 7. jessie girl  |  April 15, 2008 at 12:31 am

    Way to go Maria! I’ll keep checking back on your site. It’s awesome that you are doing this. Good luck!

    Reply
  • 8. ricebeansmixedgreens  |  April 15, 2008 at 9:13 am

    @jeo – That’s a great point about knowing what you’re foraging for. I have the advantage of having a couple of spots I have been visiting for many years, so I know they’re safe, but novices should definitely ask for help from an experienced forager.

    @Jessie – Thanks for stopping by! I might swing by Finally Friday and let some of my fellow Jaycees “buy” me a glass of water. Hope to see you there.

    Reply
  • 9. Barbara Wife-n-Mom  |  April 15, 2008 at 9:24 am

    Hi Maria,

    I applaud your efforts to raise these interconnected issues in our collective conscience. Our (developed world) consumption habits concern me very much. I am encouraged by the support received toward our individual efforts and the tips others give toward re-using, reducing and re-thinking our sumptuous choices. I wish the same for you and maybe some tips from Jaye Bealer along the way for variety and nutrition content!

    We’ve scaled way back on our grocery bill by re-visiting the lower priced grocery store you’ve found as well. It’s been a good challenge. We’re eating healthier or at least have the impression of doing so by cutting beef from our diet. Ten pounds of potatoes for $1.68 seems like a good deal. According to an MSU extension magazine we receive, potatoes prepared with milk provide all of our RDA and the kids love dressing up baked potatoes with custom combinations of plain yogurt, grated cheese and turkey bacon, chives, dill, spices marketed for grilling, etc.

    So keep up the effort, we’ll be reading your blog, educating our family along the way. Thank you for putting yourself up for such public scrutiny. Take care.

    Reply
  • 10. Elizabeth  |  April 15, 2008 at 10:12 am

    I just read about this in yesterdays paper. I love this idea and I am very excited to see where this goes for you. Best wishes!

    Reply
  • 11. Connie  |  April 15, 2008 at 10:45 am

    Hello, I appreciate your effort to show that we can live on less and do it in a healthy manner. I also appreciate your work with non-profits, which brings me to the question, who will offer classes to teach the many that come to a non-profit on how to live healthy on less? Many do not have any knowledge of nutrition, food preparation, preserving etc.. With the economy the way it is, the $1 is buying so much less and the need to stretch everything is greater. I have a family of 6, ages 13 – 49 and I am finding it hard to change our eating habits. We have never spent much more than $250.00 a month for food but now that buys little to nothing at the grocery store. So I ask again who is helping teach people to live good on less? Will this experiment lead to that? Thanks for bringing this problem into the light.

    Reply
  • [...] <Read Full Post Here> [...]

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  • 13. ricebeansmixedgreens  |  April 16, 2008 at 9:02 am

    Wow, thanks for all the well wishes, everyone! I never expected all the great support.

    @Connie – I don’t know of a nonprofit that teaches what you’re interested in off hand. If I come across anything, I will definitely share it here.

    Reply
  • 14. Amber  |  April 21, 2008 at 4:50 pm

    How can I find out about the edible weeds in my area? Did you do some studying before starting your experiment?

    Reply
  • 15. Cheryl  |  May 1, 2008 at 12:47 pm

    Cool experiment! What did you eat today?

    Reply
  • 16. Stacey  |  May 1, 2008 at 3:17 pm

    This is a great experiment! Are you going to do a summary at the end of what you had each day? That would be great.

    Reply
  • 17. ricebeansmixedgreens  |  May 1, 2008 at 8:43 pm

    @Cheryl & Stacey – Thanks for stopping by! I haven’t been tracking my meals in great detail, but I’ve taken a couple of photos of dishes, which you can find in the Flickr sidebar to the right.

    I do plan to do a post detailing everything I purchased and how many calories my $30 bought. Stay tuned!

    Reply
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Would you like to support Blandford Nature Center & Mixed Greens? You can make an online donation through Network for Good or PayPal If you'd like to donate a more traditional way, check out the Donate page at MixedGreens.Org.

I would appreciate it if you mention Rice, Beans & Mixed Greens in your donation.

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