Posts filed under ‘Local Food’

Can $30 of Food Keep You Alive for 30 Days?

Since the beginning of this challenge, there has been some tension between people who think that my bartering for local food is “cheating” (Hi, Mitch Albom!) and people who were concerned that it would be impossible to survive without the extra calories and nutrients I have been getting. Considering that I work as researcher, I figured I would let the data do the talking on this issue. Since I have saved the receipts from every item I’ve purchased during this challenge, I have been able to add up the cost of everything I’ve purchased with my $30 and used either the package information or Fitday to calculate the total calories those items contain. Here are the results:

30 Days Calories 

As you can see, I was able to purchase enough food to average 1,382 calories per day. I’m a pretty small person, so I could definitely survive for 30 days on this. It would be the equivalent of a weight loss diet. The major problem is that the nutrition profile of this diet is pretty out of whack. As you’ll notice, the only fruits and vegetables I was able to purchase were carrots, 1 apple, 2 onions and a jar of salsa. My only dairy was evaporated milk (yuck!) and not quite a pound of actual cheese. The item I labeled “Fake Cheese” is made mostly from hydrogenated vegetable oil (yuck!).

One interesting fact I wanted to point out is that this list consists of food that is quite healthy – oats, brown rice, legumes, etc. – and items that are completely artificial. It’s a strange juxtaposition that I’ve been trying to work within. Unfortunately, most whole foods are priced out of this extreme budget. Even inexpensive vegetables like lettuce, cabbage, and frozen broccoli just don’t provide enough calories per dollar to justify their purchase in this scenario.

So What’s the Verdict?

I think it’s possible for someone to survive on $30 for a month if:

  • they have transportation to low cost stores
  • they are pretty healthy going into the month
  • they aren’t too much bigger than me and don’t have to do lots of manual labor

I still say Don’t Do It! This is not a safe or sane weight loss strategy or budgeting strategy. If a person was really in a position where he or she only had $30 for food for the month, I would definitely recommend a food pantry or other sources of additional food.

I will say, however that living on $1 per meal or $21 per week seems like an attainable goal. That level of budget leaves room for more vegetables, fruit, and probably even some meat – if you’re in to that sort of thing 🙂


May 4, 2008 at 7:09 pm 3 comments

Urban Food Deserts: Problems and (Partial) Solutions

From the beginning of Rice, Beans & Mixed Greens, I’ve been bothered by one overriding advantage available to me – I have a car. Having access to reliable transportation and the funding to keep it fueled up is a huge resource that isn’t available to many people. In particular people that live in inner cities.

As one commenter, Steve, rightly pointed out:

If a person in the category of working poor only had enough money for $30 of food in a month, and the rest is spoken for regarding such things as gas to get to work, utilities, rent/mortgage, etc. Wouldn’t all the running around you do to find ways to get extra natural foods or extra cheap foods, also use a significant amount of gasoline more than would be expected of a person living on very meager funds?

Steve is absolutely correct. I have shopped at 4 different stores this month. That is about 3 more than I would ordinarily shop at. In order to make my $30 stretch as far as possible, I have learned where to find rice, bread, oats, and more at the best price. More importantly, I have been able to get to those spots. I’ve also visited many people for barters and done some searching for forages items.

Locations of Grocery Stores in Grand Rapids Unfortunately, many inner cities in the U.S. and other parts of the world lack real grocery stores. By “real” grocery store I mean a shop that sells fresh and frozen fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy products. These areas are known as “food deserts” and they are a growing problem as locally owned grocery stores continue to be pushed out of business by large chains.

Grand Rapids is no exception to this trend. As you can see from this map (prepared by the Community Research Institute, where I happen to work), there are many places in the inner city of GR that don’t have a full-sized grocery store.* The result is that neighborhood residents often do most of their shopping at convenience and liquor stores, where they pay a premium price for processed food.

Each circle on the map represents a store of some type. The larger the circle is, the higher priced the store. As you can see, most of the small circles (the most affordable stores) are located far outside of the core urban area. Several of them are not accessible by bus. Some would only be accessible to most inner city residents by changing busses 2 or 3 times, which could take hours. Instead of enduring this, many residents choose to shop at the corner store and frequent fast food restaurants for cheap calories.

How Do We Solve This Problem?

If we start with the assumption that all people need to have access to fresh foods, it’s clear that food deserts are a huge issue. They contribute to the combination of malnutrition and obesity that is a national public health issue. Fortunately, there are many strategies that cities and community members are taking to make fresh food accessible in inner cities. Here are a few:

  • Farmers Markets. The city of Grand Rapids and many neighborhood associations sponsor farmers markets throughout the city. This is great, except that the growing season is less than year-round in the Upper Midwest. Most the farmers markets are only open for 4 or 5 months and others that are available longer than that feature lots of non-food vendors. In addition, as far as I know, on the Southeast Side market accepts bridge cards (food stamps), making them less accessible for very low-income residents.
  • Community Gardens. Again these are helpful resources, but far from a comprehensive solution in a northern community. Aside from the short growing season, there seem to be few resources to teach people HOW to garden. If anyone has information about this, please share in the comments.
  • Food Co-ops. I don’t know of a member-owned grocery co-operative in Grand Rapids, but there are a few large cities that have had success with these. Detroit’s Cass Corridor Food Co-op has been in existence since 1972. They carry a wide variety of organic and non-organic fruits, vegetables,  meat, dairy and specialty foods. In general, co-ops are less expensive sources of food because all profits stay within the membership. They also often have opportunities for members to work in the store in exchange for a discount on purchases.
  • Community Supported Agriculture. A CSA is a farm that sells “shares” of its crops to a certain number of families or individuals. In exchange for a fee, the members of the CSA get their share of whatever the farm produces. Many CSAs provide large varieties of organic of low-chemical produce for reasonable fees. In addition, some offer home or central city delivery. In Grand Rapids, Trillium Haven Farm’s CSA delivers produce to the Fulton Street Farmer’s market. They also offer a reduced fee in exchange for work for low-income families. Of course produce deliveries are limited to the growing season.

All of these options provide at least some level of access to fresh food in the inner city. However, even when they are all combined, they simply don’t have the capacity to solve the issue of food deserts. In the end, communities have to find ways to attract grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods. Until grocery stores are no longer the major supplier of food in our country (and I can’t forsee that happening in my life time), they are the most comprehensive solution to food deserts.

*If you would like a copy of the full map, send me an email at ricebeansmixedgreens (at) yahoo (dot) com and I’ll send it to you.

May 1, 2008 at 8:41 pm 4 comments

How to Cook Wild Food

Over the past 2 1/2 weeks I’ve been improvising with a small variety of wild foods such as dandelions, wild onions/garlic/leeks (they all look the same to me), chickweed and daylilies. Because these ingredients aren’t usually found on American dinner plates, I’ve had to be a little creative in the way I’ve used them. I also have a very limited number of other ingredients available, which makes it even more of a challenge. Fortunately desperation and hunger can really be creative drivers and I’ve been able to come up with a couple of recipes that have become staples of my limited diet.

Safety First

As a disclaimer, let me warn you that not everyone can safely eat weeds. Like anything else, food allergies are possible. In addition, I’ve been told by some wise elders that in the days before refrigeration, people often ate spoiled food throughout the winter. Eating spring greens was a way for these people to “purge” some of the toxins and crawly things that accumulated in their bodies over time.

I’ve been fine on this diet. You may not be. Proceed at your own risk.

Also, please consult my video in Dandelions – The Dirty Truth for some tips and safety advice on cleaning and prepping these types of plants.

Weed Fried Rice


  • 1 cup cooked rice (day old rice is best)
  • 1-2 cups wild greens such as dandelions, chickweed, daylilies, lamb’s quarter, wild onions, etc.
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Sauté the greens in hot oil for a minute or two until they have cooked down and softened a bit. Add the rice and stir. Crack the egg and add it to the whole mixture. Stir and season.

I like this one. It’s quick, easy and pretty nutritious.

3 Ingredient Potato “Pancakes”

  • 2 medium potatoes
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 medium onion, or substitute wild onion, daylilies or any other combination of wild greens on hand, chopped
  • 1/4 cup oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Scrub and shred the potatoes. Include the skin. You can’t afford to waste any good eatin’! Let the shredded potatoes sit in a colander with a bit of salt on them for 10-15 minutes. This will pull the water out of them.

After they are drained, add the potatoes to a boll and mix in the chopped greens and eggs. Add salt and pepper and beat it together.

Heat oil in a frying pan until a sliver of potato sizzles. Using a soup ladle or small measuring cup, scoop up the potato and egg mixture and place the scoops in the frying pan. Wait until the edges are starting to brown (up to 10 minutes) before flipping. Place on a paper towel to drain. Eat while wishing you could afford ketchup!

Pinto Beans, the Old Fashioned Way

Dried beans have been a major food source for me during the project. As a vegetarian, I’m accustomed to eating them fairly often, although I think I’ll be taking a break after this is over! However, I realize that not everyone knows how to cook dried beans. If you like to eat beans at all, I encourage you to give this a try. It doesn’t take a lot of active prep time and you have a lot more control over texture and sodium level than you do using canned beans.


  • 2 cups (about 1lb) pinto beans
  • 1 tablespoon baking soda
  • Seasoning to taste. I usually use some combination of chili seasonings, but you can play around with other flavors if you like. Non-vegetarians often use a bit of ham or bacon as a seasoning and serve the beans with cornbread.

Place the beans on a large plate or other flat surface. Pick out any stones, shriveled beans, or funny colored beans. Rinse the beans thoroughly. The WILL have dirt on them.

Put the beans in a much larger bowl than you think you’ll need. Fill the bowl about 3/4 of the way from the top. Let the beans soak. I really recommend a 24 hour soak if possible. This softens the beans, making them quicker cooking. In addition a longer soak releases more of the sugar with are the culprits behind the “distress” some people get from this magical fruit! If you are going to do that, put a lid on the container and store it in your refrigerator. Also, change the water at least once if you get a chance.

Thoroughly rinse the soaked beans and place into a large pot with a lid and the baking soda. Cover the beans with water and about 2″ of extra water on top. Cook the beans over high heat until they boil. Quickly turn the heat down to a simmer and let the beans cook for 1 hour. Add seasonings and let the beans cook for another hour.

At this point your beans should be tender, almost falling apart. If they aren’t continue to cook them for another hour. At the end of the process you will have what amounts to a thick bean soup. If you’d like, you can drain the water off the top, or you can leave it and package it up that way. It will continue to thicken for a couple of days. Place any beans that you won’t finish within 4 days into the freezer.

Of course, don’t forget to add some delicious weeds to enhance your bean experience!

Now It’s Your Turn

I’m sure there are much better wild food recipes than I’ve shared here. If you have suggestions, please share in the comments, or email them to me at ricebeansmixedgreens (at) yahoo (dot) com.

April 30, 2008 at 7:43 am 4 comments

The Global Food Crisis & You

basmati_rice  I decided that I was going to do the $30 for 30 days project months ago, so it’s an incredible coincidence to me that just as I began the new became dominated by the global food crisis. For those of you unfamiliar with this story, a terrible confluence of drought, increased global demand for meat, rising biofuel production, rapidly rising fuel prices, and political instability have led to huge increases in the cost of food worldwide. As an example, in the last year, the wholesale price of rice has more than doubled globally.

This is a serious problem on a number of levels. For one, more people than ever throughout the globe – especially in developing countries – are at risk of starvation. For the 1,000,000,000 people on this planet living on $1 per day or less (now you know where that food budget comes from), a small cup of rice can now cost their entire income. Aid organizations are struggling to buy enough food with their limited budgets and have had to cut back on food aid in many places. These shortages particularly affect children not only in the present, but for the long term. People who have suffered from malnutrition as children have lifelong gaps in health and mental development*. In short, a food crisis now becomes a human capital crisis in 20 years.

At the risk of being even more dour I won’t talk about food riots and political instability stemming from hunger and its resulting anger.

Ok, enough about these global problems. This project, at its heart, is about the small things that we can do to make a difference in this world. Like many global problems, one individual’s actions CAN make an impact on the global food crisis. Here are a few small actions you can take to decrease your impact on the global food system.

What You Can Do

  1. Eat fewer cows. It takes about 20 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of beef. If that grain was fed directly to humans, there would be no food shortage. I know it’s not practical for most people to give up meat entirely, so I suggest having several meatless meals per week. Breakfast is an easy place to start. If that is still too difficult, shop around for grass fed beef, which is available in many markets throughout West Michigan. As a bonus, cattle production is responsible for 18% of global Carbon Dioxide emission. By cutting down on beef, you could reduce your carbon footprint as much as if you switched to a hybrid car.
  2. Eat more local foods. On average, each item on an American’s dinner plate has traveled 1500 miles to get there. In West Michigan we have access to a huge variety of fruits, veggies, dairy and meat all grown within 100 miles or less. This is not the best time of year to shop for most of the produce from this region, but it is a great time to start researching sources. Here is a list of farmers’ markets in the area. The Greater Grand Rapids Food Systems Council publishes a Local Food Guide that I’ve found very helpful. For even more information, check Local Harvest. Also, feel free to list your local food sources in the comments section.
  3. Grow your own. My post on home and community gardening shares lots of tips for starting to produce some of your own food. Unless you have a LOT of land, you probably aren’t going to grow grain, but you can definitely supplement your diet and incorporate the most local food source of all into your dinner plans.

I know this post is a little more abstract than rest of this project, but I think this is a great example of how local actions really can have a global impact.

*Referenced here:

Photo by Cris DeRaud.

April 23, 2008 at 6:35 pm 9 comments

You Can Be a Gardener!

Garden Veggies After this awesome weekend in West Michigan, spring is definitely in the air. If your thoughts aren’t turning to love, they may be turning to gardening. For most of us that live in apartments or houses on small lots, gardening might mean a few flowers growing in pots or a small garden bed out front. However, with just a little creativity and work you can turn a small piece of soil into a productive vegetable garden and enjoy fresh, tasty, locally-grown food. Even if your thumb is the opposite of green, here are a few ways you can grown your own food.

Backyard (or Front Yard!) Gardening

If you have any space at all, even a windowsill, you can grow a few kitchen herbs and some common types of veggies. It’s really fun to be able to walk outside on a nice summer day and pick your dinner! Some common types of urban residential gardening are:

  • Container gardening. This is simply growing veggies, herbs and even some fruit in pots, flower boxes and window boxes. This site can help you pick out good varieties of veggies to grow in containers. I do this because my yard is pretty shaded and the soil is mostly clay and rock. At the very least I always plant a couple of cherry tomatoes, a small herb box, and some jalapeno peppers. In addition I have grown mixed lettuce (works well, short growing season) and swiss chard (a total dud).
  • Square foot gardening. If you have a small yard, but have decent light you could try square foot gardening. This is a way of planting large volumes in a small space. It requires some attention to the soil – you’ll need some compost – but it looks like once the initial setup is done it’s pretty low maintenance.
  • Plant the lawn! This one may seem a little goofy, but some people turn their front yards into vegetable gardens. This story talks about a group in England who helps people petition to their local councils to get permission to do this. Depending on where you live, you may or may not need permission to plow up your lawn and plant kale instead, but please check into the legalities before you buy a tiller 🙂

Community Gardens

If you have absolutely no space and/or no talent for growing anything, or you just like to work in teams, then community gardening may be the thing for you. In community gardening generally residents of a certain geographic area such as a neighborhood, have access to a plot of land that they can plant. There may be a small fee associated with using the land or to help pay for water, tilling and the like. Some community gardens assign individual plots to individuals and families. Others are more of a communal effort with everyone helping out a certain number of hours in exchange for a share of the crop.

The Greater Grand Rapids Food Systems Council maintains a list of community gardens in the Grand Rapids area. Take a look and see if there is one in your neighborhood! If you don’t see a community garden that is accessible to you, think about starting your own. I have a co-worker that lives in an apartment complex with a large amount of green space. She’s going to ask the management for permission to start a small community garden on the grounds.

Blandford Farm

Plowing the Blandford Farm the old fashioned way! If you don’t have the time or interest to take care of a garden during a whole growing season, but you still want to play in the dirt, you can volunteer to help at the Blandford Farm. This is the first time in over 20 years that Blandford Nature Center & Mixed Greens will have a functioning farm plot and they need your help! While the bulk of the farming will be handled by the Youth Farm Team, they are looking for volunteers to help with weeding and lots of other tasks throughout the summer.

While you won’t be paid in produce, you will definitely have a cool experience of contributing to a real working farm right in the middle of city of 500,000 people. The picture on the right is from this Sunday’s Dig In! event. For me, the highlight of this day was seeing the 1 acre farm plot being plowed by farmers using teams of Belgian horses. It’s really crazy to think that all of this was going on just a few blocks from a bus stop.

If you’re interested in volunteering, check the Volunteer page or contact Kristen McPhee Laura Worth at lworth(at)blandfordnaturecenter(dot)org or (616) 735-6240.

Veggie photo by Meliha Gojak.

April 21, 2008 at 8:14 pm 9 comments

Dandelions – The Dirty Truth

I had grand plans to make a video of me foraging for dandelions this weekend. Unfortunately, I only had time to go out on Saturday and the rain foiled my plans. I picked a good amount anyway and decided that I would share the muddy dandelion cleaning process with all of you.

I also had a chance to look up the nutritional information on dandelions. Did you know 1 cup of raw greens has 112% of the RDA of Vitamin A? Read more about the incredible, edible weed at

April 14, 2008 at 6:11 pm 7 comments


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