Whole Foods Challenge: Feeding a family near poverty

Grocery shopping on a tight budget is tough, especially if you’re trying to eat healthy

I wanted to let you know about a little challenge I’ll be doing in January.  The USDA has determined food budgets for every American, using income level, gender, and age to determine what we should be spending on food.

This might make you chuckle until I tell you that these levels have real-world ramifications.  Things like child support during divorce proceedings and budgets for military mess halls are determined by these charts.

My family of three will be living on the lowest level, the “thrifty” budget, for 30 days.  We only get $491.10 to spend on food over the course of the month.  To break that amount down, it comes out to $16.37 per day.  To break it down even further, it averages out to $1.82 per person per meal if you count breakfast, lunch, and dinner with no snacks.

But I’ve added a catch.  I’m ONLY shopping at Whole Foods.  I know they’re often called “Whole Paycheck,” but I’ve actually found this not to be the case if you shop smart and use a little strategy.  (Here’s the link to the USDA site so you can see what the food budget would cost in your home.)

I’ve proffered a bet with the company: if I’m successful, they have to reimburse me for my groceries, and if I fail, they get all the happy exposure from this blog and don’t have to pay me a dime!  Hey, I like a little challenge, and this friendly wager makes it more fun.  That said, Whole Foods hasn’t responded with their answer yet.

Some Problems with the USDA Budget

I dug around the site extensively looking for information and I have a few problems with the government agency’s proposed budgets.

  • They include processed foods because it’s a “reality” that this is what people eat and, because of this decision, they were unable to bring the diet below USRDA sodium guidelines
  • In order to meet the calorie requirements of the USRDA (for instance, 2,200 calories per day for most women), they recommend drinking three cans of sugary soda per week (not for nutritonal value, just to hit the calorie count).
  • The guidelines have not yet been updated to work with the government’s new Food Plate.

During the month, I’ll be checking in with dieticians and other pros to see how I’m doing, and I’m researching and testing recipes like crazy right now to practice when I actually have to do it.  I went to a blogging event last Friday night at the Whole Foods in Cambridge, MA and spoke with some frugal foodies and they all think it’s quite possible.

And I’ve added one more catch as well. On the 30th day, I plan to host a dinner party for eight, so I’ll need to be sure and save enough throughout January to prepare and serve a delicious meal for friends.

So I’m looking forward to this Whole Foods challenge.  What do you think?  Am I crazy?  Will I be hungry all month?  Can I get enough nutrition for myself and my family?



Read ALL the 30-Day Whole Foods Thrifty Challenge posts.


  1. says

    Looking forward to seeing this…would love some tips! I know food costs are much higher north of the border in Canada where I am ($658.93 for a family of three in the province of BC vs. your budget of $491.10) but I am sure you’ll learn things that can be applied regardless of geography and the store you shop in. Good luck!

  2. says

    My family of four – with no income, no outside help besides TANF and food stamps while I am in school gets $330 a month. Far below the thrifty plan. We actually get less than anyone we know – even those in similar situations. I don’t shop at whole foods – there are none where I live, they can’t compete with Wegmans (our local, whole foods like but way better supermarket). I think with planning it can be done, but I will be the first one to tell you how hard it is. We go over budget every month, because otherwise we just can’t feed the kids the whole month. The gaps get filled in with WIC, donations from local organizations, no frills, and the fact that I try to make as much as possible from scratch. However it does mean that I cannot make all the healthy food choices I would like to, there is just no way for me to afford to get the high quality foods I want to get for everything and actually feed my kids all month long.

  3. says

    Wow Becky, thanks for sharing your story. $330 just sounds ridiculous! You’d be near or over $600 I think on the Thrifty plan … We don’t have a Wegman’s in our area yet, but we’re getting one in a year or so … I’m looking forward to it. :) Any chance you can go back to the agency in charge of food stamps and tell them to give you more? (I’m sure you have already, but maybe you just need a fresh ear?) Hopefully I can come up with a trick or two that you haven’t discovered yet and help you out a bit.

    Thanks again,


  4. says

    We gone over it many times. We get less for food because we get cash help too – unfortunately we only get $600 to pay rent and utilities which combined come to over $1000 every month, so really, we just don’t get enough for anything.

    You will love Wegmans when it comes. It is one of the things I missed most when I lived out west, and it is one of the reasons I always hesitate when I think about moving away! It really is like Whole Foods, but better and cheaper, and really just wonderful. I choose to shop there on my meager budget rather than other slightly cheaper alternatives because the quality of everything is just so much better.

  5. says

    Thanks Becky, you’re very eloquent, perhaps you should start blogging, it can be a great way to get some side income :-) I actually make my living off of it now, although it took a few years to get here.

    Good luck on your adventures and thanks for your comments. :)


  6. Kimberly says

    I looked at the chart and those amounts seem insanely high. There are three of us, and we eat really well for around $500 a month for a family of three, including snacks, coffee, sodas, wine, and other goodies. I cook from scratch and use very little highly processed food. We feel like we eat the best of everything. Maybe it’s because we don’t eat a lot of meat? The cost of tofu, beans, eggs, and to some extent, cheese, is far less than meat. We buy loads of good organic veggies though.

    I do think $491 for Whole Foods will be a challenge, but it can be done. It almost sounds like a fun challenge.

  7. says

    Kimberly, that’s good to know, sounds like you’re pretty much doing routinely, what I’m going to try to do for 30 days. I keep saying to my husband, “how is this going to change us?” I wonder how much our habits will change. I’m sure we’re more wasteful than we realize …

  8. Karen says

    Hi Lisa! I’ve just now found your blog and I have a question about your Thrifty amount – what numbers did you base it on? A Family of two in December 2011 was $373.30 or $354.20 depending on age. USDA says to add on 20% for 1 extra person. Neither of those add up to the $491 you mentioned above – they’re less, actually. I’m asking because I’m trying to determine how to come up with our Thrifty number using June 2012. If I follow the USDA method, it would be less than yours (since I assume you didn’t follow their method?) Would love to do my own challenge in August, so any feedback would be greatly appreciated! :) Can’t wait to read more!

  9. says

    Hi Karen, I did follow their method but the numbers were from October I believe … they hadn’t updated the website when we started the contest in January, they were pretty behind actually. And we did price it out for each person, the break down was for one man and one woman in their 40s and one 9 year old boy. It’s broken down by gender and age range. (Sad to see you eat less when you get older as your calorie needs go down :( ) Here’s the link we used … http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/usdafoodcost-home.htm. I just check and currently we’d be at $494 for the month a whole $3 more! Hope that helps. L–

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