Time for a Food Challenge!


What is your toast budget?

Recently I thought about starting a food challenge for the month of March. I wanted to do something based on the Food Stamp or SNAP Challenge in the US. You impose a grocery budget limit for yourself equal to what a SNAP recipient would get, or similar government benefits.

We have a national food comparison tool called the Nutritious Food Basket. It’s a list of 67 basic foods that are the more popular selections from the (old) Canada Food Guide categories. They are mostly whole foods that you cook from scratch. They weren’t chosen as the BEST foods, but they’re foods that are familiar, cheap-ish, often available even in food deserts, and don’t take excessively long to prepare. In other words, they are intended as realistic foods that an average person might eat if they had a low income and had no allergies or special diet needs. Cities and towns across Canada check what it would cost to eat from this food list for a month (4.33 weeks). The cost for your area is used as the baseline price for a healthy diet.

The Food Basket doesn’t include cleaning supplies, paper goods, personal care items, baby supplies or pet food, but 5% is added for spices, seasonings and condiments.

The latest costing for our area was done in 2015 and the numbers are:

  • $215.59 Woman 51-70 years
  • $279.93 Man 51-70 years
  • Multiply by 1.1 because in a household of 2, you can’t economize as much as a larger household can (due to product sizes – sometimes you can’t use up or store the large sizes)
  • Total for our household: $545.07

Hold on – that’s more than our actual monthly food budget of $440! Does this mean that “welfare recipients” are getting $105 more for food than we two working people can afford? NO! the Nutritious Food Basket is an indicator of the money low-income people need for healthy eating, not what they actually receive in benefits.

From what I can tell, if Rom and I had no means of earning an income or supporting ourselves, the maximum we’d get from Income Assistance for our family of 2 would be $1120/month. We’d get free bus passes and prescription coverage. An acceptable one-bedroom apartment starts at $800; a scary one starts at $600. If we rented the scary one and paid $440/month for food, we’d have $80 left for everything else (including cleaning and paper supplies, personal care and the occasional hair cut or replacement clothing item). But wait, we might also get a GST rebate of $55 a month. Big money! We might be able to afford a pay-as-you-go cell phone. Our income assistance would end when we turned 65 years old and got the Old Age Pension instead. There is a supplement for people with no other income, so we would then be better off than the “welfare” scenario.

That is what life would be like if we lived on government benefits.

Interestingly, a household of 2 in the US that is eligible for SNAP benefits, is expected to get a month’s worth of food on $353 including their own contributions. That is currently $464 Canadian. Again, a little more than we pay now for food. In my example above, in which we have an income of $1120, we would have to contribute 30% to our own food bill, or $336, and get $17 in SNAP benefits, assuming the government would bother making up that small a difference.

As you can see, it doesn’t make sense for us to do a food challenge that imitates the Nutritious Food Basket or Income Assistance payments; at least not for economic reasons.

Rom and I have dozens of advantages that make it easy for us to save money on groceries and still eat well:

Education (aka Food Literacy) – knowledge of healthy foods, knowledge of nutrition needs, ability to read and assess food labels, ability to calculate and compare item costs, knowledge of how to cook a wide variety of foods from scratch, knowledge of food safety and storage, knowledge of meal planning, how to avoid waste, how to estimate how much food to buy

Ownership of consumer goods – electricity (always paid on time), water (plentiful and cheap), working fridge, stovetop, oven and microwave, numerous small and specific appliances, numerous pots, pans, dishes, utensils and storage containers. Exclusive and unlimited use of all these things 24/7.

A stocked pantry – we have the spices, seasonings, condiments and baking supplies to make almost anything

Storage space – a big kitchen, and room elsewhere in the house for stockpiles, if desired

Transportation – Since we have a car in good working order, licensed and insured and with a full tank of gas, we can pick up groceries whenever we like. We try to limit shopping to once a week, but we don’t have to.  We can also drive around to pick up great deals. I try to combine errands or stop on my way home from work, but I always have the option to go get that lower price. If we had to walk to a store, the nearest is 2 km each way. We would only be able to carry so much or pull it in a cart. It would be very hard in snowy or icy weather. In bad weather we’d have to take a bus to another store along a bus route (3.3 km) or take a taxi. Or we would just have to scrimp and wait until the weather improved.

Choice of grocery stores – We have 3 full-service supermarkets and 3 other grocery stores within a 4 km radius of home. Plus a Dollarama and a liquor store! They all have long hours, so there is continuous availability and choice.

Time – We have 35-hour work weeks (40 with the lunch breaks) and each of us works only 5 days a week. We have no child care or elder care responsibilities. Even with our commute times, we still have a couple of hours at the beginning and end of each day for cooking, eating, washing dishes, making work lunches, making meal plans and making grocery lists. We can come home from work and cook a full dinner and eat at 7 and no one is whining or miserable. We can put leftovers in the fridge and they’re still there for the next evening!

Health and wellness – We are healthy and we don’t have to worry about mobility, extreme fatigue, illness, depression and anxiety, and other things that might prevent someone from food shopping, cooking, eating or cleaning. We get uninterrupted sleep, we have good dental care, we can buy OTC meds if we have aches and pains. Neither of us does manual labour. Our employers give us paid sick time. We are well-fed and able to concentrate. When we get irritable, we can have a yummy snack! We don’t have allergies or require special diets. And despite the rising costs of vegetables and nuts, our being vegetarian is still cheaper than not.

And, obviously, we have money – We never have to wait for payday to get groceries. We never run out of money a week before the end of the month. We never have to skip meals. We never have to choose between buying heating oil and buying food. If we don’t like a cheap brand, we can buy a better one. We don’t have to live on cheap processed food like KD or hot dogs or packaged ramen. We have fresh fruit and veg every day.


Nevertheless, I keep thinking about what the experience of living without abundant good food is like, and what I can do to help others.

So for the month of March, we will try to shop just twice during the month, we will choose just one store, we will try to limit our new food purchases to basic items (no quinoa or pesto or goat cheese) and only use the spices and condiments we already have, we’ll cost out our meals “for information purposes,” and we will try to save $100 and donate it to the Food Bank.

Have you ever experienced a period of poverty and hunger? How did you manage?

Have you ever done a poverty-awareness food challenge?

Other thoughts?

I had to know what the foods were in the Nutritious Food Basket. Keep in mind, they are typical purchases – not necessarily recommended purchases:

In alphabetical order: apple juice; apples; bananas; baked beans (canned); beef (ground, inside round and steak); bread (white, whole wheat, and buns); broccoli (fresh); cabbage; canola oil; cantaloupe; carrots (fresh); celery; cereals; cheddar cheese; cheese slices; chicken legs; corn (canned); crackers; cucumber; eggs; fish (frozen); grapes; green pepper; ham; iceberg lettuce; lentils (dry); margarine; mayonnaise; milk; mixed vegetables (frozen); mozzarella cheese; mushrooms; oatmeal; onions; orange juice; oranges; pasta; peaches (canned); peanuts; peanut butter; pears (fresh); peas (frozen); pita bread; plain cookies and crackers; pork chops; potatoes; raisins; rice; romaine lettuce; rutabaga/turnip; salad dressing; salmon (canned); strawberries (frozen); string beans (frozen); sweet potatoes; tomatoes (canned and fresh); tuna (canned); vegetable juice; and yogurt

March is Nutrition Month: Check out the new Canada Food Guide!

Sources for this post include:

Can Nova Scotians Afford to Eat Healthy?

Basic Income Assistance Rates

How much could I receive in SNAP benefits?


  1. The unemployed do it even tougher here. Food is exxy – even though most fresh foods are grown in Australia. Luckily, I’ve never had to go without food. Mr S and I have always worked. In our early years, we scrimped – he made his own beer, we ate cheaper cuts of meat and ate lentils and beans to cut costs. I cooked the kidney beans and lentils from scratch instead of buying tins as it was cheaper.

    Now we buy quite expensive ingredients. Our kids know they are privileged.

    I don’t give to food charities. Don’t give much to any charities. Small amount to Kiva, that’s about it.

  2. When my husband and I were first married, right after our son was born (late 1970s), after our off-base rent and utilities were paid, we had exactly $72US/month left for food. I baked our own bread and the occasional cake from scratch, made homemade soups (using cheap chicken parts and ham hocks), and we had lots of pancake suppers. I grew sprouts, bought blocks of cheese, lots of eggs and the cheapest vegetables. We made our milk from powder. This was all after we bought a month’s worth of formula for our son (there were difficulties with breast feeding although I did it for as long as possible). A year later we moved into military housing which saved us a bundle, so our food budget increased meaning real milk and a bit more meat and better produce in our diet. We tried one month to go back to $72/month, but even without buying formula we couldn’t do it – prices had increased that much in a year. I’ve never forgotten that experience though and think about those struggling to buy food with the little SNAP benefits afford them. It makes me angry to hear the arguments about eliminating or lowering SNAP benefits – there are a lot of people who don’t know about them other than the sensational (and most likely not true) stories about people buying filet mignons and lobster tails with their SNAP cards.

    We are very privileged these days, although we’ve gone through some times when we’ve had less in our food budget. Our food literacy now has made the biggest difference – we know how to do more with less.

    • Hi Laura, Thanks for sharing your story. (Sorry for the reply delay – I don’t know why your comment was filtered out of the queue). We had pancake dinners when I was a kid, and oh, how we disliked powdered milk and appreciated “real” milk! My parents fed us well given their low income and they definitely benefited from the cooking and home-making skills they learned from their parents and grandparents (and, fortunately passed down to us). I love seeing younger folks now going to workshops on gardening, canning, and batch cooking.

  3. Interesting,got me thinking.My memory of food poverty was ironic At a time when I was my highest earning! I was newly divorced with a young adult living at home whilst both post graduate studying.
    I had no spousal support,immense debt following what I now recognise as a bipolar episode( diagnosed at 61!!).
    We rocked from pay day to pay day,I remember looking at a colleagues packed lunch longingly.That memory haunts me still.
    I’m now retired, comfortably off but stick to my budget. I’ve worked with homeless people,knew the health messages but couldn’t implement them due to addictions.

    • You have been through some tough times. Through being the operative word – now you are through and out the other side. I remember when I first left home, having so little money beyond basic meals, I tried to figure out the most snack food I could get for the lowest price (besides popcorn) – I would sometimes buy a cake mix which cost less than $1 (assuming I had eggs to put in it) and that went the furthest!

  4. Fiona

    It made me feel truly grateful to read your list of ‘privileges’…from having a fridge and electricity to a car to grocery shop. It might do me well amid my daily gripes to put a list of such privileges on the wall!

    I work on the soup kitchen each fortnight because many people do struggle with basic things like owning a fridge, or having their life in order enough to cook. The food we make and give out isn’t usually stopping real hunger but it is supporting people who are struggling with myriad daily difficulties. It’s a helping hand as much as food provision.

    I’ve never had to face hunger but we did do it tough as a family when I was a teenager. We were lucky we got help with accommodation and had parents who were good in the kitchen to make ends meet.

    • The library keeps a list of community groups that provide free meals and on which day of the week – on any given day, there is usually a good meal to be found – if a person has bus fare (certainly not a given). I think many who do the rounds like to see the “regulars” at each spot.

      My parents had to scrimp on many things but everyday meals wasn’t one of them; however my mom economized by baking every week, and we never had pop and chips in the house. I am thankful now!

  5. This sounds like an interesting challenge. I too realize how privileged I’ve been as I have never been food insecure. As I am aiming to be meatless for Lent, I should be able to reduce my grocery bill even more. 🙂 I look forward to reading how this challenge goes for you.

    • Watch out – when you don’t eat meat, suddenly you can justify eating premium cheese and Greek yogurt and tropical fruit and macadamia nuts, haha! It’s a good thing you have trained yourself to like lentils 🙂

      • Premium cheese!! Yum!! I am going to try to keep my lifestyle under control because once you upgrade it is too hard to go back and we are trying to get this kitchen renovated sooner rather than later.

  6. I’ve not done a good challenge like those you refer to.

    I have done food challenges in a weight loss sense, and the challenge of deprivation and hunger, though self inflicted.

    I really appreciated the moment where you listed fatigue and mental illnesses that could inhibit planning, shopping and preparing meals. It may have been a light bulb moment for me. I have struggled, at time greatly, with my own ideas of “shoulds” around meal planning, buying, healthiness, and all my associated self inflicted considerations such as packaging and waste reduction. Now, I order meals, prepared and just heat. I have conquered any guilt or shame : this is healthy eating. I can afford it. It simplifies my life. And I’ve selected the company with the better packaging for recycling. It’s a struggle I’m glad to have overcome.

    • Prepared meals is a good solution! When I lived alone I never liked to cook – I felt it wasn’t enjoyable to put effort into a meal and then wolf it down with no comments or conversation. I tried not to eat packaged food or fast food too much, but I was never going to invest time in making a lasagna or a pot roast! Now I like cooking and food much more, and I think I still would if I were on my own. But it would be nice not to have to because it can be a grind. And as you know, there is the whole issue of buying for one and trying to use everything up. It’s good you can get a break from that for as long as you need to.

  7. Margie from Toronto

    I have never gone hungry – but I do have to think about things a lot more now that I am retired (still working part-time as pension money is JUST barely enough to cover basic monthly expenses) but not enough to finish paying off some debt or provide any extras. I come from a large family so money was always tight but mom cooked from scratch, dad worked extra jobs and all of us kids got part-time jobs as soon as possible and when we did we contributed to the household expenses. If I earned $15 – I gave $5 to my mom – “for my keep” – it wasn’t the amount but the principle – if you worked, you helped to pay your way,
    A few years ago I checked out the USDA monthly suggested food budget totals and then converted them to Cdn. funds. There were three levels, frugal, moderate and luxurious (or words to that effect) and discovered that most months I came in at under the frugal level – a few dollars more during months when I needed more non-food items beyond the few things included in my regular budget. The frugal amount came in at about $200/month for a woman my age. I don’t eat junk food or pop – I prioritize fruit & veg, dairy, and when I can afford it, fish & seafood. My weakness is good cheese!
    I too have an education – I know how to cook – I have a well stocked kitchen (although small) and no childcare or elder care responsibilities – however, I do take a bit of issue with the word “privilege”. I earned all that I have (as did you) – I made the most of the good education offered to me in Canada, I have had a free library card since I was a child, I learned how to budget and bake from scratch from my mother and grandmothers (and believe me, there was never a lot of money) I’ve worked since I was 15 (and before then by baby sitting), and I prioritized having a stockpile of both food & non-food items (so I can wait until items are on sale) and in order to have all this I gave up buying – or doing – other things.
    I am partially disabled, have RA & FB and walk with a cane but have to travel by public transit since I don’t drive and could never afford a car so grocery shopping is done by carrying a bag home by myself or by using a bundle buggy (granny trolley) – can’t afford taxis and don’t live close enough to friends with cars to impose upon them. And while I don’t have responsibilities for others – that does mean that I have to do everything for myself – cooking, cleaning, laundry, errands etc.
    I do support Food programs for the poor and homeless as I do think it’s important – no one should go hungry – I donate money, help to fundraise and work with my church’s feeding program but I can’t help but think that some could do a bit more to help themselves. You don’t need to have every appliance going, you can get cook books at the library, there are umpteen cooking shows on TV and there are hundreds of blogs and vlogs about frugal eating and cooking.
    We don’t have a SNAP or food stamp program in Canada but I wouldn’t object to having one – but people do have to remember that it’s a supplemental program – it isn’t meant to be all you spend on food for the month. I get a few extra dollars in April from a very small investment and one of the first things I do is restock my pantry and my non-food supplies – January through March are extra frugal months for me so I will have eaten down a lot of what I had – so instead of buying new clothes or going on a trip I will ensure that I have a good supply of basics on hand. I will search flyers for the best offers, try to match up with Loyalty point offers and buy meat when it’s 50% off (marked as eat the same day but fine to go in the freezer section of my small fridge). It’s work and a lot harder than just giving in and buying processed and packaged foods but to me, it’s worth the effort.
    Sorry if this sounds like a rant – it is something that I think about and worry about a lot.

    • Hi Margie, We started our food challenge on March 1 which is all food for the month for both of us for $340 for 4 weeks, which is $42.50 for each of us per week. If we need any toiletries they will be included but we were already well-stocked. Our goal is to contribute the $100 we save (compared to a normal month) and donate it to the food bank. We will be limiting ourselves to 2 grocery shopping trips by car and we did our first buy today. I am feeling optimistic it will be a good month. We were frugal in January and February so it may not feel that different?

      • Margie from Toronto

        You are certainly well within the frugal budget! And good for you to donate to the food bank with the difference to what you’d normally spend!
        Good luck.

  8. Pingback: Food Basket Challenge Kick-Off | An Exacting Life

  9. I am so glad you are bringing light to this. I think many don’t think of themselves as privileged but having the countless choices we have is exactly that. Much appreciated

    • I am halfway into the month now – it has felt different giving myself fewer choices, and not food shopping whenever I want. I don’t think I set the amount low enough to experience any distress, though. I will have to rethink it.

  10. Pingback: Food Basket Challenge: Whew! It’s Over! | An Exacting Life

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