The Food Desert Challenge — Can You Eat For $5 a Day?

This post was sponsored by Y-USA as part of an Influencer Activation for Influence Central.

When it comes to grocery shopping, I’ve always shopped on a budget. That budget has obviously changed over the years … growing from a family of 2 to a family of 5, but that just means we’ve adjusted the amount based on what was realistic for our current family size. With a set amount determined for each week I’m able to keep our food spending in check while still enjoying treats every now and again.

Ok, fine, you caught me. I enjoy treats more than every now and again. Usually, it’s nightly once the kids are in bed (tonight, peanut butter brownies!), but, whatever. Bottom line, I don’t fill my grocery cart willy nilly. I go in with a meal plan, shopping list, and budget 90% of the time.

Even though I shop on a budget, I’m fully aware that my grocery shopping habits are a luxury. If, say, Max’s favorite cereal is on super sale, I can put 10 boxes in my cart without a worry. I’m able to choose local and/or organic produce. Every year I shell out a few hundred dollars at once for our quarter beef to stock my garage freezer. And when the $10 container of chocolate covered coconut cashews comes recommended to me by a friend, I try it (and return for a second container a week later) because spending an extra $10 doesn’t mean my kids will go hungry.

And that’s the luxury factor. I’m never felt true hunger. My kids have never gone without. Our cupboards are filled with ample choices for every meal. Sometimes, we have so much to choose from, it’s hard to decide what to prepare. Accepting my privileged reality brings me to tears because I honestly can’t imagine the stress and fear some mothers feel wondering how they will feed their children.

And food scarcity is a reality in the US. A big one.

Through a partnership with the Y I’ve learned that food insecurity impacts thousands of families. Especially during the summer. Many families, 33 percent in Humphreys County, Mississippi, for example, dread summer because their children don’t have access to their local school’s meal programs. Can you imagine, welcoming your kids home for summer break and then wondering how you’ll feed them?

To bring this reality home the Y kicked off the Food Desert Challenge and I jumped on board! Really, there should be no exclamation point for this “jumping on board”. There should be a sad face. I knew from the get go this would be hard and by the end, well, I felt honest to goodness panic over the thought of how anyone could feed their family nutritious meals long-term without significant assistance.

The Challenge — 3 days. $5/person/day. That’s it.

I consider myself a savvy shopper. I know where to get find deals. I know how to create meal plans. With such a strict budget I knew I’d have to be extra careful with my purchases and so, I decided to do the bulk of my shopping at a discount grocery store. My regular trip to Costco was canceled (buying in bulk is out of the question on a challenge like this) and a regular grocery wouldn’t work either; not even coupons would  that be realistic.

challenge cart

I went in with a rough meal plan, a calculator, and an idea of what each member of my family would eat. I also had Jemma’s gluten sensitivity to take into account. Ya’ll, this wasn’t easy or fun. Here’s what I came up with …


  • Breakfast: 1 box of cereal to share and a banana for each person
  • Lunch: Turkey grilled cheese sandwiches, chicken noodle soup, and apple slices
  • Dinner: Spaghetti with marinara sauce and pre-packaged frozen meatballs


  • Breakfast: Broccoli and cheese frittata and toast (there was extra from yesterday’s lunch)
  • Lunch: Frozen cheese pizza and carrot slices
  • Dinner: Baked potatoes with chili and cheese on top


  • Breakfast: Oatmeal packets
  • Lunch: Bratwurst, yogurt for the kids and cottage cheese for Dominic and I, and apple slices
  • Dinner: Chicken Caesar salad

IMG_2810 IMG_2809

The ONLY way I was able to make this work for our family on such a strict budget was because we were able to share larger portions of some items. For example, I bought a 4 pound bag of apples for $3 and a 4 pound bag of frozen chicken tenders for $5. This challenge would have been 10x harder had I been limited to a single $5 bill for just me each day. Like Stacey and Neal’s experience. To make it work I also had to forgo some items that were too expensive at my first stop (cheese and eggs) and go elsewhere for them. Shopping around for better prices is a total luxury. Imagine if I had to take the bus or had a work schedule that didn’t allow any extra time for multiple errands? In fact, through this challenge I learned that many families have to make their $5/person stretch at convenience stores (awful prices!) because that’s the only place to buy food within a mile of their home.


For some meals I had to assume that there were a few ingredients at home from previous day’s shopping allotment. Pantry things such as salad dressing, salt, and butter or oil. I had no extra money to buy snacks or desserts. Portions were small and there were hardly leftovers for me to pack for Dominic’s work lunch.

My mom watched the littles while I did my shopping for this challenge, but had they been with me I would have had to say “no” at least 100 times. In my mind I tallied up all the things I or they would have wanted in addition to what I actually purchased … berries, granola bars, more cereal, Parmesan, cookies, juice, popcorn, ice cream, nuts, and, gasp, coffee and creamer. No. No. No. No. No. No money for that. Nothing extra. The bare necessities only. I tried my best to find nutritious options, balanced meals, and enough food. It. Was. A. Challenge.

I left the store spending just under $48. You can see that my savings was significant. Truly, the only way I made this work was by going to a discount grocery store. I spent the rest of my challenge dollars at a farm stand near my home and on eggs that I buy from a family friend.


I’ve always been a fan of the Y, but after participating in this challenge I’m absolutely humbled to share with you all the good they are doing alongside the Walmart Foundation. These 2 organizations are feeding children this summer. Kids who would otherwise go hungry. Kids who have empty cupboards and no one meal plan for them. Let that sink in.

The Food Desert Challenge brought to life what food insecurity is all about. It’s an awful reality in our country, in your city, possibly, in your neighborhood. I know it’s around me. My sister works at a school where, during the school year, staff often sends food filled backpacks home with students in needs to get them through the weekend.

This summer alone, the Y will be providing 5 million meals and snacks to 250,000 kids. The Y is doing big things to alleviate food deserts and their work is absolutely amazing! Please please please take a moment to learn more about the Y’s Summer Food Program and let’s fight hunger together.

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  1. Anne Petre says

    Lol, I can’t participate even in the food challenge because for my family of 5 it would be more than my weekly food budget! I am blessed that my 3 kids all still qualify for WIC which covers our basic milk/eggs/cheese/cereal/beans and some produce. I am terrified about what will happen when they one by one outgrow that….hopefully my husband will get a raise or find a new job or that my part time job at our local Y will have an increase in hours/pay!

  2. Cynthia L says

    I found this site after searching for articles pertaining to the Desert Challenge. I am so glad that you were able to feed your family on the budget that was allowed. I do wonder about the quality of products you purchased. Would it have not been cheaper to make chicken nuggets instead of purchasing processed nuggets. I realize it may have taken a little longer to make, but would it have not be healthier? Not trying to say you did bad, just thinking about what is better to feed our children and their minds. I am glad you shared this article and got people thinking.

  3. janie vezina says

    good advice, my husband does most shopping, but he does pretty good