Keeping to $2.86 per day in food, and keeping an eye on food justice

This story appears in the Notes from the Field and Sustainable Development Goal 2: Zero Hunger feature series.

Notes from the Field includes reports from young people volunteering in ministries of Catholic sisters. A partnership with Catholic Volunteer Network, the project began in the summer of 2015. This is our ninth round of bloggers: Samantha Wirth is the public policy fellow for Good Shepherd Services in New York City and Adele McKiernan is a Loretto Volunteer at Missouri Health Care for All in St. Louis. This is Samantha's first blog post. Read more about her.


A new grocery store moved in just up the street in our neighborhood, Washington Heights (WaHi), and fake fruit hangs off the indoor trees. Now, we're just waiting for the prices to go up. More specifically, we're waiting for the prices to exceed our budget and likely that of many of our neighbors. We're sure the neighborhood will have to pay the additional cost of the fresh aesthetics after luring us in with that low-hanging fruit.

Good Shepherd Volunteers asks us to commit to the tenet of simplicity, specifically inviting us to "live in solidarity with those [we] serve by living on a limited budget and being intentional about [our] time, resources, and relationships." When my WaHi community and I first started our year of service with Good Shepherd Volunteers in August, we spent some time struggling with what our usual grocery list would look like. Since money is short, we pool our resources by each depositing about 20 percent of each paycheck for groceries every two weeks. After dividing it between the five of us, each person has $2.86 per day in food money.

That means less than $1 per meal per person. Here's how that compares to other budgets globally:

  Dollars per day Dollars per meal
Global poverty line (Source: World Bank) $1.90 $0.63
WaHi Good Shepherd Volunteer food budget $2.86 $0.95
Food spending of average American, ages 18-29 (Source: Gallup, 2012) $24.71 $8.24






This means that generally, each community mate has decreased his or her food budget by 64 percent from prior to our year of service. When considering the way many of us are used to eating, that budget seemed almost unreal. However, in an attempt to embrace the tenet of simplicity, we tried to take a unique angle to figuring out some sort of meal plan.

During a designated community night, we discussed what nourished us. Not what we liked to eat or what was healthy or what we thought made logical sense, but what nourished us. That meant we included things like something sweet for the end of the day or a bowl of our favorite childhood cereal every so often. We might not all agree that an item is a healthy or cost-effective choice, but it makes us feel whole. If we do not feel comfortable with what we are eating, we are not engaging in one of the most privileged, yet basic, forms of self-care.

Yet some are not even that lucky. We might have under $3 a day, but at least we have access to a well-stocked grocery store. I believe we have a tendency to take for granted the resources that are deposited into our checking accounts every other week. I have to wonder how differently we would feel if this wasn't our short-term experience, but a lifetime reality.

On Tuesday, Feb. 5, I attended a Community Partnership Program meeting with one of my community mates. As part of the Government and Community Relations department at Good Shepherd Services, one of my duties is to create and uphold relationships with community members in neighborhoods the agency serves. The Community Partnership Program, currently lead by another Good Shepherd Services staffer, aims to give local organizations, caregivers and community leaders a space to network, share critical information and exchange resources to support children and their families.

Each meeting is formatted to provide space for two local community organizations to present their services, followed by community announcements from anyone in the East New York and Brownsville communities.

Making the most of the morning, I helped myself to a generous portion of the catered breakfast spread and a paper cupful of Earl Grey tea before settling into my seat. As an Illinois native, I wasn't expecting to be so intrigued by the local conversation that I would end up leaving my tea almost untouched.

During the presentations, I learned about an initiative based on urban farming. East New York Farms! is an opportunity for the youth and community we serve in East New York and Brownsville to find educational resources and even opportunities for $15-per-hour paid internships.

As a rural Midwesterner who grew up fluctuating between organic, natural, and totally nonorganic food sources, I have carried a deep-seated interest in nutrition and agricultural practices since middle school. So when another member of the Community Partnership Program brought up healthy-food deserts in Brooklyn, my interest was piqued.

I had always imagined food deserts as unique to rural, generally Southern communities with poor and infrequent access to public transportation. Once upon a time, I watched a documentary about individuals in rural Alabama who lacked adequate transportation to take them to larger, more industrial cities, where well-stocked grocery stores thrived.

I have carried that image with me and was honestly shocked when I realized one of the largest cities in the world could be lacking in quality food sources. In fact, the majority of the populations Good Shepherd Services ministers to live within these food deserts.

Two days later, food justice was brought to the forefront of my day once again. As I journeyed back from a coalition meeting with a co-worker, she said she was boycotting all restaurants that no longer accept cash as a form of payment. She believes businesses that are card-only might be showing some classism.

It makes sense for cash-only operations to avoid taking on that extra digital card fee, but what's the benefit to a card-only operation? Not all people can maintain a credit card, let alone open one. As we support these businesses, we harm individuals who are unable to obtain credit and debit cards because they are missing vital documents, lacking a stable home or facing other barriers. In a place like New York City, which population is really taking this hit?

How are the businesses we support excluding those we claim to serve, and how is our lunch distancing us from the very goal we hope to achieve? It's so easy for many of us to swipe a card and pay $10 for a single, generally healthy meal, while a few neighborhoods away, a healthy meal is largely inaccessible. Without noticing, we might be unintentionally supporting classism and harming community-based programs like East New York Farms!.

We've seen the controversies around one-size-fits-all commodities before, and now, we find it cinching in food access and sustainability, excluding people and places from the kinds of nutritious options all people deserve and we are so quick to take for granted. We need to become more aware of how our want for quick and easy services can actually be damaging the equality we are fighting for, even if we're only working with $2.86 per day.

"Be steady, faithful to your plans, generous. In this way, you will be capable of great works."
—St. Mary Euphrasia, foundress of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd

[Samantha Wirth is the public policy fellow for Good Shepherd Services in New York City.]