Mario Batali, the Food Stamp Challenge, and a life of generosity

So sorry about not being able to get Pennywise Platter up yesterday! I was stuck at an airport and my computer refused to connect to the internet! It will be up and running next week!
This month Mario Batali and his family took the New York Food Bank Challenge. For one week they lived on $1.48 per meal, per person. The point was to bring awareness to food stamps as politics swirl and cuts are ominously hinted at for the food stamp program.
For someone who enjoys some of our country’s best food, and in fact, serves the most expensive 12-course meal in the US at one of his restaurants, it’s no surprise that his first response to the challenge was a “big gulp”.
I do admire that he not only took the challenge but also tried to show how you can make frugal food with decent ingredients on a tight budget.  Meals included a lot of rice and beans, lentil chili, mini gala apples, a pork shoulder roast that was stretched out into two and a half meals, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for their boys for lunch.
I am sure that this week of eating on less did bring more attention and awareness to a crucial issue in our world—hungry people. Yet, there was an odd disconnect for me when reading through the descriptions of his food; what he and his family ate that week, was what most of us eat on a regular basis.
While I think that it was very generous of Batali and his family to so carefully eat for a week, I think that a lifestyle of generosity and service in the community could go a lot further in bettering the world. This isn’t to criticize the challenge, simply an observation.
I have known a couple of families who quietly lived sacrificially so that they could better serve the needs of the community.
One family friend is a shining example. Through all of the challenging years of having and raising young children (including a set of twins), Kevin left a good paying job to take a job at one of our local rescue missions that both helped feed the homeless and help get them on their feet again. Working with such a restricted income meant that they, along with the homeless, had to depend on donated food to feed their family. Their heater was constantly being turned down as low as possible during the winter to save money, and Goodwill was a source of furniture and clothing. When I look at their daily, weekly life, I see the beauty of their willingness to make real, life-changing sacrifices in order to help others.
Another family I know takes a large portion of their income each month to support children around the world. Their money goes to feed, cloth and school these children on a long-term basis. They do this not because they have a lot of extra money, but because they are willing to sacrifice to help. Their table is not full of expensive food; their vacations are done on a shoestring budget. And they are happy to do it.
I guess what I am trying to say is that a week of sacrifice can’t compare to a life of sacrifice. Batali has my applause, but some of my friends who live a life of sacrifice have my admiration and respect. It’s made me think again about how I can turn regular, small acts of sacrifice into blessings for others.
One thought: Why not take the food stamp challenge (living on the typical amount given to food stamp recipients) and send the money you save on food to a local food bank, a fund for feeding the hungry in other countries, or another worthy fund? Or, why not take one night a week to eat a very simple meal of rice and beans and send the extra money usually spent on meat (or wine or other expensive food items) for that meal to those in need?
Food stamp programs or not, there are always people in our community who could use help buying groceries. There is no need to expect the government to do all of the giving. I’d love to hear your ideas in how to sacrificially live to be able to give generously!
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I love beautiful and simple food that is nourishing to the body and the soul. I wrote Fresh: Nourishing Salads for All Seasons and Ladled: Nourishing Soups for All Seasons as another outlet of sharing this love of mine. I also love sharing practical tips on how to make a real food diet work on a real life budget. Find me online elsewhere by clicking on the icons below!


  1. says

    Thank you SO much for this post. I have been struck with this very same idea this month and really rededicated myself to giving as a spiritual practice. I have started a blog to witness how this idea plays out for me:

    The idea is to take only what I really need and give the rest back. Thanks for the reminder to keep moving in this direction and for affirming a conviction I have been developing lately.

  2. Debbie says

    Thanks for sharing this, Kimi. Because of a prolonged trial in our family’s life, we have had to reduce our food budget, along with cuts everywhere else, except for giving to our church and the children we sponsor in India.

    I have consistently wondered what else I can do to cut, but after reading your post, I discovered I am feeding my family on less than the food stamps provide. We are by no means starving! But lentils, rice, beans and peanut butter are certainly my best friends. (I was also recently blessed to have a local IPM farm/orchard offer a $30 gift certificate for $15, which means more fresh produce than I had originally planned!)

    Your post helped put my situation in perspective, and I’m grateful for your highlighting those you know who have made the choice to live extremely simply in order to serve others.

    • KimiHarris says

      Thanks for sharing, Debbie. I love how you are still sharing with the children you sponsor and your church, even though you are going through a personal trial. God bless!

  3. Kelsey says

    Thanks for this thoughtful post, Kimi. When my husband and I were first married about 6 years ago, both full-time students, we lived on a food budget of $5 a day, for both of us, for a couple of years. Needless to say I learned how to cook very frugal meals from scratch very quickly! I’m grateful for the experience as I did a lot of growing in those first couple of years.

    I love your ideas about giving to those less fortunate. We do something similar at our church – once a month we fast for 24 hours, and donate the money we would have spent on those meals to helping families in our area who are struggling with not having enough food. I think it makes you more grateful for what you have and builds a sense of community and caring that would be hard to achieve otherwise. I personally don’t believe it is the government’s job to take care of the needy – it’s much more meaningful and effective when individuals in communities willingly care for and serve one another.

    • KimiHarris says

      I love the 24 hour fast! What a wonderful way to give money. 🙂 I’ve thought about doing something like that on my blog, actually. 🙂

  4. says

    SUCH a thoughtful post, thank you! I agree with you and others here and have started the process of donating to our Napa Food Bank once per quarter. We do tend to eat on the higher end of the scale but at the same time, we stretch one meal into three. I am delighted that Mario brought awareness to a larger audience and can only hope his kids will share what they learned with others, too.

  5. Lynda says

    Under the thumb of tough economic times, we are in year 7 of eating at what I only now discovered is the food stamp rate. I would second much of what Kelsey and Debbie said. We’ve become so accustomed to this way of living that when tax refunds and other bonuses come in, we take what we need and give more than we ever dreamed we could to our church and other missions funds. (not that Bill Gates would be impressed with these amounts 🙂 Sometimes I’m shocked at the end of the year to see how much we’ve really given. I’m not saying I wouldn’t like things to be easier, but I’ve learned to be content. And somehow giving money out of our mess makes it easier to be content, rather than spending it on things that will only make us feel like we want more.

    ~Grateful for the gift

    • KimiHarris says

      Being content is certainly just a much a gift to you, as the blessing of your giving is to others. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Rachelle says

    Wow, I did the math and that is more than I budget for groceries, always! I wish I had more to spend so that I could support more local producers, but other than that–it’s not necessary to spend so much on food as I imagine this guy usually does for the food stamp rate to seem like a sacrifice. We certainly eat better than beans and rice!

  7. says

    On the flip side, I think it is important to remember that we need to be spending MORE on our food. Europeans spend much more on their food than we do because they are willing to pay for quality. Eating and living frugally is one thing, but supporting locally produced food is imperative to protecting our food supply and keeping standards high. I’d rather spend more money on a bag of Lundberg rice (grown in CA) vs a bag from another country. Voting with our dollars is not something to dismiss.

  8. Vilma Makram says

    Hi There,

    I like this post, but I’m curious, having a blog that focuses on healthy eating, which is not cheap, how do you balance trying to provide healthy food for your’ family at a low cost? How much do you focus on eating healthy verses not spending much for the sake of using it to help others? Again, I like this article, but I am a little surprise you posted it since a lot of what you post as recipes is not cheap to make….Thank you.

    • KimiHarris says


      That is a great question! There is so much that I can say here, I think that I need to make it into a post. One thing that your post reminded me was that I haven’t focused on the frugal part of eating healthy as much as I used too on my blog. I think that both what I have shared in recent times, and my guest posters have been in the “special treat” category. At home we make a lot of simple food that wouldn’t be worth blogging about. 🙂

      I will definitely start trying to talk more about frugality again. 🙂 I am not sure how long you have read here at The Nourishing Gourmet, but historically, I have tried to share plenty of dishes that are cheap as well as healthy. Older posts may be a better choice for the most frugal dishes. Look for more soon!

  9. Kari says

    Funny, I just realized we budget less than this, too, for my family of five! Never realized we were below food stamp level! And, we buy raw milk products and fresh eggs. 🙂 We cannot go any lower or any higher right now, but God has been gracious, and we never feel like we don’t have enough. Usually the opposite. Good article, thank you.

  10. says

    We budget WAY less than this- I’ve posted “Food Stamp Challenge” on my blog twice, spending $2 per person per day. $1.48 per meal is $124+ per week for a family of 4.

    However, if you don’t know how to cook, how to use the cheapest ingredients (raw rice, dry beans, etc.) then it’s really, really hard.

    I think it would be so helpful to reinstitute basic cooking classes in school.

  11. says

    Beautifully and practically put – I very much enjoyed reading this, and hope that as my children grow I’ll be able to help them WANT TO bless others by sponsoring other children.

  12. Debbie Denker says

    I too don’t want to sound negative to a worthy effort, but when I read that they made a pork roast last 2 1/2 meals, I thought to myself, that’s just our daily/weekly living, only a roast would go much farther than 2 1/2 meals. Any size roast would be two basic meals, then the bone and whatever meat was left on the bone would be made into a soup/stew while a portion of the meat would be shredded with a, most likely, tomato sauce and made into wraps for lunches.

  13. Laura says

    Wow – I definitely cook gourmet tasting, healthy food and the food stamp rate is our grocery budget! And I buy steaks, roast, fish, etc… from time to time as well! That is really sad that people are deceived into thinking that to eat healthy you have to have lots of money. Not true for us. I definitely don’t buy all organic stuff. I try to here and there if there’s a good deal on something, but until we get into a gardening groove that’s just the way it’s going to have to be and I’m okay with that 🙂

  14. Heather says

    We’ve been on a tight budget for several years and in the last year have actually had to go on food stamps. Thankfully, finances are improving and we’ll be getting off next month. I actually wish they could do something to adjust it. I’m amazed at how much money they give you and how few restrictions they have on how the funds are used. I actually wish they gave less so that people on foodstamps would learn how to budget and get to a point where they could survive without the food stamps. Instead of more money, we need to be teaching people how to shop and eat healthier, but within the confines of a budget. I also think foodstamps shouldn’t be allowed to be used for candy and soda…

    We’ve actually been eating a lot of fresh produce, even some organic. Way more than I could afford to buy before. Now that we are going back off, I’m putting my meal plan together and it will have a lot more rice, beans and lentils since finances are still really tight and my food budget will be much smaller than our foodstamps allotment was. I’m thankful that we won’t need outside assistance though.

    • Tracy Q says

      Thank you for sharing this, Heather. Your perspective is exactly how I feel. I also wish that it wouldn’t be an all or nothing thing. If a family needs only part of what’s available to them to help out for awhile, they should be able to take less. Why does it have to be all or nothing? I also think they should not allow luxury food items either.

  15. Tracy Q says

    I think most families who are used to normal budgets are much better able to even fathom this challenge. I watched Mr. Batali on “The Chew” the week he did this challenge. He looked like a deer in the headlights and completely stunned. I’m sure it’s good for he, and other chefs who don’t have a clue to try to understand how most in this country budget for our food. I’m not really sure his experiment helped most people though. I also agree. I think the more people rely on the taxpayers for their help, and the more the government decides how that money is spent, the more political shenanigans can play into the decisions, and the less the people who need the real help may be truly helped. And then each taxpayer has less money with which to give toward helping others.

  16. says

    What happened to self-sufficiency? You can turn your lawn into a garden. What good is grass doing you? I feed my kids salad with violets and dandelions from the yard. My husband hunts, we have laying hens in our backyard, and we source things from local farmers. We eat only FRESH, no shelf-stable garbage, and we NEVER drink our calories. Every piece of that chicken is used, all bones saved and boiled, kitchen scraps get fed to the chickens or composted into organic fertilizer for our garden. *sigh* I cook and garden more hours than I work, so can you. (0.77-0.95 per person per meal)

  17. Karen says

    This was a good post. It is good for all of us to be reminded of our fortune in comparison to others. I am thankful we have several food bank and senior citizen resources in our area to assist. My husband and I do that often. However, the statement “to expect the government to do all the giving” suggests that there is “someone out there” doing this that is disconnected from us. “The government” is us. We who pay taxes have “donated” in a sense to assist those less fortunate than ourselves. By also giving elsewhere, we are controlling where our dollars go which may be different from where the “govrnment dollars” go. And, as someone mentioned reduces the politics involved.

    For the past 7 tax seasons, I have worked for a company that does tax preparation. One sees a terrible waste of dollars on those who get huge refunds (paying no taxes and getting various credits) and seem to only think of the next fancy telephone or TV to get. No mention of feeding their children or caring for them otherwise. Yes, these people are on food stamps, public housing assistance and the like. Fortunately, I do talk with some who like many of you are living day to day with difficulties. I recall one client with two children and a mother to assist. She was cut off from food stamps for several months because she had had a 5 week month so “made too much money” that month by a small dollar amount. It disqualified her although her average income was well within the appropriate amount. Here was someone who is really trying with a job, working hard raising her children and caring for her mother too. It broke my heart. I saw her at the museum today. Someone gave her a family membership and she can take these kids as often as they want to go to see all kinds of great exhibits and hands on things too.

    Wow! Self-sufficiency. Seems this concept is lost in much of our society today. Glad to hear about your garden and chickens. Some cities/towns/HOAs have laws that don’t allow the depth of what some can do. But, cheers to those who can and do.

    Thank you again for your wonderful website and reminders of some of the simpler things in life. Also, it sparks great conversation where we all learn more, which it is all about. Several of my friends have like what they see here.

  18. Ami says

    I at first scoffed at this challenge and the dollar amount allowed. We eat great on that! But…we live in Kentucky and I’m sure food is way cheaper here than NYC.

    We have found a way to show the love Jesus has given us this summer. It is humbling and it is a blessing. We know a single mom who graduated from Teen Challenge a couple years ago and is truly a changed woman. She receives government assistance, which means that while she works she can only afford to send her kids to government subsidized day care. We are able to watch her two kids this summer and feed them two healthy meals and a snack a day. We are able to give them the peace of a home, the example of a healthy marriage, and a “real” old-fashioned play-outside-all-day summer.

    You see, I’ve always had this idea that the church should care for widows and children (and repentant single moms with no family). But it’s just been theoretical. This is really what the Bible teaches, though, so when am I going to step up and help?

    It’s by God’s grace alone that the decisions I made in early childhood put me on such an “easy” path. And other gifts God’s given me that I am in no way entitled to. I have a good husband, we’ve got plenty of money and only house debt, wonderful extended family, we’re healthy and content and we know that most things money can buy aren’t important. So with all I’ve been given, how can I not help this mom who was never shown love until a few years ago?

    When this commitment and this summer ends, I pray God will keep my eyes open to see needs and be willing to sacrifice for others and give more generously.

  19. Kelsey says

    I really appreciate this post. I think that we have quite skewed ideas about food and what it should cost here in the U.S. I agree with the previous poster who pointed out that it is important to spend some money to get good-quality food; the alternative to that is to spend your time and energy producing as much of it as possible. Think back to our ancestors – most of their lives were spent securing food for themselves and their families. We are so far from that today.

    If people learned some of the most basic cooking skills – how to make bread and bone broth, cook with dry beans, home-preserve produce – we, as a nation, could save a ton of money and enjoy greater health. I think so much of the problem has to do with a misuse of time. I, myself, am in a very busy season right now, as I’m getting married June 22nd. I have also recently discovered intolerances to wheat, dairy, and eggs. I used to prepare almost everything exclusively from scratch, but now, with my frenetic schedule due to the upcoming wedding and my new dietary restrictions, have been spending more on prepared foods. I still try to eat naturally, but it’s more expensive for sure. I look forward to settling back down and returning to home-cooked meals, but I know many other people with crazy schedules who cannot seem to devote the time to preparing wholesome and frugal food. I think this is a particular problem for young, single people living on their own.

    I thank all of you so much for your example of generous living! You are truly an inspiration!

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