Time for Lunch: The Dollar Meal Challenge

Written by Brady Walen, Slow Food Portland Time for Lunch Coordinator & Jen Michaelis Van Arkel, Slow Food Portland Time for Lunch Committee Member

Over the past several months, Slow Food chapters around the country have been promoting the Time for Lunch campaign in an effort to provide children with real food at school. Locally, Slow Food Portland has had a committee of dedicated volunteers working to bring awareness to the campaign, and to encourage people to show their support for this important issue in signing petitions, writing letters, and calling Oregon State representatives.

The Time for Lunch program emphasizes an important point:

“Right now, Congress leaves school lunch programs with only $1 per meal to pay for food. Schools do their best to stretch that dollar, but it’s simply not enough to provide kids with the food they need to stay healthy and to perform well in the classroom.”

In our work to generate awareness about Time for Lunch, we posed the question to ourselves:

Can we make a meal for a dollar?

As a team, we were blown away to learn that people responsible for school lunches across the country have an average budget of just one dollar per child per day. We agreed: one dollar just doesn’t seem like enough to nourish kids for an energetic day at school. What on earth could you make with one solitary dollar?

For most, the best way to learn is by doing. So we challenged ourselves and some friends to cook a healthy meal for one person, with one dollar. We called it the Dollar Meal Challenge.

We gave ourselves a week to come up with a healthy, tasty meal.  Staple pantry items and anything we could pull from our home gardens were considered freebies (they didn’t count towards the $1 budget).  Fresh ingredients were encouraged, and extra points were scored for anything organic and/or local.  We made a Flickr site where we could inspire each other with photos of our concoctions and share stories about our experiences. It was challenging, but at the end of the week, we had a diverse collection of delicious meals all made for about a dollar per serving, with taster reports to prove it.

Cannellini Bean Stew

Cannellini Bean Stew with butternut squash and kale over crispy polenta

Beet Risotto

Beet Risotto with Beet Greens

Sauteed Chickpeas with cinnamon & coriander, roasted carrots with balsamic glaze, and butterred brown rice

Sauteed Chickpeas with cinnamon & coriander, roasted carrots with balsamic glaze, and butterred brown rice

Curry Ginger Millet with peas, raisins, and fennel

Curry Ginger Millet with peas, raisins, and fennel

“Sauteed Chickpeas with Cinnamon and Coriander: Salt, a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkling of cilantro make it fresh and tasty. A great source of protein on a budget. My kids eat ‘em like candy.”

“It was fun … it was challenging and ended up being delish.”

Beyond being a fun twist on the otherwise hum-drum “What’s for dinner?” conundrum, the experience also gave us a humbling taste of the obstacles school lunch staff face every day. Some people commented that the budgetary constraints forced them to rethink where they shopped so they could get the best deal.And favorite ingredients, including fresh produce and some proteins, were suddenly prohibitively expensive. Others remarked how much more time it took to come up with a menu that fit the challenge’s criteria.

“95¢! I shopped at Winco, The same meal from New Season’s totaled $2.16”
“Had to forgo organic products (too bad).”
“It’s disconcerting how little fresh food you can buy on this budget.”

While we were optimistic after putting together a few successful dishes, we realized that our meal and ingredient options are extremely limited when we only have $1 to spend. Expensive items like meats for example are cost prohibitive. And while we were able to create single meals for $1 per serving, we need to remember that those responsible for school lunch decisions are working with a very limited budget everyday; the current amount doesn’t allow for the kind of variety children need for a well balanced meal from one day to the next, and one week to the next.

$1 is simply not enough to provide a healthy variety of foods for school lunch. This is why we are asking for your support with this important issue.

In this week’s Slow Food USA news, we learned that ” the Senate Agriculture Committee unanimously approved its bill to update child nutrition programs (the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act). The bill will now go to the Senate floor at a date to be determined, no earlier than mid-April.  And, On the same day that the committee approved the bill, Slow Food USA’s Time for Lunch Campaign surpassed its goal of sending 100,000 letters and petition signatures to Congress. The momentum’s still growing—click here to learn how you can help out. Please visit the Slow Food Time for Lunch website to learn more about the campaign, follow news and progress, and to get involved.

We’d also encourage you to participate in the Dollar Meal Challenge. Can you make a meal for a dollar or less per serving? Try it out. Feel free to share your stories, ideas, and questions through the comments on this post.While you may find making a healthy meal for a dollar to be a difficult task, remember that this is a challenge faced by those responsible for preparing, cooking, and serving school lunches to our children on a daily basis – and it’s time to change that.

Thanks for sharing