There's a lot of information out there about how best to eat to be kind to your body, the environment, and all workers in the supply chain. This can all be a little overwhelming, but I wanted to use all of the information I learned about farmworkers, water usage, and health and actually live it. Many have said the answer is to eat organic. This has been challenged, and there is much more to food justice than that. So I set out to eat all "real" food (that ended up being mostly organic). I followed the guide for Real Food Challenge, which is a national organization that abides by these rules for real food. 

My food had to fit into one of four categories: humane, fair, sustainable, or local. Definitely check out this organization, there's a chapter at Wesleyan, and they are helping us to increase the amount of "real food" in our dining hall.

Note: Just to give you a sense of timing and seasonality, I did this cleanse early June of the summer of 2016. You'll also hear a little bit about the odd hours working at my summer job, a restaurant.

Turns out it's pretty difficult to eat "real" (especially when you make my mistakes), but it's possible. It was a long week, but I'll keep it short for you and tell you about it so you don't make the same blunders. 

1) Under $65 for the entire week's meals ($62.32, to be exact) average around $8.90/day, $2.97/meal

beer, coffee, tea
Eliza Wilkins

2) All organic and/or local

tomato, garlic
Eliza Wilkins

If not local or organic, it had to be sustainable and fair... Sorry, buzzwords. But they're important buzzwords. Sustainable means that if the growing of it is bad for the environment in the long or short run, I can't eat it.

Fair means that the worker growing it was paid a living wage (i.e. most grapes are not fair, lots of chocolates aren't fair). For this week, this meant no avocados or almonds. Almonds are water-suckers grown in California, which was suffering from a drought. Avocados are primarily grown in Mexico, where global demand for avocados is posing a threat to their forests).

Note: You might see the generic Old Fashioned Oats, the Freezer Chili, and the coffee. I ended up having to buy different oats that were organic (Bob's Red Mill Organic Rolled Oats), realizing that wheat is heavily treated with pesticides. I never ended up using the chili, and the coffee I only used twice to try to wean myself off caffeine. And the coffee was UTZ certified, for the record. 

Here's my grocery list from GIANT: $49.04

Bob's Red Mill Organic Rolled Oats $2.79 

Nature's Promise Organic Whole Wheat Angel Hair $1.29

Ezekiel Organic Sprouted Grain Bread $4.91

Nature's Promise Organic Tomato Basil Sauce $2.32

Can of Organic Garbanzo Beans $2.99 

Can of Organic Black Beans $2.99

3 lbs Organic Sweet Potatoes $4.99

Organic Lacinato Kale (from Massachusetts) $2.15

Nature's Promise Organic Carrots $1.29

Organic Tomatoes on the Vine (On Sale and from Pennsylvania) $5.08

Pot of Organic Basil $2.99 (Totally optional but a great investment because it lasts a while as long as you take care of it. Keep it on your window sill and water every couple days.)

Driscoll's Organic Strawberries $5.99 (a mistake)

4 Organic Bartlett Pears $4.62

Seven Star's Farm (Pennsylvania Dairy Farm) Organic Yogurt (local) $4.44

Here's my list from the farm market near my house in Southeastern Pennsylvania: (total: $13.28)

Local Eggs $1.50

Local Raw Honey $7.50 (It's optional, I used very little, and it's so expensive. But this is also a good investment if you just plan on jazzing up meals with it.)

Organic Strawberry Jam $2.79 (Also optional, I only used it once.)

Organic Peanut Butter $3.71

Day 1

tomato, salad
Eliza Wilkins

I was not properly prepared for the first day of the "cleanse" and ended up shopping after breakfast, so my breakfast suffered. Then, for lunch, I cheated a little bit because I had leftover kale salad from dinner the night before. I added a sweet potato and tomatoes and chugged some iced coffee. 

After a long night of food running at the restaurant, somehow I found it in me to pull together some pasta with chickpeas and kale at 9:30 pm. I went to bed feeling regretful of the decision to have kale that late at night, a little bloated, and determined to learn from mistakes. 

Day 2

salad, chicken
Eliza Wilkins

I enjoyed my favorite breakfast of oats and peanut butter with the added strawberries. I choked down the generic coffee but felt satisfied after eating the strawberries in yogurt. While working at the restaurant, I was tempted by the smells of sweet potato fries, and my stomach was growling by 11:30 am.

By the time I got home for lunch at 3:00, I scarfed down some whole wheat angel hair with kale and sweet potatoes in tomato sauce. I topped it with basil and red pepper in an effort to spice it up. My family started to notice what was up—I wasn't in the kitchen laughing and baking up the storm, and I definitely felt a little lost and frequently annoyed.

Dinner was a sweet potato with egg, corn and bean salsa, steamed kale, carrots, and tomatoes. I went to bed feeling a little hungry and gassy but also feeling light and healthy. 

Day 3

Eliza Wilkins

In the morning, I was so hungry that I ate my pear before I could take a picture. When I got hungry at 11:00 am, I wasn't at work, so I had a snack of yogurt with some oats, cinnamon, and honey, a carrot and a couple of tomatoes.

My college roommate and her family stopped by for sandwiches for lunch, and while they ate bread piled high with deli meat, I received some looks at my tomato and strawberry peanut butter toasts. My roommate didn't even ask because she knows me so well.

Dinner was a little more satisfying, as I made my favorite combination of sunny side up eggs and a baked sweet potato. I improvised a pesto with kale, basil, olive oil and garlic and steamed some more kale. I went to bed feeling satisfied and in relatively high spirits. A better cook could easily be happy with this life (the pesto could have used more salt). 

Day 4

Eliza Wilkins

The egg and bean combo for breakfast ended up being the protein I needed to get through the day. Plus the oatmeal, of course. I packed a PB&J sandwich for lunch after work because I was going shopping with my friends afterward. They ate at California Tortilla while I studied the wall of hot sauces and teared up a little. At this point, I was getting a little more antsy from the lack of choice. I was in rare form while hanging out with my friends: incredibly loopy and then I got super tired.

For dinner, I filled up on some tomato sauce mixed with pesto on top of pasta plus an egg on top. Not the most sophisticated (or delicious) dish, but certainly filling. 

Day 5

spinach, salmon
Eliza Wilkins

I started the day with a classic. Then, my friend gave me blueberries and greens from her garden that I was able to add to my dishes to enhance them a little. I was very thankful and used the greens on a piece of Ezekiel bread toast. I was missing avocado, so I mashed up some chickpeas with leftover pesto, salt, and pepper to make a pesto hummus. This was both reminiscent of avocado toast and so much better. The flavors of the garlic and basil shone through the mildness of the chickpeas. I topped it with beans, greens, and tomatoes to make it more substantial and to add juiciness and crunch.

Dinner was breakfast for dinner with pesto eggs, tomato sauce, kale, and a sweet potato. I was beginning to tire of eggs, and I was pretty irritable during dinner. 

Day 6

pasta, ramen
Eliza Wilkins

I was starting to get the hang of this, and I easily threw together breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I was less hungry between meals and didn't snack at all. I loved topping toast with yogurt, blueberries, and honey. I mixed the pesto with chickpeas and sautéed kale for a nice sauté underneath an over easy egg. 

Day 7

Eliza Wilkins

I celebrated the last day with some delicious and pretty food. I made another kale sauté topped with an over easy egg, some toast with yogurt, jam, oats, and honey, and egg-topped peanut butter pasta. I added a little Sriracha because it was my last day, so I deserved it. I

realized I had lost six pounds this week, and my skin looked great. It really did end up being a cleanse. I was holding on to less fluid due to preservatives and salt in processed food. While eating less, I still had energy for both my workouts and my job, proving my diet was sustainable and viable.

This ended up also being a mental cleanse. With some shame, I realized how spoiled I was as far as being able to choose to eat exactly what I wanted to eat, whenever I wanted it. In my irritability, I came to the other realization of how dependent I was on food (and a lot of the time, sugar) for happiness. 



Great buys

Kale, sweet potato, black beans, oats (!!!!!!), peanut butter, pears, eggs.


Jam (only used it once), strawberries (just out of season, so incredibly expensive), tomatoes (not quite in season, so not very good and also expensive), Ezekiel bread (almost five dollars for a loaf, and I only ate five pieces), pasta (it was cheap, but brown rice would've been more versatile), chickpeas (white beans would have provided more protein).

Processed Foods

The pasta and Ezekiel bread were not incredibly cost effective for the amount of energy/calories they provided. 

Getting canned beans and chickpeas instead of dried, which would have been cheaper.

I should have visited the farmer's market, both to see a better indicator of what's in season and to compare prices. After my cleanse, I proceeded to go to the farmer's market and cook healthy, cheap meals of real food that were much more interesting and delicious. You can see some of these meals on my Instagram, @freshfromthefarm

Lessons Learned

As I ate the beans and sweet potato and filled up (read: simple, lightly seasoned sources of protein and starch), I learned a difficult truth about food. It is, when you get to the bare bones of it, about fueling your body with proteins, starches, and healthy fats.

As a foodie, I treasure fancy food and recipes that are a little complex, and I think it's incredible that food has become a platform for expression. But it has also taken something away from what food really should be. It is simply what we need to exist.

Our demand for overly processed stuff or what we want when we want it ends up posing a detriment to the environment and the workers that are paid less than a living wage. If we were instead equipped with the attitude that food is meant to fill us, we'd run into fewer issues of water shortage due to a surplus of farmers vying for water to grow an extremely popular, internationally viable nut: almonds. We might also have fewer instances of human rights abuses due to a necessity to produce at a certain price level. 

The Truth About Avoiding Foods (ie. Almonds) Because of Environmental Impact

walnut, apricot pits, meat, almond, nut
Photo courtesy of pixabay,.com

The thing is, I also didn't eat any meat. It's important to remember that even though almonds may use a ton of water, they are a much more efficient use of water than using it to grow corn and hay for animal feed. But if you'd like, try these nuts that are less consuming: try organic peanuts, fair trade cashews, hazelnuts, or pecans.


ice, water
Photo courtesy of

I was grossly overestimating how much food I needed to be full. Sometimes I would finish a meal and think I was hungry for more, but then if I drank a cup of water and waited a while I was totally fine.  

chili, vegetable, pepper
Photo courtesy of

All of these meals came together in less than twenty minutes, so it is relatively easy to eat healthy when you have a busy schedule.

If you had avoided my blunders, it would have been pretty cheap to eat "real food." Unfortunately, many Americans associate the word healthy with expensive, according to the Journal of Consumer Research, and buy accordingly. This does not need to be the case. 

Consumer Purchasing Power

sweet, bilberry, pasture, blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, berry
Photo courtesy of

As you can see from the many difficulties I ran into, it is hard to eat completely "right"—morally and healthfully—on a budget. This is in part because the food system is intricately (for lack of a better word) screwed up. As more consumers are mindful about purchasing choices, however, this can be changed.

It must be noted that many are limited by time and budget, but if you have the ability to make one small shift a day to eating more "real" food, the food scene will be better for everyone. With the soon-to-be leadership of our country, we could use even more of a sudden and intense change in order to make a difference. 

Ultimately, if you care about universal access to healthy food, the fair treatment of all farm workers, small and mid-size farms' ability to thrive: work on the systematic issues. Real Food Challenge aims to do just that. The goal of changing institutional purchasing is to create more demand for food that nourishes all, to support local farmers and shift the market. Here are some other ways to get involved.