The State of Poverty: A Background

As one of the least affordable metro-areas to live in the United States, Santa Cruz is mixed in with the poverty levels of NorCal which has risen from 14.6 to 15.1%. As a Santa Cruzian and banana slug, you’re probably aware that this issue remains unnoticed around the county, but what about for the country? At a national level, the US Cenus Berau reports that since 2016, the official poverty rate averages at around 12.7%, meaning that there are 43.1 million Americans living in deprivation. Even recently, it has come to attention of the upcoming 38th Session of the UN Human Rights Council that the recent policy changes under the Trump Administration has been problematic or as the report states “designed to remove basic protections from the poorest, punish those who are not in employment and make even basic health care into a privilege to be earned rather than a right of citizenship”. The agenda also addresses poverty in the US is drawn from income inequality, discrimination, incarceration, lack of social protections, and the undermining of democracy.

In other words, the UN US poverty agenda says that we got 99 problems and “The strict word limit for this report makes it impossible to delve deeply into even the key issues”.  

Calculations and Preparations: My Challenge Within a Challenge

The California Budget Policy Center reports that the average in making ends meet takes around $29,824 in California. In Santa Cruz County however, the costs of living to making ends meet takes around $32,040. In terms of food, fellow spoon readers, how does one even eat at poverty level? Here are my calculations:

Looking at the national poverty guide line for a 1-person household, the base value of poverty level income was $12,140. Already that’s nowhere near “making ends meet”.

From there I subtracted the total costs of…

Studio: $1442

Utilities: $799.82

Taxes: $1352

Transportation: $3930

Health: $2190

Personal: $1850

…which left me $576.18. I divided the total by 52, the weeks per year, and found out my food expenditure per week was (insert drum roll): $11.08.

With the calculations, I wanted to put myself in the shoes of an adult and took the necessary restrictions that one may experience over A WEEK


1) Can buy any item but only spend within the budget

2) No receiving aid from school or government (food stamps)

3) No using items from food pantries, especially from UCSC’s Student Union Assembly. (Not everybody gets access to it)

4) No eating and taking free meals/ refreshments from advertised events (No stealing the free pizza from club meetings)

My Budget Journey:

Carolyn Ho

Since there were no dollar stores near me, I looked through every coupon, savings, and grocery magazines and found out that Safeway was the best place because of the deals and discounts on the specific items I need. Basically, I wanted some good value on my carbs, protein, and veggies.

However, my mission on finding a few items that would last me a week quickly turned to “IS THERE ANYTHING HERE UNDER $1.50?!

Here’s what I ended up with:

72 Tortillas: $3.74 (Surprisingly a greater value than bread considering that I could make more than just sandwiches…)

5 Bananas: $0.79

Quaker’s Life Cereal: $1.50 (STEAL!)

Shredded Cheese: $2.50 (What else do you eat with tortillas?)

Frozen Broccoli: $1.50 (my favorite vegetable and my only source of green)

2 Packs of Ramen: $0.68 ($0.34 each, another STEAL!)

Two 5-dollar bills and a 1-dollar bill later, I pocketed my change of 29 cents. Onward!

Carolyn Ho

Day 1

Carolyn Ho

Brunch: Cereal

Dinner: Cheese Quesadillas.

Started the day not too hungry. Since I had class from 5-7 pm, I wasn’t able to eat till 8:00 when I got home. At one point I was about to pour myself some more cereal but decided to save it so that I could enjoy it throughout the week. Also, instead of cooking the quesadillas all at once, I should have cooked 1 quesadilla at a time to spread my cravings out.

Day 2

Carolyn Ho

Breakfast: Corn Tortillas

Lunch: Life Cereal

Dinner: Cheese quesadillas

Was able to get home before 7:30 which is my usual dinner time. Stomach wasn’t too hungry this time.

Day 3

Carolyn Ho

Friend’s Birthday- No Purchased Food

My roomate’s family threw her a fantastic surprise party with homemade Sri Lankin food. Who could resist after going 48 hours on tortialla, cheese, and cereal? Since free birthday meals don’t happen every week, I went ahead to extend my food budget from 7 days to 8 days.

Day 4

Carolyn Ho

Breakfast: Banana

Lunch: Cereal

Dinner: Tortillas and Ramen

With tiny meals and sleeping in late from yesterday’s event, I didn’t wake up till noon. The banana broke my fast around 1:00 but even so, I rested in my bed for most of the day. I was exerting the least amount of energy as I can in the afternoon. I would like to thank the show “Arrested Development” for 5 seasons of distraction.

Day 5

Carolyn Ho

Brunch: Quesadillas

Dinner: Broccoli and Banana

Woke up with a hearty sandwich craving for brunch only to be reminded by my fridge that there were still only tortillas and cheese. Since I didn’t have to rush to class, I made the most of enjoying quesadillas to convince myself it practically is a different version of grilled cheese. After going to my late afternoon classes, I wanted nothing more to go to bed early quickly microwaving the broccoli and topping off with a banana for “dessert”.

Day 6

Carolyn Ho

Brunch: Banana

Dinner: Nachos

It's the 2nd to last day and I feel… you guessed it! HUNGRY AF! But today I have a morning class which meant breakfast on the go item: a banana. But as healthy a banana was, homegirl needed something outside of the fruit and vegetable food group. As soon as I came home, I cut up some tortillas into wedges, drizzled oil, and baked it in the oven. With only 2 servings of cheese left, I had to be careful of not over-sprinkling just in case I have to make quesadillas in the last two days.

Day 7

Carolyn Ho

Brunch: Ramen

Dinner: Cereal and Banana

Even as a SoCal chic, I could not bear to eat another tortilla. On the 2nd to last day, I was overjoyed to finally enjoy my last manufactured instant noodle and soup concoction before heading to class. When I came home, I couldn’t be bothered to cook and grabbed the banana with cereal. Munching on my banana, I noticed the texture of the fruit was much, much softer. Guess this is what happens when you don’t get to finish fresh fruits earlier in the week.

Day 8

Carolyn Ho

Brunch: Banana and Tortillas

Dinner: Broccoli and Quesadilla

With my last banana, I was so pumped to start my last day of this budget week by bringing 2 tortillas with me. I wasn’t too hungry after eating them and somehow kept me filled through the afternoon. Perhaps it was because I didn’t eat the banana by itself and the tortillas served as an additional treat. Even so, my tortilla diet at this point didn’t end because I had quesadilla for dinner with my last serving of broccoli. 

The Outcome

Even though I wasn’t eating nutritiously or moving around a lot, I ended up losing 4 pounds. But other than losing weight, I felt like I lost 8 days of productiveness or socialization. If a friend asked me out for meal, my only thoughts were “Do you know a place that serves something for $0.29? Can we just go to my place for tortillas?”

Carolyn Ho

Advertised deals also bothered me. $5 for 2 bags of chips? That’s half my week’s budget meaning that chips would make up half of my food source. Also, even though fruits and vegetable have the lowest cost, the pieces of fruit that I would have to buy to satiate my hunger made buying a filling burger from the dollar menu more cost effective. Being that food was my sources of comfort, I was grouchy and weak practically 24/7 (excluding my friend’s surprise birthday).

For years I’ve thought that quality could still be affordable, bulk is good, and that our mass consumerism shows that we don’t have to be so conscious of spending. The truth is that consumerism is still a luxury for many of us. In fact, 43.1 million of us. 

**For a similar challenge and more info, check out Live Below The Line