What I Learned as a Walmart Vegan

Plant Based Diet. Food Stamp Budget
My concept for Walmart Vegan: Plant Based Diet. Food Stamp Budget
Thai rice paper wraps with peanut sauce

The byline of my website “Whole Food Vegan” is “Recipes and Policy for Plant People.”  I have been writing here and at other vegan lifestyle websites for 3 years.  One thing started to become clear to me: veganism seems quite elite.  Seems like the “beautiful people” eat plants.  “Plant People.”  Rich people.  Celebrities.  People who can afford vegan makeup, designer “leather” shoes made from pineapple, and eat out at the finest New York and L.A. plant based restaurants.  This idea of the elite vegan really clashes with my experience though.  Native and ancient cultures knew the power of plants in diet and medicine long before western culture “discovered” them.  Even today, some of the longest-lived populations in the world are eating some of the least expensive, most common plant foods around.  Sweet potatoes are a staple in Okinawa, Japan.  Corn, beans, and squash are the “three sisters” of the healthful native American diet.  Barley was the staple of the strong-man diet for Roman gladiators.  Corn and quinoa sustained the Mayans and Aztecs.  Potatoes and sweet potatoes bring life and longevity to the people of Peru.  I could go on.  But these foods, whole, plant based starches, have something in common today: they are cheap.  I did a detailed cost per calorie analysis of my groceries in this post.  But I wondered if people on a minimal budget could eat this way in America by shopping where they usually shop.  No specialty ingredients or trips to the health food store.  Can a family of 4 on a food stamp budget survive (or even thrive) on a healthy vegan diet?  To find out I decided to shop where the prices are lowest, where most people in America shop.  I decided to feed my family meals made only with ingredients that I purchased at the largest provider of groceries in the world: Walmart.  “Plant Based Diet.  Food Stamp Budget.”  I created WalmartVegan.com to share my recipes along the way, and I was off to the grocery store!

Poor People Can’t Eat Fresh Fruit

I set out with a weekly budget of $112, which is the average food stamp (SNAP Program) benefit for a family of four in Maryland.  I didn’t have a problem staying within this budget.  In 6 weeks I only broke my $112 ceiling once, and that was because I bought a box of diapers (technically a non-food item).  I was easily able to provide my family with breakfast, lunch, and dinner for 6 weeks.  But snacks were another story.  In our house we eat fresh fruit for a snack.  I was not able to buy very much fresh fruit at Walmart while staying within my budget.  The “fresh” fruit wasn’t that fresh anyway.  Think of the tiny waxy red delicious apples and oranges in public school lunches.  Also available were some bruisy, old pluots and

Spaghetti Marinara with Garlic Greens
Spaghetti Marinara with Garlic Greens

nectarines, but the best quality fruit was tropical like papaya and mango.  But even they were too expensive to meet the demand of my vegan family.  I could have bought canned fruit, or little fruit cups packed in syrup (or sometimes just water), or applesauce or raisins.  These less desirable options were what I could afford.  So we ate less fruit, which is a shame.  The following is a fact from Dr. Greger of NutritionFacts.org: if there is one thing that would most powerfully bring about positive health outcomes in this country it is eating fruit.  Every time I eat a piece of fruit I remember that fully half of all Americans will not eat even a single serving of fruit in a given day.  Fruit was a budget-breaker, even at Walmart.  And the selection is a shadow of what delicious fresh fruit can be.  It’s unfair to the least-privileged in our society to keep this powerful key to health unattainable and expensive.

Grocery Prices at Walmart are Shockingly Low

Groceries are the loss-leader for Walmart stores.  That means that shoppers are drawn in to the store for low prices on groceries that Walmart sells mostly at a loss.  The hope is that shoppers will also buy some electronics or other merchandise that the store sells for hefty profit.  That’s why toiletries are generally located across a stadium-sized store from the groceries, so that shoppers will spend more time looking at and buying items that are not groceries.  The food at Walmart is incredibly inexpensive compared to where I usually shop (Giant and sometimes Mom’s Organic Market).  The same item, Joyva brand tahini sells for over $4.00 at Giant.  At Walmart this tahini is $2 and change.  My average cost per grocery bag at Walmart was around $38, whereas at Giant the price per bag can be $60 or even $70.  At Mom’s Organic Market it is even higher.  My husband and I and our two young children easily made our $112 per week budget.

Vegan Rocky Road "Ice Cream" Bites
Vegan Rocky Road “Ice Cream” Bites

Cheap Vegan Food is Still Delicious

We weren’t eating just lentils and rice.  Part of my project at WalmartVegan was to show that vegan food is not only healthy and inexpensive, but also delicious.  What more could you ask for?  We ate one-pot Pasta Puttanesca, Thai Spring Rolls, Beet and Apple Salad, Creamy Tomato Soup, and more.  We even had Christmas breakfast, lunch, and dinner with family using only ingredients purchased at Walmart.  And it was all delicious!  A special treat for us was my vegan Rocky Road Ice Cream Bites recipe.  Check out the website for all of the recipies.

I Don’t Shop at Walmart Anymore

I set out to show that a plant based diet is totally do-able on even a shoestring food stamp budget.  It was a fun experiment.  I don’t still shop at Walmart though.  The quality of fresh fruit is better at other stores.  I also try to keep it local and prefer to give my money to the local food CSA and farm stands around my home.  I have the privilege to support these businesses near my home, and not the monolithic blue box store that perpetuates the industrial agricultural model.  Let no Walmart-shopper be judged!  Indeed, most Americans fall into that category.  I hope that people will be inspired by these inexpensive, simple recipes to try out a healthy vegan diet!  My greatest hope is that sharing this experience will help the obstacles to healthy eating fall away.  Every person deserves to reclaim their health and raise healthy children, regardless of where they shop or how much money they spend.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Corinne Stubbs says:

    That was a good article Chelsea. Very well written. I learned some things. Thanks.

    1. Chelsea says:

      Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂

  2. Thank you for the post, Chelsea, I applaud your committment to compassion and justice. (and I’m another fan of Dr. Greger!)

  3. Paula says:

    Good article and choice of experimentation. Very helpful for those who want to become vegan eaters.

  4. Cheri says:

    I am on SNAP benefits and I find it easy to eat fruit on the budget, but I don’t buy all of it at Wal Mart. I shop at places like Aldi and even the Dollar Tree. Dollar Tree has bags of frozen blueberries, strawberries, and peaches that I stock up on and make smoothies with. For fresh fruit I am limited to fruits like apples and bananas because they are always cheaper than berries. I also check Kroger for manager’s specials for reduced price fruits and vegetables. I make it work!

    1. Chelsea says:

      Awesome! Aldi came to my area just a few months ago. They have great prices! Like the Ikea of food.

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