woman agonising over the choice of items in a supermarket

Can a westerner live on $5 a day for food?

Westerners are used to supermarket shelves stacked with processed foods of all kinds and a trolly ready to be filled with our selections. But what would happen if the food budget was meagre?

What would you do for food if all you had was $5.50 per day?

Nearly half the world’s population live on this amount of money and must pay all their bills on this paltry sum. However, most also grow a heap of their food, so the monetary measure can be a little misleading to those of us who buy our food in the supermarket.

But suppose you live on the 10th floor of an apartment block downtown, and the best you can do to feed yourself is a basil plant on the kitchen window sill. 

Somehow you will need to acquire food containing enough energy to cover your basal metabolic rate (BMR)—the rate of energy expenditure per unit time by endothermic animals at rest. This is typically 75% of a person’s energy needs and is non-negotiable for long-term survival.

Let’s simplify the nuances around gender, body weight, age, and activity levels and assume that you need energy equivalent to 2,000 kilocalories (often shortened to calories) per day for a woman and 2,500 kcal per day for a man.

Luckily all your rent and utility bills are covered, so the $5 a day can go to food and drink, $35 over the week. 

herbs grwoing in a windowbox
Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash

Can $5 a day buy enough food?

A standard loaf of white bread contains roughly 2,000 kcal. Add some margarine, and it’s enough calories for a male too.

At the local supermarket here in Australia in 2022, the standard white loaf sells for $1.55 and the wholemeal equivalent is $1.95. 

Over in the dairy section, 500g of a name brand margarine containing 52% sunflower and canola oils is on sale for $3.50. Curiously, a 500g tub of lard made from 100% animal fat is cheaper at $3, whilst the most affordable butter is $7 for half a kilo.

Budget intelligently and energetic needs could be met on $5 a day.

But, as the bible says, a man cannot live on bread alone. Not even a whole loaf. 

Before we get to spiritual edification, there are more than calories needed for physical nourishment. Nutrients including minerals, especially iron, magnesium, calcium, and vitamins and protein, are essential.

loaf of bread with slices cut and cubes of butter at the ready
Photo by Neetu Laddha on Unsplash

Bread and margarine are not enough

Back in the supermarket, the cheapest cheese is around $4 for 250g, cage-laid eggs are $3.80 a dozen, and milk is $1.30 a litre. 

COVID, flood and supply chain squeezes notwithstanding, vegetables are anything from $5 to $50 a kilo, but it would be possible to purchase some green vegetables and maybe an apple to go with the loaf of bread and the margarine. The cheapest fruit and veg (carrots, onions, pumpkin, apples, oranges) sell for around $5 a kilo, but anything leafy or exotic is out of reach of the $5.

At a push and with some careful planning and discipline, $5 per day, especially if combined into a budget of $35 per week, would be enough to meet the minimum energy requirements and some of the nutritional needs for an average John Doe.

Ironically, this financially restricted diet might not be nutritionally balanced, but it would be sugar-free, lowering the risk of diabetes and obesity.

How long a person could persist on processed grains plus some seed oils and the occasional egg without symptoms of malnutrition is debatable. But a person could avoid starvation.

So can a westerner live on $5 a day for food?

Yes, just.

Take aways from $5 a day

A few things appear from this simple thought experiment.

Bulk calories are cheap. 

It is possible to purchase enough calories to meet basic metabolic needs for energy even on $5 a day. 

Cashflow and accessibility to essential foods will always be an issue for the poor, but the reality is that the industrial food production systems are able to generate calories at volume and for remarkably low prices. We know this must be true. If is wasn’t the  people living in cities and reliant on food grown by someone else would starve.

Nutrition is more expensive

Calories might be cheap, but nutrition can be expensive.

Elsewhere we discuss what nutrition should look like for a healthy lifestyle and whether the food pyramids and dietary guidelines make any sense; many of these can mislead. 

However, man cannot live on bread alone. There are nutrient, mineral and protein requirements or malnutrition is inevitable.

Balance in the diet is more challenging than satiation on $5

Overall food is cheap and undervalued

Couple the magic of modern machinery with the energy subsidy from fossil fuels, and food production becomes highly efficient. 

Add the market to this mix that drives further efficiency to enhance profits, and the result is that essential food commodities are cheap. Perhaps too cheap, especially in western cultures.

The 3 billion or so people who live on $5.50 a day might not agree with this assertion as they give up 50% of their income to access calories, but in mature economies, food is undervalued.

Expensive food is not an option

The problem is that given so much inequality in the world, food has to remain cheap, or we risk higher malnutrition rates, famine and social disruption.

What sustainably FED suggests

We are often asking you to imagine yourself somewhere. In this post, it’s the unenviable position of having to feed yourself on a meagre amount of money.

Interestingly though, it can be done.

In western supermarkets, the essential commodities to meet energy needs from food can be purchased with limited income. The diet costing $5 a day is not precisely gourmet and is likely to result in malnutrition over time, but it is enough, just.

The problem, though, is that food is too cheap. 

Production fails to account for the true costs and relies for its efficiency on the subsidy from fossil fuels—energy, machinery, and fertiliser.

This breadline scenario might make money for big ag but fails to feed everyone well, which is not sustainable. 

Hero image from a photo by Viki Mohamad on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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