Surviving On 99-Cent-Store Food For A Week In NYC

Henry Alford of the New York Times writes that sometimes he will “plop a can of chicken broth down on the checkout counter and think, ‘$2.19? For someone to boil chicken bones? I want that job,'” so he decided to try going a week with food from 99 cent stores in New York City. For NYC that means shopping at Jack’s, the Filene’s Basement of dollar stores in Manhattan. The weird nature of Jacks (five aisles of food! freezer cases!) makes his experiment a little hard to duplicate across the country, and after last year’s safety issues we’d be a little worried about antifreeze in everything, but we were still interested to see what he could come up with for a week of dinners.

My first few meals mined the wealth of Jack’s staples. I made rice and beans one night, which we zested up with 99-cent canned jalapeños and sofrito (like enchilada sauce, with a slight burned taste); another night we had penne with cream and some pancetta I found in the gourmet section. Another night, after amassing some brown rice and cans of bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and baby corn at Jack’s, I bought some Chinese broccoli off-site for a big stir-fry. For dessert each night we turned to the slightly wanton charms of the Little Debbie product line, particularly young Debbie’s Oatmeal Creme Pies, whose velvety filling so perfectly captures an imagined marriage between buttercream frosting and Noxzema.
Whenever I hit an obstacle—Jack’s, like almost all 99-cent stores, has no butter, no good olive oil, no flour, very limited cheese and no fresh vegetables—I either supplemented with Gourmet Garage items, or got busy.
What kind of busy? I used frozen broccoli from Jack’s to make cream of broccoli soup (pretty good), frozen peas for pea soup (excellent), and a soybean oil-butter blend called Admiration to make soufflé (awful).

“How to Survive in New York on 99 Cents “ [New York Times]
(Photo: Chris and Kelly)


Edit Your Comment

  1. AZTriGuy says:

    For some reason, the phrases “99-cent store” and “gourmet section” don’t seem to fit in the same sentence…

  2. clayfree says:

    Not sure what he accomplished here. Did he prove he could eat all week at this one of a kind store in NY? Was he limited to one or two $1.00 items each meal. All he proved was that he could make meals from ingredients sold it $1.00 quantities.

  3. polyeaster says:

    All I can say is UGH.

  4. InThrees says:

    I gotta agree with clayfree – I’m sure I could eat pretty well if I would allowed to spend $8 per meal at the dollar store too.

    Next issue: Man exchanges dollars for edible substances for a week, CAN HE SURVIVE?

  5. johnperkins21 says:

    Would have been better off using the dollar menu at a fast food restaurant.

  6. Shadowman615 says:

    Bah, no thanks. I’m not going poor from eating good food. When I cook I like to use fresh meat, and quality ingredients. It makes a big difference. Maybe that stuff is suitable for vegetarian college students, but I’d prefer to spend more money and enjoy my meals.

  7. chemmy says:

    He should try the Jack’s over by the NYPL near 46th St & 5th/6th Aves…. They have freezer cases of lunch meat, milk, eggs, bread, etc…

    It’s what I survived on when I was living in NYC, a full time student and working at McDonalds for minimum wage.

  8. chiieddy says:

    There’s a new cookbook about that too. NPR did an interview with the writer and the food sounds sickingly unhealthy.

    While I agree the cost of groceries has gone up and up (thanks to food being used as a fuel source), eating poorly will not help the situation. It’ll only cause insurance prices to go up and people to get fat.

  9. Osi says:

    Interesting .,. especially when the poster has an identity problem .. “we” or “i” what the? lol!

  10. CorporateTool says:

    This only proves that those on a limited budget will have a hard time gaining access to healthy and nutritious foods. Yeah, you can be full, and it probably won’t taste like dreck if you use some creativity, but without fresh fruits, vegetables, and milk, or lean meats, you’re not doing too well nutritionally.

  11. I cant believe he was able to spend money, eat food AND survive. I mean, lets break it down:

    1) NYC
    2) 1.00
    3) food
    4) eat food
    5) live
    6) do it again

    This guy’s incredible stranger than fiction ripley’s believe it or not story just blew my mind.

  12. @CorporateTool: That peanut butter is called “Yum”. How bad could it be?

  13. Osi says:

    Well, a cheaper way to eat is to grow your fruit and vegetables :) Healthy as you get outside, activities, etc. Depending on where you live, it is possible to live off $1 for all three meals, and feeding 6 :D

  14. mac-phisto says:

    big. fucking. deal. i survived 2 semesters of college eating nothing but top ramen & at the time, they sold for ~12 cents apiece. that’s 26 weeks for <$100 & i don’t consider that any newsworthy event. shit – women in haiti are making cookies out of freakin dirt…THAT’S newsworthy.

  15. jtheletter says:

    I guess the question addressed was could you actually put together palatable meals from dollar store food, it sounds like it’s possible but given no particular budget target I agree that the results don’t tell us much.

    For savings on vegetables I recommend finding a small local grocer, usually the ethnic ones are good places to try. Most of them get vegetables that are of perfect food quality but just look a bit funny. And as a result they’re usually about 30% of what big chain supermarkets charge.
    By “look funny” I mean things like bell peppers that aren’t the ‘ideal’ shape, but are otherwise fine to eat. It’s scary the amount of mark-up on veggies just because of looks.

  16. somuch says:

    NYC contains some very cheap food. Most of it is of very poor quality.

    If you just want a box of cereal with no bugs in– that will run you like $5.

  17. Kajj says:

    @Jinx: Did you miss the part where he lives in NYC? Sure, you can grow a couple of tomato plants in a window box or something, growing enough fruits and vegetables to completely replace buying them in the store requires way more land than people realize, not to mention the storage space required for the harvested goods and canned produce during the winter.

  18. scarletvirtue says:

    @Jinx: I almost wonder if the “we” was referring to someone else that was in the HH, or if it was the “royal we”.

    I’d done the ramen thing, as well as mac n’cheese – if it was an especially good week, I’d even make a white trash tuna casserole (canned tuna, mac n’cheese and cream of mushroom soup).

  19. Moosehawk says:

    He’s making a soufflé with 99 cent items? Why not just live off peanut butter sandwiches, cereal, and ramen for a month like some of us do?

  20. forgottenpassword says:

    I dont know about anyone else….. but I really dont trust those ultra-cheap wierd knockoff brand foods sold at aldis & those 99cent stores. I imagine them being made in some sketchy place in a third-world country.

    I once saw a knockoff brand of the frozen whitecastle burgers at an aldis … was packaged just like the REAL frozen WC burgers are….. skeezed me out.

  21. Hoss says:

    I love to cook, and am as frugal as they come — but I have no idea what the writer was trying to accomplish. All the writer conveyed to me is a smooty attitude that he’s roughing it up big time by shopping in the low rent zone. Sure you can combine those canned mushrooms that didn’t sell with some rice or pasta, but why not cap it off by stopping at the market for some 79 cent/lb chicken that happens to be on sale?

  22. oakie says:

    this sounds like a pakistani knockoff of The Simple Life.

  23. Xay says:

    Big deal. I know people who do all of their grocery shopping at dollar stores because they live in the ‘hood and most of the reputable grocery stores have left or jack up their prices.

  24. snidelywhiplash says:

    @Moosehawk: Why not just live off peanut butter sandwiches, cereal, and ramen for a month like some of us do?

    Call me cwazy, but I think the point of this is that you don’t have to live off PB&J and ramen – that you can actually eat quite well and healthfully on, say, $50-60 a week.

  25. shaken_bake says:

    WTF?? I don’t understand how, if he bought items to eat outside of the Dollar Store, that this story qualifies as newsworthy! Or why didn’t he just buy items that cost less than a dollar at any grocery store? You could buy small amounts of fresh produce for under $1; you could buy lots of things to survive on which are much better quality than that crap! I sincerely doubt anyone, even with limited incomes, are subsisting solely on food purchased at Dollar Stores. Give yourself a budget, dude, and live off that!

  26. Shit, let’s see him survive a week with only items from a vending machine.

  27. CRNewsom says:

    @The Marionette: I accept the challenge you present to the OP. However, I will have to find a vending machine that is stocked with enough food to last a week. Do I have to use the drink machine next to it as well, or can I drink water? We need some rules.

  28. ms.aggie says:

    I don’t understand how the author was able to get out of buying olive oil at Jack’s because it wasn’t “good”. Isn’t that the whole point of the exercise?

  29. KJones says:

    I’d rather see someone post a realistic month-long menu of healthy foods for the cheapest total cost, e.g. rice, dried beans, peeling and cooking fresh vegetables, etc.

    In posting something like this, it should at least be useful to most people. The whole reason most food is expensive is packaging and convenience, not the raw foods in it.

  30. Tonguetied says:

    I regularly visit the dollar store and am regularly pleasantly surprised at the diversity and quality of the food they sell. Yeah you do get your ‘Potted Meat Product’ but you see other stuff as well that is perfectly good. Perhaps you can live off Ramen for weeks at a time but hey if you can get some variety in your diet for the same price why not?

  31. evilhapposai says:

    @snidelywhiplash: Because those of us eating off PB&J and ramen dont have the $50-60 per week to eat off of in the first place.

    When are these health-nuts and fat-bashers gonna realize there are people out there that cannot afford healthy foods for every meal?

  32. synergy says:

    This is about what I did my last year in college and again for a year when it was my first year (or two?) on my own at my first job. That last one I think my husband and I were living on groceries for about $60/month.

  33. shepd says:

    $50/week for food? You realize that on minimum wage in the US, that leaves $797 to pay everything else (including taxes), right? Or, in other words, 21% of every dollar you earn is spent on food alone.

    Considering rooming with someone is about $500/month, you’d better not need more than $297 monthly for transportation, utilities, health insurance or taxes.