Category: Public Health Rambles

{Brief} Follow-up: #surviveon35 Final Thoughts

Thank you all for your incredibly thoughtful comments on my last post. I know it’s sort of lame to just give a blanket response to everyone who took the time to share their thoughts, but I don’t know how many times you all would appreciate hearing me say “excellent point!”.  Because people really did make some great points — many that I didn’t think of myself — and it was encouraging to see so many of you taking the time to reflect on this challenge and all its implications. If you haven’t done so already (and find yourself with a little free time), I would highly recommend reading through all the comments. Who knows — maybe they will help you think about the challenge a little differently.

As a quick aside, I can tell you all that during these past few months I’ve thought a lot about giving up blogging (this may not come as a surprise, given how infrequently I was posting for awhile). Sometimes I feel as though I’ve outgrown Health on the Run and no longer have anything of value to add. So when people react to something that I write — something that I clearly feel very passionate about — it means the world to me. And it makes me grateful to have this outlet.

Anyway, I promise I’ll get off my soapbox and move on to other things, but as this #surviveon35 challenge comes to a close, I just have a few final thoughts.

1.) I recognize that the intentions of some of these bloggers are good. I don’t want to discount the fact that this is an issue that hits close to home for some individuals, and that these same people truly are participating because they hope to win money for the food pantry of their choice. This post by Mama Dweeb about her experience as a child is very moving. I honestly do hope that she is able to raise money for the same food pantry that fed her family.

However, that doesn’t change my overall opinion. Whatever the intentions of the individuals participating may be, the poor execution has made for a very condescending challenge…and this has worsened as the week has gone on.

2.) You cannot say that this is a challenge to simply “show that it’s possible to eat healthy on a budget!” I’ve seen this response several times over the past week and it bothers me every single time. Because it’s just not true. When you bring words like “food stamps” and “government assistance” into the challenge, it becomes a lot more than an experiment in budgeting. I don’t care if you are just a healthy living blogger with no real experience or knowledge about the food system — you are still responsible for what you write and the message that it sends. A little more research and a bit more empathy for the segment of our population who live under these circumstances every day would have served everyone participating well.

3.) Unfortunately, many of the meals that I have seen highlighted during the challenge are unrealistic for someone who is actually receiving government assistance, which (in my mind) only furthers the point that this whole thing has missed the mark. Sure, some families may have time to spend a day prepping meals and finding the cheapest prices at local grocery stores. But for many others, this is a luxury they can’t afford. Not to mention the fact that products like Greek yogurt, chia seeds, and bulk bin grains are not easy to come by if you live in a food desert.

Additionally, a lot of the meals I have seen appear minuscule in size. You might be able to survive eating that little for a week, but I can’t imagine feeding a family on so few calories over the long term.

4.) Many of the attitudes that I have seen surrounding this challenge have only continued to disappoint. I can’t imagine that surviving on such a small budget for a week is easy. But if you read a lot of the posts and tweets, you would think the only resulting difficulty has been spending more time planning meals and having to give up fun treats like going out to eat or having a drink at the end of the night. More than anything else, I’ve seen posts that seem to imply how awesome individuals are doing with their super cheap meals.

And I’m not the only observer who has apparently gotten that message. When you read tweets like the ones below from individuals who are “inspired” by those participating, you know there is a major problem with misinformation.

Following the #surviveon35 challenge.  Such a great way to show everyone it is possible to eat real and nutritious food.


“Super inspired seeing what people are getting for #surviveon35! Maybe they should start calling it #thriveon35!!” AGREED

Yes, those are actual quotes from real people (whose names have been removed out of respect for privacy). So please don’t tell me I am being too hard on those participating. While I don’t expect them to be able to control everything everyone says about what they write (obviously that’s impossible), I do expect a little more effort to make sure the wrong message isn’t getting across.

So in conclusion, I will reiterate — this challenge proves nothing…except that there is a lot of ignorance about the state of our food system.

And I suppose it also shows us all that these bloggers are good at budgeting (particularly when several do not have full time jobs and/or a family to feed and are being compensated for their participation). While I hope that those who participate do end up getting a little more out of this week than we’ve seen so far, I can honestly say that I would be happy if I never saw a “challenge” like this again.

Oh, and just an interesting observation that I can’t help but share….

Recently I’ve seen a lot of talk about how the organizers are “upping the ante” by raising money for a charity that helps teach low income families how to prepare healthy meals (which, although admirable, still seems to miss the point…but that’s another topic for another day). The goal is to raise $10,000. Every single person in support of the #surviveon35 challenge has been tweeting and re-tweeting the link to the fundraising page, yet last time I checked (this morning), only $255 had been donated. I’m honestly not judging, just observing. I haven’t donated anything to the charity either, and ultimately I know any amount of money is a good thing.

But I have to wonder — who is the target audience for this fundraiser? And if so many people believe so strongly in the mission of the organization, why have so few donated?*

Just some food for thought…


*These are actual questions that I really want to know the answer to. So if you can enlighten me, please do! I am happy to admit when I’m wrong about something.

Why #surviveon35 Misses the Mark

First of all, I want to make it clear that this post isn’t meant to be a personal attack on anyone. This is simply the personal opinion of someone who has been reading about this challenge and comes from the perspective of a public health professional. Where we don’t all agree, there is room for civilized debate.



If you haven’t yet heard about the #surviveon35 challenge, the basic premise is this: for 7 days, a team of 10 bloggers (in cooperation with Anytime Fitness and Fitfluential) are being challenged to “survive — and even thrive — on [a] meager allowance” of $35/per adult ($20 per child). This allowance is for their food budget only — while they aren’t allowed to use existing pantry staples when preparing meals, this allotment of money does not apply to any other weekly expenses they may have.

From the Anytime Health site:

When the co-founders of Anytime Fitness went on ABC’s Secret Millionaire earlier this year, they had to feed themselves on a mere $35 each for an entire week, the same amount you’d receive on government assistance. They showed that not only could it be done, but it could be done in a healthy way.

Now, Anytime Fitness is challenging ten health bloggers to do the same. Can they survive – and even thrive – on this meager allowance for a full seven days? We are about to find out!

How does the challenge work?

Let’s do the math. $35, 7 days, and 21 meals. That’s just $1.66 per meal. Of course, those with families to feed will have a larger budget ($35 per adult and $20 per child). It’s no small feat, but our bloggers are up to the task!

These ten brave bloggers will strive to eat healthy and tasty foods within this budget for one week. They’ll be posting shopping lists, recipes, and food photos along the way, so you can follow along.

How will the winners be selected, and what do they win?

At the end of the challenge, two winners will be selected by Anytime Fitness based on the healthiness, taste, and creativity of their meals. Sharing helps, too. We will take likes, tweets, and comments into consideration.

The two winners will receive a $1,000 donation to the food shelf of their choice.

I respect that the founders of Anytime Fitness had a life changing experience as a part of the Secret Millionaire, and that they now desire to draw more attention to the issues of poverty and hunger. I also think it’s wonderful that money will be donated to food pantries at the end of the challenge. So I do see the potential for good in all of this. Unfortunately, that’s about where my positive feedback about the challenge ends.

Because I don’t want my points to get lost, let’s break it down, shall we?

The Wording

First of all, there’s the way this whole thing is phrased. Framing it as a “challenge” makes it sound like a big game — whether the bloggers themselves see it that way or not. I don’t really think it needs to be reiterated that hunger and poverty are not games. For most people, this situation is not a choice. It is a harsh reality they face each and every day. “Competing” to see who can make the most creative/cheapest meals on a food stamp budget makes light of that.

The organizers also call the bloggers “brave” and suggest that people can “thrive” on “the same amount as [they’d] receive on government assistance.

Do I think it’s great that bloggers who are used to spending money on organic foods are stepping out of their comfort zones as they try to form healthy meals on less? Yes. But they certainly aren’t brave. Especially when they are being sponsored by companies to do so, and the worst that can come of all this is receiving negative feedback on their websites.

Secondly, while it certainly is possible to “thrive” on a lower food budget (healthy meals don’t always have to be super expensive), bringing food stamps and government assistance into the discussion sends the wrong message. Besides the fact that food stamps are unfortunately associated with stigma and talks of challenging yourself to survive on them can sound condescending, the way that the entire challenge is phrased seems to imply that a person can thrive on government assistance. Clearly there are a whole host of issues associated with this implication. I would like to believe that this isn’t really the organizers’ intent, but that doesn’t change the fact that this could have been worded a bit more sensitively.

Not to mention the fact that comparing the $35 budget these bloggers will live on for the week to the amount a person would receive on food stamps is inaccurate. Without getting into too much detail, the amount of assistance an individual/family receives depends on many things — such as the state they live in, household size, other resources available (such as wages) or other forms of assistance a person receives, and expenses like child support and rent. (You can find more information here.)

I do not think this challenge would have suffered in any way had they left out any talk of government assistance. In fact, I think that it would have greatly limited the amount of negative feedback these bloggers have been getting.

The Context

I would honestly hope that none of the individuals participating truly believe that they are experiencing what it would be like to survive on government assistance. Unfortunately, many statements that have been made by both participating bloggers and individuals who have commented in support suggest otherwise. The statement that “I am going to SHOW YOU that it is possible to eat healthy on $35 a week” and the sentiment that: “If I can do it, you can too!” is just ridiculous. Just because a healthy living blogger — who has access to a car to drive to a full-service supermarket, can pay for their own gas, has a working kitchen with many appliances, and is already primed to eat healthy — can figure out ways to survive on a smaller food budget for a week does not mean that someone who is on government assistance can do the same.

This is a challenge set in the wrong context. Individuals who face poverty deal with many more factors than their weekly food allowance. There are huge (often insurmountable) issues of access. Many individuals do not live in an area with a full service grocery store, nor do they have a car to get there. They may need to rely on public transportation (which often has limitations on the number of bags you can carry on – I know the bus system in Rhode Island does)…and this in the midst of any other competing priorities, such as raising a family on a single income, working long hours, dealing with issues of safety, paying other bills. Regardless of the intentions of the challenge, it simplifies the issue in a way that does an injustice to low income families. Particularly since this challenge does not appear to incorporate any sort of education around food deserts, poverty issues, policies that can improve access to healthy foods, the types of foods available at food banks, etc.

Again, just because a blogger sacrifices buying organics for the store brand for one week and knows how to put together a healthy breakfast with Greek yogurt does not make this a realistic example.

The “Cause”

Another term that I have seen thrown around in regards to this challenge is that these bloggers should be commended for raising awareness and support of “the cause.” However – I’m confused about which cause they are referring to? The cause of not being able to shop at Whole Foods for a week? The cause of getting more publicity for Anytime Fitness (because I’m sorry, but if the company didn’t want publicity from this, their name wouldn’t be associated with every tweet and post about it)? Or is it the cause that $35 per person per week is enough food money for a low income family? I truly am baffled by this. Since the object of the challenge is to see who can create the healthiest, tastiest, and most creative meals on only $35, it seems to imply that this amount should be more than sufficient to do so.

I get that operating on a lower food budget for a week requires extra planning and creativity. But I can’t help but think the “cause” would have been better served if there weren’t a winner at the end. And if the purpose of this whole thing was to actually bring visibility to the fact that government assistance should be increased, or that we need to have better policies in place to help more individuals “thrive” on their own — not on food stamps.

The Visibility

You can read what I’ve written above and tell me that I’m missing the point, or that I’m reading too much into this or even that I’m simply being a “hater.” Fine. We can agree to disagree. However, you cannot argue with the fact that the publicity around this thing has been ridiculous.

This is called the Secret Millionaire Challenge. Now, I’ve never been on the show, but I was under the impression that the entire premise was for a millionaire to secretly go into a deprived/low income neighborhood and live on a low budget among the community. Sure, there’s a big emotional reveal at the end, but they don’t spend the entire week telling everyone they come in contact with that they are really rich people who are being so “brave” to go and live as though they are low income.

So I don’t see how this is the same thing. My Twitter feed had been clogged with individuals telling us just how cheap they were able to make their breakfast. It was made clear right from the start that there are two millionaires (co-founders of Anytime Fitness) who were sponsoring the challenge. And part of the criteria winners will be judged on includes Facebook likes, tweets, and comments on their posts. …i.e. the person who garners the most publicity for what they are doing.

You can say you are doing good, but the fact that you need everyone to know it makes it seem just a little bit less genuine.

How it Could Have Been Better

This post is really long already, but I hate to criticize without giving any sort of suggestions about how I think it could have been improved. I do not think the challenge is bad in theory, just in execution.

Here are ways that I think the challenge could have been more positive overall:

1.) Leave food stamps/government assistance out of the discussion.

Instead, frame the challenge as bloggers learning to survive on a restricted budget for the week. Or, better yet, have a two-week challenge where the blogger keeps track of what he/she normally spends, and then is challenged to cut that in half or by a certain percentage the next week and see how they make that work.

2.) If you must talk about government assistance, don’t make this an actual challenge to see who can create the best/cheapest meals, and please stop talking about how these bloggers are going to “show” people that it is possible to eat healthy while living on government assistance.

Better guidelines could have encouraged bloggers to shop at convenience stores or even a Price-Rite/Shop-Rite. It can often be much harder to find fresh produce and healthy meal options at these types of stores than your local Publix or Stop ‘n Shop. Finding ways to make healthy meals on $35 based on shopping at a convenience store would have been a much more difficult challenge — one that required creativity and stepping outside of one’s comfort zone. Guidelines also could have required that bloggers only go to one store, or get there by public transportation…basically anything that would more closely mimic other obstacles that a person on government assistance would face.

3.) Include some education.

I know this challenge has just started, so we don’t know what will come of it. I truly hope that bloggers do more than write about their cheap meals for the week. If they took this opportunity to educate themselves and their readers on the issues, investigate local policies, see what types of food products are carried at their local convenience store or offered in the food pantry, I believe a lot more good could come of this.

In summary – – the tl;dr version: I know that the end result is money donated to a food pantry, and I think that’s wonderful (I really do!). I just wish the challenge would have been better thought out. Because as it stands, #surviveon35 really missed the mark.


The Weight of the Nation

Just a quick, last minute PSA in case you haven’t heard…

Tonight is the premiere of a new HBO documentary called The Weight of the Nation. This four-part documentary is a collaboration between HBO and the Institute of Medicine that basically serves to give Americans a wake up call about the dire consequences of this obesity epidemic we find ourselves facing.

You can watch the trailer below (or click here if the embedded video doesn’t work):


Tonight’s show is actually two parts – the first one looking at the consequences of the obesity epidemic and the second highlighting the science around how to lose weight, maintain it, and prevent weight loss. Parts 3 & 4 will air on May 15th.

Don’t worry, you don’t need HBO to watch the series. HBO will be streaming all four parts of the documentary here.

For more information, please click here.


If you watch, let me know what you think! Chances are I’ll be blogging about it at some point…

23 and a Half Hours

While catching up on Twitter yesterday, I came across a video via Runner’s World that I thought was too good NOT to share. It’s a “Visual Lecture” (basically someone draws/writes on a big white board while someone narrates) that delivers a very important and powerful message about health.

The video is a little long (9 minutes and 19 seconds to be exact) and starts a little slow, but I promise it’s worth it. Although I’m sure that most of you reading this blog probably already follow the doctor’s advice in your regular lives, I believe that the simple message is worth sharing.

Plus – by now you all know that I love stuff like this. THIS, my friends, is pretty much what my profession is all about.

So watch, discuss, and share widely.

ETA: If you can’t watch the embedded video, click here to view on YouTube

I watched this with EC last night and then proceeded to make him suggest he stand with me during the second half of the Breaking Bad episode we were watching (one more season to catch up on before the season 5 premiere. Think we’ll make it?!). I’m sure that I’m such a peach to date.

Pizza = Congress’s Favorite Vegetable

Congress may not have solved our debt crises yet, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been busy – busy over-ruling proposed changes to school nutrition requirements that would have helped make them healthier.

I’m sure most of you have heard the news by now. But if you’re like me and get all your news from SNL’s Weekend Update are sometimes a little slow on the uptake, you may have missed the latest controversy over pizza being declared as a vegetable by our admirable Congress. A fact so completely ridiculous, that it seems just made for a comedy skit.

Really!?! With Seth & Kermit


Click here to view on (if the above video doesn’t work).

Okay, so Congress didn’t really make some crazy declaration that pizza is now considered a vegetable. What they did do, however, was vote against new USDA guidelines in the agriculture appropriations bill that would have increased the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables in school cafeterias and decreased the amount of pizza and french fries. And in doing so, they asserted the belief that a quarter cup of tomato paste is considered a serving of vegetables. Because apparently tomato paste (on it’s own) has lots of nutrients in it.

So when you take that paste, mix it with other ingredients, and put it on a pizza loaded with cheese and pepperoni, you can rest easy knowing that you are still getting a nice serving of vegetables. Add to that my second favorite vegetable – french fries deep fried in oil (they’re made of potatoes after all!) and you’ve got a well-rounded lunch.

Don’t get me wrong. I love pizza. A lot. It’s one of my favorite ways to carbo-load or refuel after a hard run. And I also know there are ways to make pizza healthier – whole grain crust, limited cheese, and lots of veggies are all positive changes you can make to your standard pie to up the nutritional value. But is the pizza served in most school cafeterias “healthy?” Not based on these ingredients:

(From the Huffington Post)

pizza ingredients

That’s hardly even recognizable as food.

There are those (like Congress, apparently) who don’t really think this is such a big deal. After all, kids are going to eat what they like, right? You can’t force them to eat fresh foods and vegetables because you make it more available. If a kid wants pizza, he’s going to eat pizza.

Without going into the behavior debate, I will simply say that the argument presented above misses the point entirely. In my mind, why this is such a big deal is twofold:

1.) It is a step in the complete opposite direction that this country needs to be heading. Obesity among children is a very real problem. It’s not just about having a little bit of extra weight on you – it’s about a medical condition that impacts your health. It’s about an epidemic that has led to the predictions that this generation of children will be the first to have shorter life expectancies than their parents (source). 17% of U.S. children between the ages of 2 and 17 are obese. Not just overweight, but obese. This number has tripled since 1980 and particularly affects children of low income families (families who the school lunch programs are put in place to serve) (Source).

See more on Know Your Meme

2.) It is a sickening example of how money drives decisions, not interest in the public good. Apparently big food companies didn’t like what they were going to lose if this bill had been passed. As of November 1st, the food industry had spent $5.6 million lobbying against the proposal (source). And in the end, that money spoke. Loud and clear.  In a very well articulated article in the Huffington Post, Kristen Wartman writes (emphasis added):

Many conservative lawmakers are also insisting that the federal government shouldn’t tell people what to eat. This is the same argument Sarah Palin used against Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign to the rallying cry, “nanny-state.”

But the government clearly does not control the food Americans eat. Corporations do.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. We face this problem in public health all the time. Our government-funded and non-profit organizations can’t compete against the lobbyists from big food and beverage companies. We don’t have the money, the staff, or the reach (not to mention the fact that it’s illegal for government employees to actually lobby for things. Minor detail.). I guess I just would have expected more from a body that is supposed to be relying on expert advice to develop and enact laws, not money from corporate lobbyists.

pizza is a vegetable meme.jpg(Source)

For further reading, I would actually encourage you to read the entire article in the Huffington Post, as well as the other articles she has linked to.

And for some comic relief, please see Marion Nestle’s post.

And now, as always, I want to know what you think. Bad decision by Congress? Or something the media (and this blog) is blowing out of proportion?

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