Home » Public Health Rambles » Why #surviveon35 Misses the Mark

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.


91 Responses to Why #surviveon35 Misses the Mark

  1. […] posts about the current problems in America’s Public Health domain. Her recent post on the survive on 35 challenge was right on the […]

  2. […] -This response by Health on the Run to the “surviveon35” challenge. For those of you unfamiliar, this is a social media based “challenge” in which bloggers must survive and thrive on a healthy diet while spending only $35 for the week (supposedly the same amount you would receive from government assistance for food stamps). When I first saw this I thought it was quite degrading and condescending. A challenge to survive on $35?? Okay maybe that is a “fun” thing for a privileged blogger to do for a week (and get compensated for) but many, many Americans have to really live on that…I just don’t like they way they are acting about how fun and easy it is. For a lot of people it is reality. […]

  3. […] into words.  I agree with what she has to say and I am incredibly thankful she addressed this.  Please, please read her post, the follow up, and the comments.   Without getting more personal than I want to get on this blog, I am going to try to explain my […]

  4. stumbled on your blog from aliontherun and this was the first thing i read. love it. haven’t seen anything about this yet (in my oversaturated world, i’m sometimes glad i haven’t heard about stuff!) but i’m glad you took the time to make some great points. i think this speaks to a very systemic social problem: we tend to oversimplify others’ lives in comparison to our own- and we way overlook the significant impact this has on our political decisions that affect other people. i’d go so far as to say that an event like this could actually harm the middle and lower classes, if it gives people the impression that ‘the way things are is fine!’. more than fine. it’s as you said- all too easy to overlook our other advantages like transportation, free time, lower stress levels, and a huge one *education* and assume that an upper-middle-class white college grad with a car and a laptop at home can step into the shoes of someone on public assistance and “do it better”…it erodes the foundation for compassion and replaces it with arrogance. an awful lot of political decisions are made with this kind of blinders on- ‘if i can do it, so can they!’- and then we fail to see the resulting evidence that no, actually, they can’t. and probably, neither could you if you were truly in their shoes.

    wah! sorry, soapbox over :) thanks for your post!

  5. Just want to say I love everything about this post. You hit the nail on the head. Besides, it begs to differ, how many of the impoverished actually have time to sit around and follow healthy living blogs?

  6. I haven’t spent much time looking into this challenge but I have seen it floating around on Twitter, too. After reading your post, I needed to spend some time thinking about the entire challenge, and I have to agree with you. While I have always been very fortunate, my mom grew up on welfare and we’ve spent countless hours talking about the experiences she faced as a child and where the government assistance programs fail. I’ve had friends receive benefits through WIC, and helped them fill out assistance applications. Without a doubt there are many additional issues that low-income families and challenges must face, and I agree that this “challenge” could have been better structured. I’m glad that the founders of Anytime Fitness experienced life in those conditions and were motivated to want to do something about it. But encouraging participants to face more of the real life challenges that the sponsors were trying to highlight would definitely heighten the impact of the challenge. I like your idea about having bloggers cut their budgets in half, but I think the difference in foods available at different stores would really have been a key highlight.

    Thank you for writing a post about this challenge that truly emphasizes the plethora of issues surrounding this topic. There are great public health and public policy problems at the center of this that I think you do an incredible job of touching on. This has always been a topic I have cared about and I’m glad there are people like you who are able to really outline the missed opportunities of this challenge.
    Amanda @ Running On Waffles´s last post ..Not Your College Ramen

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