This Man Ate For Only $4 Per Day To Help You Rethink Your Relationship With Food

Some people out there have no option but to change the world. They see something that isn’t quite working and they have an innate drive to make it better. They long to understand people, groups, and long-standing ideas that might conflict with their own. If understanding can’t be found, inspiration and transformation must take place. The people I’m talking about are often at the forefront of big things. Those are the people we focus on for #TheMadOnes and Rob Greenfield is one of those people.

Greenfield is the best kind of crazy. He peddled across America on a homemade bamboo bike, to prove that sustainable living was not only do-able, but fun. Shortly following his coast to coast adventure, Greenfield set out on a trip to illuminate a simple concept: “People are good.” He flew to Panama City on a one way flight with nothing but the clothes on his back and a passport in his pocket. His mission was to get home to San Diego and 37 days later, with 10 cents in his pocket, that’s exactly what he did.

After hearing about Greenfield’s journey through Central America, I wanted to pick his brain specifically about that trip, but as soon as I got him on the phone, the Panama adventure became an afterthought. The “dude doing good” is onto his next mission, and I had to catch up. Currently, Greenfield is re-evaluating the way our country views food, food deserts, and waste, and he talked to me extensively about all of it.

Eventually, we touched on his journey through the Americas, but with the candle burning at so many ends, and things always changing, I was glad just to have a conversation with the guy.

You’re in Cali, right?

No, I’m in Raleigh, North Carolina right now. I’m actually going to be up in Jersey this weekend.

Oh, no way. What are you doing in these parts?

I’ve been on a tour for the last three months, my girlfriend and I, and we’ve been traveling to Florida and New Orleans, and then New Orleans up to New York, so we’ve been down here in the south for the last three months doing a tour, mostly working on food-related issues.

Awesome, like what?

Food waste is one that I always focus on, how much food is wasted in the United States while there’s so many people that are hungry out there. Food waste is one, but really the main thing that we were focusing on this summer was raising awareness about food accessibility and cost. We’ve spent a month in a food desert in Atlanta, where the nearest grocery store is three miles away and where eating healthy is really hard, and we lived on $4 for food to see if it’s possible to eat healthy on what the average American gets for food stamps. That was the main project this summer. Basically the idea of this summer tour is to create different tools to help people eat healthy no matter where they are in the country and no matter how small of a budget they’re on.

Wow. How did it go in Atlanta?

It went really well. I was pretty surprised for under $4 a day, I was able to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables every day. I managed to eat a diet that had no chemicals, no preservatives, and that’s at grocery stores like Walmart and your random, basic grocery stores that most Americans shop at, not health food stores or anything like that.

Do you incorporate normal working hours into a project like that? Like, would someone have time to walk three miles or take a bus three miles to the nearest grocery store if that was the case?

Yes. We definitely incorporated time. The real statistic is about 70% of people living in communities like that actually have a car, so most of them can just drive to the grocery store and it’s not a big deal.

Fair enough.

The whole idea is to try to create tools so that as many people can use them as possible. It’s really impossible to cover every reason why people have challenges, because a lot of it is social issues, a lot of it is a matter of education. There’s so many different elements to it. The meal plan that we came up with, the 30 day meal plan, the idea is to make it as simple as possible, no complicated cooking, and every cooking item we had in the kitchen was bought at Goodwill for under $75, and that’s what you can use for years and years for just $75. The idea is to try to make it as absolutely accessible and simple as possible.

With the tour moving north, do you have different projects or goals set up in each place you’re stopping, or is it just sort of, “What do we want to tackle this time?”

Yes. In every city, we have different projects set up. There’s five different elements of food, five different key issues. For example, accessibility and cost are two of the big issues. Waste is third. Growing your own is the fourth biggest issue that we spent the most time on this summer, so showing people how they can grow food in very tiny spaces, it’s accessible and possible, out of almost all wasted materials that they can find in the streets, so that it costs as little as possible.

Another one was food packaging, so how to reduce your waste and trash created from food, and eating a plant-based diet was another issue, so trying to eat as environmentally friendly of a diet as possible. With all of them, it’s always incorporating number one and number two so it’s as accessible to as many people as possible.

So as many people can learn from your example as possible.

Exactly. That’s the whole idea. That’s the number one thing that I try to do with all of my work is to try to make it as accessible to everybody, no matter of economic status or age or where in the United States you live. I focus mostly on the United States, but I also try to keep things as globally accessible as possible, but of course, my way to make change is to lead by example, and I live in the United States, so that’s why I focus primarily on this country.

What’s your background? Did you study nutrition or anything like that, or was it just something you were really interested in?

I actually studied biology and chemistry in college, so I didn’t study nutrition at all, but for me, it really just comes down to that food is, without a question, one of the most important aspects of human life. Without food, we don’t exist, and really, from everything I’ve seen, a healthy diet is one of the most important aspects that ripples to everything in your life, from your ability to study in school or perform a job or even social aspects, like food and health. Most health issues in the United States are based around what we eat and whether we’re moving our body around or not and getting exercise.

My mission is really just about trying to help people live as environmentally friendly as possible of a life, as well as individually, also a purposeful, passionate, healthy life. Food always comes down to being my main focus, even though that was never the intent. It always comes back to food, for the most part, but I do things in a very diverse way, so I’m always doing different adventures. You found me because of a trip to Central America, right?

Yeah, I originally heard about you from that trip you took from Central America to San Diego, and that had my ear immediately.

Yes. My goal is always to do things that are eye catching. Whether it’s sustainable living, food, et cetera, but also catch the media’s attention, of course, because that’s how you reach more people.

It’s really fascinating that you did the trip that you did, and that you’re doing this now, but what started it all? Did you ever have an office job and then walk away, or were you always just doing this?

I didn’t ever have an office job. I was always just independent. I was money-oriented. When I get out of college, I was doing independent contractor work in advertising sales, so I haven’t had a job since I was 19, like a job job. I was always an independent contractor. I started a marketing company in 2011 and I ran that for a couple years, and I was really money-focused, money-oriented, but basically what happened is I just started to watch a lot documentaries and read a lot of books and realized that there’s so many major environmental and social issues to deal with, and I decided I wanted to be part of the change. I moved away from meeting my own needs, having a car and a nice apartment and stuff, and rather spend time doing projects like these and have really removed money as the focus in my life and made my life very simple, so that I can really dedicate my time to things I deem as important.

That makes sense and especially when you’re tackling issues like this, I think it makes the research super compelling because you’re going at it from such an honest point of view.

Absolutely. I always want to lead by example, and I don’t want to talk about stuff that I don’t know about. I really keep my mouth shut on things that I don’t know about and talk about things that I feel like I’m actually qualified to talk about and really understand them just by doing it. Of course, researching it extensively as well and talking to experts and getting involved with others who have been involved in it for a lot longer than me.

Absolutely. Do your findings ever really surprise you, or have you researched to the point that you know what you’re getting into long beforehand?

I’m always surprised because I’m constantly working on new projects. For example, living on $4 a day in a food desert, so a lot of times, I still buy into these misconceptions that are spread throughout the country. For example, I’ve heard so many times, “I can’t afford to eat healthy,” and I assume that a lot of the times that’s true and everything, so I didn’t know if on $4 a day, I’d be able to even eat fresh fruits and vegetables. I didn’t know if I’d only be able to eat canned fruits and vegetables and if I’d be able to eat really healthy.

I was blown away that I was eating healthier than just about most people in the United States. It wasn’t organic food, but in general, I was able to eat healthier than a vast majority of Americans and it was delicious, as well. At the end of the month, I was blown away at how healthy you can eat on $4 a day, and this is something that for 320 million Americans, I would venture to say at least 250 to 300 million of them could use it, could easily eat healthy if they were dedicated to it.

When I was traveling in South America and Central America, we aimed to live on $5 a day.

Keep in mind, this is just food I’m talking about.

Of course. You’re not incorporating cost of living or housing or anything like that, but still, $4 a day for just food, that’s really not much. That’s attainable to anyone.

Yes, it is. I was very surprised, and mostly just excited to see what we can do with $4 a day shopping at your standard places like Walmart or Jewel or whatever, Publix, Sav-A-Lot, stuff like that. I’m really excited about it, because I feel like walking out of that, I have one more tool to be able to help people. Most of all, it’s about getting past pre-conceived notions about what’s possible. That’s the biggest thing. We all have these ideas of what’s possible, and I just keep finding more and more that we just are full of ideas that are just false.

We’ve gotta talk about the Central America trip for a minute. I have to ask you a couple questions about it. What was the takeaway from that trip?

For me, it was really simple. I crossed the border from Tijuana into San Diego and I had $2.60 left because I’d earned some money here and there on the trip, and when I crossed that border, the trolley which brought me four miles to home cost $2.50, so I had ten cents left, and as I sat on that trolley realizing that I was almost home, for the most part, only three words had gone through my head, and that was just that people are good.

It was just internally, but then as soon as I got off the trolley, it was just like hands up in the air just yelling it, “People are good!” That’s really the main thing.

Secondly, a lot of people say the world revolves around money, but the more I live with less money, the more I realize that’s just a social construct that’s mostly made up in our minds, and that there’s so many ways that we can live a life that doesn’t revolve around money. Sure, it’s hard to completely remove yourself from the monetary system, but poverty doesn’t have to be how much money you have if you learn to work with the earth and understand how it works and in general, just realize that you don’t need all this crap. You don’t need to have a $120 a month cable TV bill, and the things that we think we need money for, you don’t need them.

One of my biggest lessons I’ve been seeing is that the happiest people that I meet are not Americans that have everything that they think they need. It’s people with less in other countries around the world that are just way happier than most Americans that I know who might “have it all.”

Rob with his last dime

Do you attribute that to capitalism and just people fighting to get as much as they can, or do you attribute that to some other deep seated Americanism?

Well, I don’t feel like you can really separate deep seated Americanism and capitalism. I feel like those two things go hand in hand.

Okay, fair. Well, is it those things or due to some other construct?

I personally don’t think capitalism works for creating a global society of people filled with purpose and passion and living equal lives. I personally don’t think capitalism works, and I also don’t think it will last forever. I think in the grand scheme of things, it will be a very short-lived way of doing things.

I certainly don’t disagree. Long term, on a personal front, what’s the plan? Is there going to be a day where you stop moving around, do you want to own a house, or do you want to keep doing what you’re doing? How far ahead do you plan in a lifestyle like this?

My goal is just to affect as much positive change on Earth as I can. I intend to continue my activism and adventures for some time to come. There really is no end as I’m sure that for as long as I live there will be issues to work on. I am not striving to “settle down” or own a house and will never retire from this mission. If I live to be 80, I’m quite certain I will still be working on this if I’m mentally able to. I have short term plans as well as 5 and 10 year plans. One of my 5 year plans is to start a simple living institute of sorts where people can come learn to live simply and sustainably. I have made vows to live a life of non ownership and to keep my net worth to below what would be considered the poverty line so, by those standards, there will be no home ownership for me.

The Mad Ones is a reference to a famous quote from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: “…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars, and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’ ”

Watch this series for interviews and profiles with people doing big, wild, bold, creative things with their lives. #TheMadOnes