Tuesday, 1 May 2012

live below the line: how i ate on AU $2 a day

From May 7th - 11th this year, thousands of people from around the world will be getting a tiny glimpse of what it means to live on the poverty line when they partake in the Live Below the Line challenge.

From the Live Below the Line website:

"Close to a quarter of the world's population lives below the extreme poverty line, which means they have just AU$2 a day or less to cover all their daily expenses - housing, education, health, transport and food.
Surviving on such a tiny amount, almost all their income must be spent on food. Even then, they can generally only afford two basic meals a day.
They have little to no money left for the other necessities of life - and if anything ever goes wrong they have no safety net to rely on. They are often the victims of broken systems: lacking access to the education, services and the job opportunities they need to break the cycle of poverty.

Live Below the Line seeks to combat extreme poverty in two distinct ways: raising funds for educational opportunities in the developing world, and creating widespread awareness of this important issue (HINT: conversations are the key!)."


I've always thought I was pretty frugal. But having a skimpy AU$10 to spend on food for 5 days? That's a big challenge. One I wasn't sure I could meet.

I decided to give it an early go, last week, and I am glad to say that I have emerged triumphant. Yes, it's possible. No, it's not easy. Yes, I now appreciate what I have, more than ever... and I hope this post will go a little way towards contributing to the cause and the conversation.

A Golden Delicious apple. With its droopy stem, it almost seems as if this apple sympathises with my plight.

First things first. This is a food blog, after all, and I'll bet you want to know what I ate over those 5 days, and how I suffered. (Yes you do, you schadenfreudenistic ol' pal, you!)

The key is to plan ahead. Fortunately, I shop for food often, so I have a list of usual suspects, in terms of the type of things I can usually get cheaply, and when and where to get them.

I knew this was going to be a big week for carbohydrates - pasta or rice was definitely on the table. Another aim was to get some cheap protein, either tofu, canned sardines, eggs or offal. I also thought about lentils or chickpeas, and I hoped to have enough left over to squeeze in some fruits and green vegetables.

Markets tend to go crazy in the half an hour leading up to closing time, especially on the weekends. Sometimes you can get great value on staples in ethnic grocery stores. The big supermarkets will occasionally turn up with a decent discount.

One way of looking at this is to think about how many calories/kilojoules you need to keep you going for 5 days, and what you can buy with your money to get close to that figure. You want something that will fill you up, and hopefully be reasonably nutritious too.

So draft out a tentative meal plan before the challenge, but be prepared to be flexible, and keep an eye out for good deals. Once you get your ingredients, draft out a properly adjusted meal plan. I spent most of my money during the days leading up to the actual event, but had a couple of dollars reserved, which I was very glad to have for the wriggle room it provided. I spent most of that towards the end of my challenge, and even managed to splurge on ice cream and chocolate! Guilty glee!


What I bought:

I sourced most of my fresh produce from South Melbourne Market, and dried staples from Cato in Prahran. If I'd been organised enough, I would've also made a trip to Aldi and Queen Victoria Market, where I suspect I would've gotten more bang for my buck. I got my condiments from Japanese grocery Fujimart in South Yarra, where I was lucky enough to find heavily discounted individual miso sachets.

I did this on my own, but if you can get someone to participate in the challenge with you, you get to pool your money and share the bounty, which means more buying power, and better variety.

Oh, and one more thing. If you're not at home most of the time, get used to preparing your food well in advance, then packing it and bringing it with you. Don't want to sit down at work only to realise you forgot your lunchbox! (Luckily, that never happened to me. Phew.)

But enough talk. Here's what I got for those 5 days, in the order of how much they cost.

500g chicken livers = $2.25
1 bag apples = $1
1 bag potatoes = $1
500g pasta = $1
200g dried chickpeas = $1
1 bag carrots = $0.80
1 head broccoli = $0.70
1 packet spicy Korean instant noodles = $0.55
1 stash chocolate = $0.50
1 McDonald's soft serve ice cream cone = $0.30
4 sachets miso @ $0.05 each = $0.20
1 sachet soy sauce = $0.10

Grand total = $9.40

That macaroni-like pasta is paternosti lisci, and it works well in soups.

How I did:

On Sunday night (the day before I started my challenge), I cooked up a big batch of miso pasta stew/soup with the potatoes, carrots and chicken liver, and this formed my main meals for most of the challenge. Whenever I ate this, I was confronted with an odd mix of emotions. Jaded resignation as I faced the same dish again - and yet - anticipatory joy, as this was carefully rationed food that would finally stave off the increasing spectre of hunger.

I was grateful for my apples - I had eight large ones, and I'd have one for breakfast, and sometimes one later in the afternoon or evening as a snack. Crisp, fresh, and tangy, they were just what I needed to break up the monotony of the never-ending pasta soup.

I had boiled chickpeas for brunch a couple of times. They were reasonably filling, though a touch of salt would've been nice.

I found the challenge most daunting on the first day. In fact, I caved in that night and treated myself to an ice cream cone from McDonald's for 30 cents! I adapted to my new routine and expectations soon enough, though, and found the subsequent days somewhat easier to take in stride.

I didn't really socialise much during the challenge, but on Thursday, we had a birthday celebration in the office for a colleague, and I had to forgo cake. (I did sneakily save a slice so I could indulge after I finished the challenge, though...)

On my last day, I got something different for dinner. I had finally ran out of pasta, so I enjoyed spicy noodles with broccoli, plus chocolate for dessert, all of which I bought with some of the leftover money I had. The broccoli gave me as much pleasure as the chocolate, as I had so missed having green vegetables. Hurrah!

And then - I looked forward to midnight, to the dawn of a new day, when everything would return to normal. The occasional snack. The occasional takeaway. The abundance and the variety. All the everyday indulgences I took for granted. The whole world opened up with possibilities again.

For me, at least.

For others, this is their normal, and for them, there is no end in sight. It is a sobering thought, and one that I hope to never take lightly, in the days to come.

For more information on the Live Below the Line challenge (which will run in United States, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand), or to donate to the cause, please go to the Live Below the Line website here. I can't stomach the idea of doing this all over again for the official challenge, but if you would like to sponsor one of my food blogger friends, fatboo and winceee, that would be great! (Sponsor links now removed as they are no longer valid.)

If you want a breakdown on where the money goes, see here.

61 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for talking about this challenge. Fakegf and I are about to embark on this challenege next week and this post is certainly very helpful. We may substitute salt for the miso that you got!

    And the fact that you have finished the challenge triumphant tells me that i can do it too! We scouted around QVM today and it was quite daunting, because basically almost everything was out of our budget and I understood how tough the challenge was going to be.

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    1. Thanks, Fatboo! Yeah, I was lucky to find those cheap miso sachets. I just checked the Aldi website and you can get salt for 79 cents there, apparently.

      It's definitely a very restrictive challenge, you basically have to limit yourself to the cheapest things that you feel you will best survive on for the five days. Good luck to you and Fakegf!!

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    2. Im sure you know, but if you get down to the markets today (sunday) at about three oclock, they SLASH everything. I know it defeats the purpose but still. Good on you leaf!

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  2. Wow. How incredibly difficult. We constantly say we can't believe how fortunate we are to eat the way we do. I've been seeing the phrase 'live below the line' but didn't know what it meant. This is a wonderful campaign to bring awareness. We watch what is happening in Africa and it is so surreal. One program I must say I do like...is when the grocery stores take donations right there when you are checking out. It's annoying at times but I do know we give more frequently that way. Also I want to do the 'adopt' a child program in S. America where you fund their schooling costs in their country. Thank you for sharing this amazing achievement with the food blogging community.

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    1. Thank you, Sarah. I knew I was in a fortunate position, but I didn't realise just how fortunate I was until I took on the challenge. Good luck with your endeavours - I definitely think the adopt-a-child programs are worth looking into.

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  3. Great post Leaf and well done. It is wonderful to know that with some careful planning, you can feed yourself for less than $10 a week! It makes me think about how wasteful I can be with certain items and how I take thinks like green veg and salt for granted. It is great you have done this early as an inspiration to those about to embark on this challenge too!

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    1. Thanks, Anna. Indeed, you really have to choose carefully in regards to your food choices when you have so little money to spend, and then treasure every bit you get.

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  4. Hello :) Just stumbled upon your blog and this is an amazing challenge! I honestly never thought it would be possible to live off $10 for 5 days, 3 meals WOW :D It's a very meaningful challenge and so difficult but you made it! It's really inspired me to not be wasteful and donate money and time to those who aren't as fortunate as us.
    Thank you for sharing your experience :) Well done!

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    1. Thanks, Daisy! It was a very tricky challenge for me - I did a lot of thinking and planning before I felt somewhat comfortable proceeding with it. Completing the challenge (with great difficulty, haha) gave me the extra motivation to donate, too, for sure.

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  5. this sounds so tough! I can't imagine having to live like that, I find so much joy in food!

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    1. It is tough! But worth trying at least once, I think.

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  6. Wow, I am so impressed! Also, horribly reminded of my very broke days just after uni, and living on the same tomato and vegetable stew for days on end.

    I'm not sure if I can bring myself to do this one. But it does sound like a very worthwhile challenge...

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    1. It does rather deflate you, doesn't it, having the same thing day in and day out. You are also correct that it is a worthwhile challenge, though I don't blame you for not being keen on re-living your broke days again...

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  7. Completely Amazing! Love what you are doing - I been thinking about this since looking at your post. I want to give it a go

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    1. Give it a go - as you can see, it's possible with some careful planning! :)

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  8. I do often think about this challenge, I'm not sure that I would be able to bring myself to do it though. Well done - especially on resisting the work birthday cake!

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    1. Maybe you can prep yourself and do it next year. :D

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  9. Wow, well done on completing the challenge. I don't think I'd be able to it so applaud your success with great admiration! The other thing it highlights also is how expensive fresh green vegetables are, so those who are less financially able will often skimp on that and miss out on all the good vitamins and minerals!

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    1. I wouldn't say they're terribly expensive, but the main thing with green vegetables is that they are great for giving nutrients but don't provide much energy, and someone who is starving and doesn't have much money to spend is more likely to prioritise the latter.

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  10. I feel guilty saying I'm in awe of you for doing this, when for so many people this, as you say, is life, not an experiment. Even though I rarely eat out, I would struggle hugely, hugely with this, particularly as I eat a lot of fresh vegetables and would be very sad about the rice and pasta. I think I'd actually end up eating many cheap white bread peanut butter sandwiches.

    Well done, and thank you for bringing this to attention.

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    1. I certainly ate a lot of starchy food during those five days! It is a struggle, but I guess that is the point of the challenge.

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  11. Good job with the challenge! Sounds tough, but it really looks like you were really well prepared! :)

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    1. Indeed, ten dollars can be spent in a flash. Preparation really is the key!

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  12. Congratulations on getting through that challenge! As I've got a few assignments to do in the next week I decided to give it a miss this year but I think I'll be bookmarking this post when I attempt it in 2013!

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    1. Thanks, Ames! Good luck with your assignments, and good luck with the challenge next year. :)

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  13. What a great project and congratulations for challenging yourself with this - you're a wonderful inspiration to all of us.

    I enjoyed reading your list - it reminded me a lot of the types of things I would buy through my university years... it's amazing how far you can go with a little organization...great post.

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    1. I was surprised I managed to stretch my budget that far. It really reminded me how luxurious my usual food choices are, even though it didn't seem that way before the challenge.

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  14. ohh...thats amazing...thank you for sharing your experience..good job..:)
    Tasty Appetite

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  15. What an amazing thing to do. Good for you!

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    1. Not sure if it was amazing... it certainly was difficult!

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  16. I agree that careful meal planning is necessary to minimize wastage and maximize use of ingredients. For what you have done, bravo! :D

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    1. I agree, and this challenge has taught me to cherish my food even more.

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  17. Wow. Great post. I'm really impressed with how you approached this challenge. $10 really isn't much money... I saw a take-away sandwich on sale in Sydney for $12.50 yesterday. Eating on a budget takes MUCH more advance planning and it seems like you did that very well. You mentioned that the chickpeas could have used salt. Does that mean that you didn't allow yourself any spices to cook with? That would be a huge challenge! Also, did you have to go without coffee for the whole week? I'm fascinated by this!

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    1. Thanks, SarahKate! Yes, everything, including condiments and spices, are taken out of the $10 budget. For beverages all I had was plain water. Fortunately I'm not a coffee person - I did miss my tea, though!

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  18. You are so brave! I'm not sure I'd have the courage to take this challenge on.

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    1. Not too brave! I was in the fortunate position of having the choice to quit the challenge at any time if I felt I needed to, though I definitely wanted to see it through and was glad I could.

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  19. Hello Leaf...Just found your great blog and this incredible challenge!
    Thank you for sharing your experience :)

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  20. good job in doing it and being fairly healthy with it too, although it shows you how little fresh produce you can afford , let alone organic food for so little a day

    food is where i spend most of our yearly budget (we dont drink or go out for food and entertainment that often), keeping ourselves healthy is most important, funnily enough though it seems to be the area most people tend to cut back on to save money.

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    1. I didn't dare to allow myself to think about organic food, but was happy that I did get some fresh produce at least. I think most of us in Australia are pretty lucky in that we can still eat reasonably well on a tight budget if we learn to, except for a minority of extreme cases.

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  21. Good on you for taking up the challenge and managing to eat on such a meager amount of money. I know I would not be able to manage a challenge like this.

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    1. Thank you - it was not easy, and I freely admit I felt such a huge sense of relief when I completed the challenge!

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  22. Fantastic post Leaf! Well done on embracing such a difficult challenge and bringing more awareness to this significant cause.

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    1. Thank you! I'm glad that there are so many positive conversations surrounding this event via my blog, Facebook, Twitter etc.

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  23. Congratulations an well done. You have just achieved something where a lot of us won't be able to due to our many #firstworldproblems but for others, as you say, this is their daily life...Thank you for your post.

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    1. Thank you. It's certainly a challenge that puts our first world problems in perspective!

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  24. congratulations! I really think we need to learn to think more carefully about the way we live, about hte abundance we've been blessed with. moving to another country and survivng on a very meagre student budget has made me more careful about the way I spend, and there are days I definitely spend below au$2 a day (in £) so it's definitely do-able!

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    1. We really are blessed! The challenge is doable, but it really calls for the sacrifice of many enjoyable things many of us take for granted.

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  25. I love how you are doing this - wishing you all the luck in this challenge. You deserve a massive feast afterwards.

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  26. Great post, Leaf. So impressed that you managed to achieve the challenge. It's such an eyeopener.

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    1. Thank you, Agnes. It really was an eye opener for me!

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  27. Fascinating post! Congratulations for doing this and thank you for writing about the challenge.

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    1. Thanks, Sissi! Thank you for coming by and reading.

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  28. This is simply amazing! Kudos for doing the challenge, it ain't easy indeed. I feel that being a student (or having been one) makes you realize how comfortable it is to eat one's fill on any given day.
    Because even in developed countries, I remember some friends only ate one meal per day...
    But in either case being a student, like being hungry, is luckily temporary. Not for the millions who live like that every single day of their life. With, indeed, no end in sight.
    Bravo, Leaf. You made it. And increased awareness to this scourge of modern and ancient times that is endemic poverty.

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    1. Thanks, Marie-Anne! I do hope the increased awareness helps. There isn't much joy when there isn't enough to eat. :(

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  29. Wow, it is really sobering when you break it down like this, and so sad that green vegetables would be a treat for so many people. It is so good to be reminded of the harsh realities of this world, lest we live in a comfortable, thoughtless bubble. Good for you.

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    1. Thanks, Trix. Indeed, such a severe budget, the priority is to stave off hunger, and accessing a good range of nutrients become a secondary concern.

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