$2 a day for food: What it's like to eat below the poverty line
Could you survive on a budget of only $2 a day? What would you eat?
The idea of the challenge is that for five days you choose to live on $2 a day to experience poverty and fundraise to support poverty alleviation projects in Cambodia and Timor-Leste.
During the five days each participant has a budget of $2 to spend on all food and drinks for the day. You cannot cheat by accepting free food. And you cannot just claim a portion of pantry items you already have (i.e. you can't just budget for a cup of flour - you have to include the whole bag).
The sum of $2 is chosen as it is the Aussie equivalent of the poverty line. Poverty isn't just something that happens overseas: especially in these disruptive times, food insecurity is real. I'm thankful to be a comfortable, middle-class - and overweight - woman. Doing this challenge is something we do not just to fundraise, but to experience what real poverty is like - even if only for five days.
And before you wonder, I do not inflict this challenge on my primary school-aged sons (we are thankful not to be experiencing poverty for real). We cook for ourselves on our budget-restricted diet and make separate meals for my kids. Some nights, it was hard to eat our comparatively flavourless (and small) meals when theirs looked so much more appetising.
In preparation for the challenge, I drafted a spreadsheet of our meals over five days and the ingredients we needed to survive.
It took over an hour to do this: meal planning on a strict budget is hard work.
Our $20 ($2 for five days for two people) bought half a laundry basket half full of food. On the surface, the challenge seemed easy.
But there were several everyday ingredients missing: tea and coffee, chocolate, wine, Vegemite, cheese, butter, snacks and ethical choices like free-range eggs.
We were 14c over, but as my husband noted, as one of the mandarins had gone bad that made up for it.
Yet compared with the last time we did this challenge three years ago, I noticed that the price of many essential food items had gone up.
The cost of chicken and eggs had increased, for instance, as had rolled oats. Butter was more expensive, and that probably explained why margarine (which was almost half the price) had nearly sold out.
And it was a lot harder to fund protein for the diet. The obvious solution here is to avoid meat; if I did the challenge again, I would probably develop a diet around lentils or other legumes instead.
This year, much of our diet was based around porridge, sourdough bread, chicken and eggs. We had enough fruit for just over a piece a day, but little in the way of snack foods. We saved mandarin peels and drank them in hot water (with sugar) to substitute tea or coffee.
We also chose frozen vegetables as it was an affordable way to get a mixture of veggies into a budget restricted diet. We weren't the only ones to have that great idea: hubby scored one of the last packets from the supermarket.
Experiencing the challenge
The first three days of the challenge were the hardest, especially the mid-afternoon slump. Both of us had killer headaches, with my husband waking in the middle of the second night with a migraine. We put it down to caffeine withdrawal. With the reduced calories, we both experienced a lack of energy, brain fuzziness - and crankiness.
Who, me? Cranky? Apparently, yes. And now that the challenge is over, I am going to be brave enough to say that my significant other was a bit tetchy as well.
We are normally a loving couple, but there were times during the week that things between us got a bit heated. Thankfully, we identified it was caused by hunger and were able to de-escalate.
But the experience made me reflect on what it was like for many people living with chronic food insecurity.
Could it be that people living in extreme poverty suffer not just from feelings of hunger, but that it can impair their social skills and cognitive ability? It must be hard to be effective at work or school when you are worrying about whether you will have enough to eat at your next meal.
On day three, my hungry hubby had had enough.
"This is crazy, we don't need to do this and we are never, ever doing this challenge again," he declared.
I still had a migraine and wasn't happy about being on the challenge, either, especially as someone was accusing me of poverty appropriation on Instagram.
But by Saturday after the challenge ended, we felt differently. I stepped on the scales and discovered I was 2kg lighter, and hubby had dropped nearly 3kg. We thought we would have been craving a big meal, but instead found we were oddly disconnected from food.
Having survived on small portions of relatively bland food for five days, we found the thought of big, heavy meals off-putting.
Our first 'meal' was Vegemite toast with cheese and a cup of tea. I was blown away by the strong, full flavour of a thin slice of low-fat cheese. That first bite of hot toast on a cold morning was bliss, but we both felt uncomfortable afterwards as the bread sat heavily in our stomachs.
Our big reflection was that we probably routinely ate too much and drank too much tea.
"Maybe we can sometimes go on a calorie and caffeine restricted diet to detox," hubby mused. Was this the same guy who swore he would never, ever do the challenge again? What a change five days can make.
If you would like to support Serina's fundraising challenge, which enables Oaktree to support young people in Timor Leste and Cambodia, you can do so here.