Many of the families whose accounts I read chose to simply purchase less food to meet the budget requirements of the challenge. This was in ...

Live Below the Line: Reflections

Many of the families whose accounts I read chose to simply purchase less food to meet the budget requirements of the challenge. This was in no way realistic, either for my current needs or for the needs of those who actually live in poverty. Consistently falling below your caloric intake is not a sustainable practice, and for me currently would severely impact my training.

Instead, we opted to focus on calories per dollar, and were dismayed at how much that narrowed our selection. My caloric needs, at 3500 calories per day, definitely made the challenge quite challenging, putting even the cheapest peanut butter out of our grasp. In fact, the only items that really made the list were rice, oats, oil and pasta. Even dried beans were too expensive on their own: we could only afford them by buying things that were below budget and using the extra money for beans.

Fortunately, by mixing beans and grains, and supplementing our calories with free and foraged foods, we were able to pull together a pretty decent week of food.

The hardest parts:
No snacks! Our budget didn't allow for much variety or any pre-prepared foods. Snacks were the uneaten portions of meals. I eat pretty constantly during the day, so it was tough to limit my intake to three types of food.

Bland food. We got better over the course of the week, but I wouldn't wish plain oatmeal on anybody.

No fruit. Fruit was definitely not a part of our budget. We harvested loquats from a few local trees, which are a phenomenal fruit, but by the end of the week I was hankering a banana, some plums, a nectarine, anything more satisfying than the tiniest of tiny loquats.

Shopping with a strict budget. Although I'm usually fairly conscious of prices when grocery shopping, it was a lot more work to figure out the cost per calorie of everything that went into the cart. Having a third person really expanded our options, but the first few days were still pretty dicey. Uncertainty about the ability to feed yourself is really uncomfortable.

The best parts:
Some awesome new, cheap recipes. Many of the dishes we made this week, we would happily make again—and they are really, really inexpensive meals. Our cabbage-bean-fried/herbed rice wraps were a definite hit, and our homemade rice milk is going to become a regular addition to our fridge.

Price comparisons. I don't expect to eat for $1.50 a day for the rest of my life, but if we can bulk out our calories with foods we ate this week, we'll have more money to spend on other things. And now, we know where to get the cheapest oats, rice, beans and more!

Empathy. There are a lot of people who don't know where their next meal is coming from, who don't have a garden to feed them, and who can't afford to eat well. Somebody took me out for coffee (without knowing about the challenge) and it was an incredible treat—that kind of generosity is something I'd like to extend to others, regardless of what I know about their financial situation.

A different approach to eating. For me, eating is a huge source of pleasure. This week, it was more a source of sustenance. Usually, I have to restrict second helpings at dinner. This week, I had to force myself to eat seconds, just to get enough calories. It helped me reevaluate the reasons I eat—and oftentimes, sleeping, stretching or drinking a glass of water provided enough pleasure to deter the need to eat.

It's tempting to say that we "won" at the challenge, but it was only five days. I can hardly imagine the stress that kind of restriction would cause over the course of months and years. And not that we threw away a lot of food before, but it pains me that much more to throw it away now—money going down the drain.

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