Special blog by Cracking Good Food director JULIET LAWSON
I heard about the Live Below The Line challenge last year when Jack Monroe signed up for it. Back then, I told myself I’d do it this year, but it crept right up on me, I hadn’t seen it promoted anywhere and suddenly it was the following week and it was the first I’d heard about it. I spent a day or two mulling it over and thinking about whether I could even find the headspace to do it with all the other usual work and family juggles, then took the plunge and signed up for it a week ago.
The basic premise is to spend only £5 on all food and drink to last you for five days - that's just £1 per day: the UK equivalent (incorporating cost of living adjustments) of the extreme poverty line. It's estimated that 2.1 billion people around the world live ‘below the line’ for everything every day, and I only had to do it for food and drink for five days. How hard could it be? Quite hard, actually. Food’s been going up in price and a fiver doesn’t get you all that much these days. One thing was clear – I was kissing goodbye to meat, fish and dairy for five days and only drinking water. So far, so healthy. I stocked up on rice, chapati flour, pulses, onions, carrots, a potato, a parsnip and two eggs.
Meals have centred on chapati for breakfast, veggie soup with lentils and soup mix (barley and pulses) for bulk at lunchtime, and rice-based meals with onions and pulses in the evening. I budgeted a little for oil, salt and pepper and small amounts of some basic spices. Hardliners say you should literally go out with your £5 and see what you can buy and not use anything else from your cupboards, but others say it’s fine to budget a little for these things. This was my meal plan for the five days:
Monday: chapati for breakfast, soup and chappati for lunch, Chinese-style rice with fried onion, peas and a fried egg on top for dinner. Water to drink. So far, so good - quite tasty even. Started to get a headache though - probably caffeine withdrawal because it can't have been dehydration; I’ve been drinking water like it’s going out of fashion.
Tuesday: chapati for breakfast, soup for lunch, rice with fried onions and cooked green lentils with a bit of dried chilli and garlic for dinner. Headache persisting.
Wednesday: no breakfast (couldn’t face another chapati), soup for lunch, rice with a basic curry made of chickpeas, onion and tinned tomatoes for dinner. Headache gone!
Thursday: no breakfast, soup for lunch, curry and rice again for dinner, with a chapati.
Friday: a re-run of Tuesday - chapati for breakfast, soup for lunch, rice with fried onions and cooked green lentils with a bit of dried chilli and garlic for dinner with the added extra of a tasty fried egg on top. I spent the week looking forward to that!
What I found more than anything is it’s really dull. If you have so little money to spend on food, and you can’t plan and accumulate a useful storecupboard over a period of time, you can’t get any variety and you end up having to eat the same thing all week, with a few variations, because you’ve got to buy the whole tin of chickpeas, the whole bag of rice etc and then your money’s gone. However, you can do it, and reasonably healthily, and on just a bit more, with effective planning, you could eat quite well.
This is what I think I’d do to eat well on a very small budget:
· Plan plan plan – you can’t do that really for this challenge, but if you buy a bag of rice one week, have some left over for your cupboard by the end of the week, buy pasta the next, buy a useful spice the next, buy mixed herbs the next, after a while, you’ve got a storecupboard of basics that means with a few added extras, you can rustle something up that’s completely different from what you had the day before – bliss!
· Shop at the local greengrocers or market for fresh fruit and veg – buy in ones and twos instead of whole bags and, hey presto, variety! They’re cheaper too, and it’s more likely to be good local produce.
· Shop with a friend – double the budget, double the variety, and then split everything, or organise a food bartering group to take it one step further.
· Have a spice-swapping party – buy herbs and spices at independent stores or markets where it's cheaper then share them out (save up small glass jars and label them) and you all end up with a spice box for about a pound!
This week has been a sobering experience and has really made me realise how lucky most of us are. I can enjoy some lovely fresh fruit and cheese, or a bacon buttie, or a roast dinner this weekend, whatever I please within reason, but for so many people, in this country as well as across the world, things are much harder.
To sponsor me (raising money for The Hunger Project), visit https://www.livebelowtheline.com/me/julietlawson
Cracking Good Food teaches people to plan and cook tasty and healthy food on low incomes via its community outreach work - click here for more - and we’ve just been awarded a Lottery Awards 4 All grant to help parents develop their own community cooking clubs in three schools in East Manchester.