Saturday, April 28, 2012

Preparing to Live Below the Line

I have been a supporter of CARE, a global development and anti-poverty organization, for a few years now. I recently got an email from them with a link to the "Live Below the Line" challenge, asking me to try to eat and drink for 5 days (May 7-11) with a budget of $1.50 a day, the global poverty line (for comparison, the U.S. food stamp budget is about $4.50 per person per day, and the average American spends about $7 per day on food).

The "Live Below the Line" challenge means using that $1.50 for all food, beverages, cooking oil, and seasonings. It doesn't include, like it does for 1.4 billion people really living under that line, things like shelter, medicine, education, clothing. Most of them are children.

It goes without saying that taking this challenge won't let me know what it's like to live in extreme poverty. I live in a house with electricity and a reasonable expectation of being safe when I sleep at night.  I can turn on my faucet and have safe, almost free, running water.  I have always had more than enough to eat. I have a car and access to medical care.

I say all of this because one of the main criticisms that I have seen of the challenge is that it is "playing at poverty" and is disrespectful and meaningless and does nothing to solve the problem. The U.S. challenge has raised almost $30,000 as I write this post, and the challenge hasn't even started yet.  The leaderboards list college and university teams, workplaces, and even high schools (the challenge is limited to those 15-60 for safety reasons). This challenge is getting whole groups of people thinking and talking about global poverty, which is important. If more people genuinely cared about the plight of the extreme poor, they might start to make a difference. There are smart, proven ways to address the root causes of poverty, like educating girls and  changing the way we do food aid (supporting local food supplies instead of dumping commodities), that could really make a difference if we all cared enough to demand it. I wonder what the Huffington Post blogger does to address poverty.

From my experience, just trying to plan meals for a day for $1.50 has made me aware of how spoiled I am. There is no way to do this challenge without thinking ten times as much about food as I'm used to. Sure, beans and rice are cheap, but if they are going to be at all palatable, I have to add spices and other ingredients, which all have to be accounted for. The guidelines suggest budgeting for whole packages of beans and rice. That means that strategies to buy in bulk amounts to save money per serving don't work.  Every decision is a tradeoff. If I buy coffee or tea to stave off caffeine withdrawal headaches, even a cheap package blows more than half my food budget.

I realized after I committed to this challenge that I don't usually think about how much costs. I went to Kroger, which sometimes has good deals on certain items.  Then I went to Aldi's, where I had never really shopped before. I didn't even know how to get a cart out of lockdown. I asked a nice man, who I saw unlocking one, and he held out a quarter to me. I refused it, digging one out of my own bag, and thanked him. Apparently to save money, Aldi's locks up the carts and make you pay a quarter to get them out and give it back to you when you put the cart away. Everything about the store is minimalist.  They usually have only one brand of a certain kind of food -- the store brand.  Every item is helpfully marked with the cost per serving.  I was studying the signs, shopping incredibly slowly.  Then I looked around and realized almost everyone else was shopping that way too. I felt ashamed of myself for the breezy way I usually shop. Sure, I read labels -- for calories -- and minimally think about price, but I don't spend my whole shopping trip calculating.  Normally, If I burn a dinner or spill something, I clean it up and get something else. I don't agonize about having wasted part of my food budget for the week. My husband and I both have full-time jobs with middle-class salaries, and we have no kids, so that puts us in pretty good shape, financially, even though like most Americans, we don't think of ourselves as well-off. I think that I will learn a lot from this challenge.

My husband is joining me so at least we can budget for our food together  -- $15 for the two of us. We are thinking simple: Lentil soup, beans with canned tomatoes and rice. We're skipping meat because it doesn't really fit in the budget, unless we go cheap (pink slime, anyone?).  We'd rather just forgo it. Vegetables, other than onions and potatoes, are really hard to fit in. A cheap bag of frozen broccoli was $1.99.  Fruit is really not going to fit either.  When I got home from the store, I immediately marked all of my items with their cost per serving and set up a spreadsheet to try to figure out how to make my food budget for the challenge work.

The other thing I did was go to my challenge fundraising site and donate the first $100 myself. I know I will save at least that on groceries. After the challenge, I'm sure I will want to give more.


  1. I applaud your commitment and am heading over to check out the website. I'm a careful shopper, but I don't hesitate to pay a higher price for something I really like/want/need. I stock up on sale items and always check my receipt to see how much I "saved." (I think prices are inflated now that everyone's offering loyalty cards and discounts.)

    I'm mostly uneducated about the issue of world poverty. Thanks for pointing out resources where I can learn more. (For instance, I know most third-world countries don't have palatable drinking water, but I kind of assume they grow at least some of their food. I'm now thinking subsistence agriculture isn't as widespread as I thought it was.)

  2. I had a third world girl living with me for over a year. So, I have a (sort of) unique perspective on this topic. One thing (from her) that really surprised me is they do not eat peels (potato or carrot for example). She was shocked that the peel could be eaten, she was shocked to hear that nutrients are held there. They pitch them. They also cook most things in oil and use salt heavily. She said - yes we are thin, but we are not healthy, and we die young.

    It will be very interesting to see what happens to your weight. At first glance I thought I would gain weight eating that way (insulin resistance, belly fat, carbs), but maybe overall calories are so low it balances out.

    Check out the fresh produce areas where they discount things. I buy spinach and other greens and go home and eat them immediately all the time. Usually discounted 40% when they are just about to hit their sell date.

  3. This is a very interesting post. I do believe that we could all save a LOT of money each month on grocery bills and still remain healthy. Now $1.50 a day probably wouldn't work for long, but I know I could spend much less than I do. We are so privileged in this country that I don't think we can even begin to understand how those in third world countries actually survive. What an enlightening task you are undertaking.


"Count your calories, work out when you can, and try to be good to yourself. All the rest is bulls**t." -- Jillian Michaels at BlogHer '07