Last week I joined thousands of others around the world to ‘live below the line’ (£1 a day for food and drink) to raise awareness and funds for the fight against extreme poverty.
Here’s how it went!
Tried really hard to rustle up a team of people to do this together. Epic fail. Even my housemate decided to go to Dubai on holiday instead. I was overjoyed to get an email from a girl in my discussion group who’d decided to do it too and had managed to inspire her classmates to join her. The solidarity cheered me on.
Finally got round to setting up a fundraising page and, within a few minutes, money started to come in. I love my friends.
Challenge Eve: Saturday
Had we anticipated how long it would take to go shopping on such a shoe string, we probably would have spent slightly less time debriefing life over £2.70 cups of coffee.
Make a plan, write a list of stuff we need, and off we go.
Traipse through the market comparing prices in shops and at stalls. Wow: food is really expensive. I see all the ‘£1 only’ offers in a completely new light. And this walking up and down is taking ages.
Constantly revisit our shopping list and budget, and tie our heads up in knots through all our recalculations. Is this actually doable?
The market traders are not the demographic I’d expected. I’d been planning to head-wiggle and complement their distant cultures. Instead S notches his accent down a couple of echelons and says ‘mate’ a lot. It works and I’m amazed at the generosity of traders who chuck in a few peppers and oranges just because.
We quickly lose all shame and find ourselves picking up onions from the road: they’re free! And we can wash that dirt off.
Result! They’re chucking out mouldy strawberries. It takes a good ten minutes, but from a whole boxful we manage to salvage a couple of punnets which will seriously improve the diversity of our diet.
Imagine if we hadn’t had the flexibility of a market and been constrained to buy food in one particular shop, like asylum seekers dependent on supermarket vouchers. We would have had no vegetables whatsoever.
Day 1: Sunday
Wake up early wondering if our budgeted £2.50 will really buy 4 pints of milk, along with the cheese, tinned tomatoes, potatoes and garlic that we’ve decided we need as part of the plan. Genuinely worried about how we’re going to manage.
R invites me to Sunday lunch: “Roast lamb, if it’s any persuasion”. I decline it on the grounds that I already have plans but suddenly realise that I couldn’t have eaten it anyway. This poverty thing would really scupper my social life if I did it on a longer term basis.
Plan my day’s movements around a visit to the big Tesco’s which is, temporarily, my ally. Can’t afford to be ethically choosy about where I spend my money this week.
Meet friends to plan our summer holiday and look enviously at their coffee. “Am I allowed to let you have a sip?” offers H charitably. They head off for burritos and I leave to go to Tesco’s and to avoid food envy.
Stand in the cheese section for 5 minutes, racked with indecision. The only cheese we can afford is £1.10 but it’s on offer and I could buy 2 for £1.50. 40p more. Can I stretch to it? No, I just don’t have the capital. I realise how much my relatively cheap living relies on the capacity to budget ahead. What if all I ever had was the money in my pocket? What if I was on a zero-hours contract or really did live week to week: life would be very different without the confidence that any money I spend would soon be replenished.
Divide up the shopping between us and put daily markings on the side of the milk bottle to ensure that I won’t run out. I am surprised that a little voice in my head asks me if S will notice if I slightly rip him off (he informs me later that he would have done because of the markings on the side: good to know for next time). Tell my housemate that she can’t help herself to it which runs completely against the grain: this challenge isn’t proving very compatible with our home’s sharing ethos.
My tummy rumbles in church as I take bread and wine, and I find myself reflecting on where my reliance for sustenance comes from and can see why the issue of discrepancy of wealth is directly addressed in the early days of this act of remembrance.
So glad we got these cauliflowers. I make some cauliflower ‘cheese’ which is largely cauliflower chunks and a cauliflower stock sauce. I eat more of the vegetable than usual and find that the chewier bits create an illusion of fullness anyway.
Chuffed that people are sponsoring me and that I’m approaching the target I’ve set for Tearfund.
Day 2: Monday
Couldn’t afford to buy tea at the weekend but have decided that I can I re-use the used bags that others are throwing away. And do you know what? It tastes fine. Had she still been here, my Granny could probably have told me that.
Walk to work along Uxbridge Road, past the shops setting up their £1-a-bowl vegetables. Showing the guy my remaining 30p, I ask if he has any reject potatoes or garlic that he could sell me more cheaply but he insists on offering me his finest for whatever price I can pay. This is uncomfortable: I’m just doing this for a week yet this is his livelihood and he is still choosing to be generous. We come to a mutually satisfactory arrangement and I walk on to work with his kindness in my mind.
Monday morning and no coffee. This hurts. Everyone in this office talks about food all the time.
This is what I am dreaming of:
I must snack a lot because by elevenses I am really peckish. It’s only when I can’t just eat that I realise how constant plenty has inoculated me to hunger and how quickly I usually satisfy the desire to feel full.
Lunch is leftover cauliflower ‘cheese’ with an added bit of potato. Leaving all the food at S’s house really wasn’t very savvy and I’m feeling anxious that we’re going to run out.
Hadn’t realised I was so addicted to caffeine.
In the evening, after a long day at work, we regroup to make daal and banana bread. I really want a glass of that open bottle of wine. And some crisps. Crisps would be so good right now. But no! We’ve forgotten to soak the lentils and it all takes ages. It’s gone 9.30pm before we actually sit down and eat. Lentils have never been so delicious or appreciated.
S drives me home because it’s late and I’m grateful for the elimination of a bus journey with my tupperwared food. It would be exhausting to negotiate living on so little without all these helpful, taken-for-granted elements like cars, decent roads, and a fridge to keep stuff in.
Day 3: Tuesday
Looking at my food, I realise that I actually have loads, thanks to lentils expanding, pooled resources and the flexibility of market traders. I feel a massive sense of relief that it’s doable.
Porridge tastes so much nicer with strawberries on it and I’m glad we spent those 15 minutes salvaging the few that weren’t mouldy. How quick I usually am to chuck things away on the basis that I can replace them, and how little connection I have with where my food comes from and the work that was involved in getting it to my table.
I’m working from home and want to go to a local cafe where I can drink nice coffee and support local business at the same time. Can’t afford all this local community-building malarkey this week.
I miss coffee. Would it be ok to go to Waitrose and get the free one I’m entitled to with a My Waitrose card? I understand – from Waitrose shoppers who feel that the quality of Waitrose has dipped thanks to the undesirable people who take them up on their offer of free daily coffee with no obligation to purchase – that this wouldn’t be an unheard of thing. I’m close to it but decide that if I was really living in extreme poverty then Waitrose wouldn’t be round the corner and it’s probably cheating.
I make a nice sauce at lunchtime with those vegetables that are starting to go off. Use them or lose them. Can’t just replace things this week.
I’d love some chocolate right now.
Meet up with J after work and we talk about how the week is going. He says that this reminds him of when he came back from living in Africa with a totally different perspective on need and plenty, and on the cost and convenience of food. How quickly these perspectives get lost on return.
Arrive at my evening meeting where they’re serving pizza for all those coming from work. I ate a bit of daal before I left: man, I have spent a lot of time this week planning where and when I am going to eat my meals. I decline several offers of pizza and feel that I am missing out by not participating in a communal eating activity. It’s quite an emotionally intense evening and by the end of it I’m hungry again from eating so early. I’d love some wine or chocolate to unwind. Instead I have an orange and some banana bread. It hits the spot: thank you.
Day 4: Wednesday
There’s a tube strike today so I have to cycle all over London for various meetings: this will require spending a bit more energy than usual. En route, I stop for lunch by the river. Sitting between the Houses of Parliament and Lambeth Palace, in this instance both literally and comfortably, I am thankful for the dash of cream cheese in my potato salad but wondering if it will get me through. This day of cycling is a helpful reminder that if I was really combining a protein-light diet with intense, daily, physical work, then poverty would be all the harder.
Hot from riding around, I drink my water, grateful for my flask and thinking that I must remember to top it up when I can. Imagine if it had been as hard to acquire this water as it was to acquire our food. Wow, I take a lot for granted.
I’m early for the meeting and realise that I can’t just pop in somewhere for a coffee and free wifi. There are certain coffee shops that I’m happy to just sit in without purchasing anything – because their lack of tax-paying means that they can double-up as free public services – but I can’t see one of those around here so I sit on a wall and do some emailing on my phone. This challenge isn’t just affecting my meals; it’s affecting where I can go and what I can do. Thank goodness it’s not raining.
Second meeting of the day and they only go and serve croissants, nice brownies and amazing-looking shortbread. Why did they choose this week to steer away from custard creams? Gutted.
A friend comes round for food in the evening and I’m delighted that daal, rice and cauliflower (my new favourite thing) can stretch to two. It’s just so deeply intuitive to give the guest the best, and I remember the times where people have been so quick to offer me meals from a place of need and the times I’ve known parents go hungry just so that their children can eat.
We go together to a talk about Palestine and I don’t buy a drink there like everyone else does. Yet again, I decline offers of drinks from those who would happily extend generosity to me, but this feels like nothing when I see photos of drinking water being taken in tankers into occupied territories where even something so basic has to be supplied by external sources.
Get home and remember that I’d planned to pass a supermarket and see what they were chucking out cheaply at the end of the day. Inconveniently-timed shopping was part of my plan to make my money go further, but I’m just too tired. No wonder convenience food sells so well even to those who can’t really afford it.
By the way, plain porridge is better than pink porridge:
Day 5: Thursday
Feeling a bit bad because many people are tweeting photos of their bland dishes while I, thanks to our market traders chucking in extras, seem to have eaten well. I know that this would get harder and harder over time, and it’s helpful to get an email reminding us that although the end is in sight for those taking the challenge, extreme poverty will continue for many people around the world. I’m delighted that people are still sponsoring me and that more money is being raised for organisations which are trying to do something about it.
Tell you what though, I am really looking forward to drinking tea again. I’ve been reusing this teabag so many times that I don’t think it’s really tea any more.
Will be out all day so I set off with everything I need. I’m a bit of a Tupperware girl anyway, but today I have a veritable hamper of plastic pots and a jam jar with a bit of milk in it. Normally if I forgot something I’d just pop to the shop and pick it up, but today there is no contingency. I know I have plenty but that’s only because I’ve had to make very sure I know where my next meal is coming from. It’s amazing how much I am having to think about food this week.
I’m still enjoying messages from friends who are cheering me on. One friend texts me a photo of a glass of Pimms that costs the same as my whole week’s budget: a helpful reminder of how much this challenge skews what is ‘normal’. Another friend writes: “I’m off to the USA for the weekend – will you sponsor me in my attempt to contribute more CO2 to the environment? Its a very worthy cause.” Got to love my friends.
Yummy lunch today: as it’s the final day I could eat a bit more than usual because I know what I have left. I am really struck by how hard this would be on an interminable basis. I even have some strawberries for pudding. Thank you for my freezer that makes it possible.
B says she’s going to make tea and asks if would I like to reuse her teabag. When I decline, it turns out that she didn’t even want tea herself but had been happy to make one just so I could have her leftovers. Here’s to those who don’t take everything for themselves but generously leave quality items for those who need to glean.
More daal for dinner.
I’m at an ethical fashion show and a glass of wine is included in the ticket price. Hadn’t realised that I went to quite so many events which involve wine: what does that say about me and the circles of affluence in which I move? I wonder if, given that it’s the last night, I can just have a sip? Amazing how a desire for food triggers a rationalision of letting the end justify the means. Nice to meet another person on the same budget who also has to refuse the crispy crème donuts.
The challenge has officially ended but I continue until the evening, with the exception of a coffee in the airport to celebrate the return of a friend from Iraq. It was her return that had led to me starting the challenge a day early and it was lovely breaking the fast in celebratory mode with her.
More daal for lunch and then out for the evening where I meet friends for drinks then go for the nicest pizza in the world ever. It’s not the first pizza I’ve eaten but I’m enjoying it immeasurably more than usual. I realise that in my constant state of plenty I am quick to lose the joy and appreciation of special food, and I get excited at the thought of reclaiming moments of luxury within regular patterns of more disciplined simplicity.
Ok, so it was just a week and in many ways I cringed at doing it; it felt a bit like one of those TV programmes when the ‘rich’ go to visit the ‘poor’ to see what it’s like. Nevertheless, it was a delight to raise £585 for Tearfund, I learnt a lot, and I’d encourage everyone to give it a go!
Click here to read my post ‘10 things I learnt from being poor’.