What’s left in the cupboard after Below the Line

In terms of surviving I did fine on this challenge. I have hayfever or some kind of seasonal blossom allergy which is lessening my appetite anyway, which I guess was a kind of silver lining last week! Even so, I got quite sick of some of the things I had chosen – it’s going to be a good long while before I can face a pickled onion again, although if I was having to eat on less than £1 a day long-term they are definitely a valuable flavour addition (just not for nearly every meal!).

Here’s the list of items left at the end of 5 days:

  • approx 30g tomato purée
  • 20 teabags
  • approx 125g mustard (about 2/3 of the jar)
  • approx 200g pickled onions & pickling liquid (just under 1/2 of the jar)
  • 230g cornflakes
  • 810g flour*
  • 250g carrots*
  • Maybe 70g peanut butter (about 1/5 of the jar)
  • 378g red cabbage (plus about 1/2 a tupperware container of slaw leftover, and maybe 200g of the stuff I cooked)
  • The vast majority of the salt!

* 330g of the flour is in the freezer, along with about 250g of the carrots, which made spectacularly brick-like carrot bread. I had been planning to take this bread on my journey but it was too heavy and unpalatable, so I will defrost it some time to use as something like beanburger bulk filler.

There are no potatoes or split peas left. Unfortunately I did not consume all of the split peas, I had an accident where I dropped one of the containers and at least half of the cooked peas spilt over the cooker and the floor and I didn’t feel they could all be saved (although I did rescue and wash off what I could of the ones that fell on the counter-top).

This means over the course of 5 days I’ve consumed

  •  690g flour (2450cal, about 65-70g protein, some calcium, iron, niacin and thiamin)
  • 1500g potatoes (1155cal, 30g protein, some vitamin c, iron, b6 and magnesium)
  • about 280g peanut butter, 290 minus 10 for what’s left of the slaw (1898cal, 73.9g protein)
  • 270g cornflakes (1007cal, 20.25g protein, an average of 45% rda per day of vits B1, B2, niacin, B6, folic acid, b12 and pantothenic acid, and 30% rda of iron)
  • about 220g carrots, 250 minus 30 for what’s left of the slaw (90cal, 2g protein, beta carotene to make vitamin A – sources vary really widely in their estimates, I’m going to guess I averaged 50% of the rda, but that’s a very very rough estimate)
  • 542g red cabbage, 892 minus 150 for what’s left of the slaw and about 200 left of cooked cabbage (168cal, 7.6g protein, about 100% average daily vitamin c rda)
  • Approx 500g cooked split peas (590cal, 40g protein, 22mg iron)
  • And a few odd calories and nutrients from the onions, mustard and the greens I foraged.

Calorie total for 5 days is approx 7358, which divides to 1471 per day. I lead a fairly sedentary life although I do a reasonable amount of walking, and I’m not tall. To maintain my weight I probably would have needed to eat about 200-250 calories more per day. I certainly could have done this if I hadn’t been scared of running out of the peanut butter and rationed it more carefully than needed, or if I’d managed to eat more cornflakes.

Protein total for 5 days is approx 223.25g, which divides to 44.65g per day. That’s a bit low, I would have been okay if I hadn’t dropped the split peas, or been miserly with the peanut butter.

I hadn’t expected to hit the targets for everything, I don’t think I did, and that’s fine for this length of time. If I had been doing this for 10 days, or had combined with someone else so there was £10 to spend for 30 meals rather than £5 for 15 the whole thing would have been a great deal easier and more palatable, but doing it this way has made me even more grateful than usual that I don’t live in a food desert!

Once again, I should stress that I am exceptionally lucky to live in a big city, within walking distance of several large supermarkets with ‘value’ ranges of foods, and who need to price their other items competitively. I have easy access to the internet so I could price-check most of the items I was interested in online (the only one I had to visit in person to view the prices was Aldi). I’ve been looking at the World Bank’s report on extreme poverty and realised anew that I can’t begin to conceive of the kind of life that people living on less (sometimes much less) than £1 a day are having to put up with. Many of the countries with large percentages of their population living at this level have average life-expectancies of 50 or less. The percentage of people with access to the internet, television or even radio is far far less than in my country. I feel helpless when I see how vast the situation is, and yet according to that report there are less people in what they class as absolute poverty than there were 30 years ago.

I don’t know what the solution is, at all. I really wish I did. I hope that donating to poverty-alleviating charities does reach the intended targets in a timely fashion, and I will continue to save where I can so that I can donate what I can, and hope others will do the same. It’s also worth considering what volunteering work could be done, either in charity shops for organisations providing aid, or in food banks to help communities who are struggling closer to home – if we can lift our own societies out of relative poverty the government will have even less excuse to reduce aid they provide to those in countries who need it most. And if you’ve read this far and have any pet schemes for helping to raise people out of poverty, please let me know in the comments section!

Further thoughts re. “poverty tourism”

I’ve now seen several more angry articles decrying “poverty tourism”. Something to do with Gwyneth Paltrow (boy, people really don’t like her, do they?).

I do get where people are coming from in some of the criticisms they make, but I think some are overstating the harm of well-off people playing poor. This Time article claims “people already know that other people are hungry. And telling people that others are hungry by pretending to be like them for a short while doesn’t help the lower-income community. In fact, it could even hurt. In the Orange County example, those families took rare fresh produce from those who really needed it.” Well, I agree that taking fresh foodstuff from a limited supply when there are others who need it more is harmful, but regarding the first part of the sentence, they may know others are hungry in the abstract, but if you’ve never experienced hunger or want or having to make tricky decisions about what to choose with a tiny amount of money then I don’t see how you can have more than a smidge of an idea about how it might be for people who live like this for longer. Sure, playing poor for a few measly days isn’t going to thrust you into the world of real, grinding poverty, and anyone who says they now understood all the issues after taking part would have to be a clueless fool, however I haven’t seen anybody actually saying that!

Most Live Below the Line blogs I’ve seen mention how lucky it made the people taking part feel, but that it gave them a slightly better understanding of how hard it must be to live on less than £1 a day in the long term. If enough well-off people are interested in taking up the challenge and they talk about it to their friends, they are likely to tell them how hard they found even the lightweight dip into constricted living, and some of those people may be in influential positions in government, local government, etc. and may be influenced to consider how their actions could improve the lives of those who do not choose poverty but have to live in it anyway. It’s to be hoped that those who develop a better empathy are more likely to dig into their own pockets and/or make more effort to help with poverty relief initiatives as well.

I guess I’m a little thin-skinned about the criticisms because I dread being perceived as insensitive or patronising. My own earnings are less than the Joseph Rowntree Foundation defines as poverty level in this country – “Those with less than 60 per cent of median income are classified as poor. This ‘poverty line’ is the agreed international measure used throughout the European Union.” Clearly this is a relative measure of “poverty” and in a completely different class to those who Live Below the Line are attempting to help. In part the fact that I earn so little is also my choice based on personal preferences and possibly slightly masochistic tendencies! I don’t feel I need a car, a television, frequent holidays or most “luxury” goods, so I don’t work every hour I possibly could. I usually manage okay, but those who read back on this blog will see that I’ve spent several months documenting varying levels of restricted spending. These were restrictions based on less than the amount I could have spent, but not by a wide margin: I didn’t have a particularly large safety net as my permanent job did not cover my outgoings, some bills and all in-hand expenses were covered by extra casual (zero hours contract) work, so any prolonged period of sickness which meant I couldn’t pick up that work would have dragged me into debt pretty quickly. But, perhaps selfishly, having the choice to take part in a challenge like this really helps me realise how lucky I am compared to many others in the world. I also get a buzz if I feel I am able to help other people, and if I am spending £1 a day for 5 days it means I will have extra money available to donate.

I am a bit obsessed about the nuts and bolts of the challenge and I hope to make a lot of spreadsheets comparing prices by supermarket, cross-referenced with nutritional values, as well as meal plans, and I think these will actually be pretty helpful to people. I’ve always been fascinated by this kind of thing and read with interest any articles/books about how to manage on very little (there’s a good essay in The Man Who Ate Everything), but obviously food prices and types change according to crop failures, supermarket price-wars etc., so it really needs a database to be kept up to date. I am considering trying to eventually create something a bit like Barnivore for vegan foods ranked by protein/cost/other nutritional info, I don’t know if that’s too ambitious, but for veg*ns on the poverty line boundaries or those trying to save money for something I think it’d be a very useful resource.

So, I’ve got that off my chest! I’ve been practising recipes, so expect more food, less self-justificatory rambling next time!

Live below the line 2015

Despite some people coming up with more or less valid criticisms of this concept (mostly that poverty shouldn’t be some tourist-like experience privileged people feel they can dip their toes in for a few days) I am seriously considering taking part in Live Below the Line 2015, which is a challenge asking participants to spend only the amount on food that people below the poverty line in developing countries have to buy everything. In the UK the amount is £1 per day, USA $1.50, Canada $1.75 and Australia is $2. Most people are taking part between 27 April and 1 May, although some people will be going for longer (I’ve seen someone doing a month and another brave soul has been going for 60 days).

I am fortunate to live in a big city with a lot of shops competing with each other within walking distance of my home. Since this is an advantage a lot of people don’t have I am choosing to ignore the option of “buying” small portions of cooking oil, spices and seasoning already in my cupboard prior to the challenge. This means I am looking for foods that do double-duty (e.g. peanut butter as a margarine/oil sub in baking as well as a protein, pickled onions so the juice can be used in places I’d deploy vinegar/lemon juice).

Since a lot of my savoury cooking starts with frying an onion it took me a long time to let go of that idea, despite onions not being very economical on a cost vs. nutrition basis when bought in small quantities. Since the cheapest vegan oil I could find was a block of solid cooking fat at 70p I rejected the idea of that and started considering other cheap oil sources. Jars of olives in oil would be way too expensive, the most likely prospect would be to get the cheapest frozen oven chips, as there’s often quite a large amount of fat left on the baking tray once cooked. They also worked out at around the same or less cost per kilo as most of the smaller bags of fresh potatoes (I did not consider spending more than £1.20 on any one item of food).

Frozen chips are still an option, but for the sake of nutrition I’m erring towards fresh potatoes (particularly as there were 1kg packs of baking potatoes in Aldi for 39p today! I don’t know how long that offer is on for so I may have to come back to the frozen idea.

After several hours of price checking Tesco, Sainsburys and Morrisons as the supermarkets with their prices available for online shopping which are also within walking distance, I concluded that Tesco had the cheapest and widest choice of value items (Sainsbury’s were almost universally more pricey, e.g. the cheapest mustard was 35p as opposed to 25p at Tesco and Asda, the peanut butter was 3p more, the salt was more, the cheapest vinegar was more. The only thing they came out way cheaper on was tomato purée). Asda also had a lot of value items I was interested in but they’re not within easy walking distance. It’s no good buying from the market on this occasion as most of the quantities are over 50p, they are usually £1 a bowl for most fruit and veg. Time and again you realise that the more you can afford the more you get. It’s not just having the money to buy the 5kilo bag of chickpeas for £4.99, or the 15 kilos of onions for a fiver, you need room to store them, containers to keep them secure from vermin, etc. Anyway, I digress!

I felt the best tactic would be to buy all my store-cupboard items at Tesco:

tesco 291 shop

Split peas are 53-55p per 500g across the supermarkets, and by far the cheapest pulse  as the next options seem to jump to around double that price. I’m not a huge fan of split peas, and if there were an extra 46p going spare I’d definitely be tempted by these 99p beans I found in Morrisons, but I just don’t think I can justify it.

morrisons 99p beans

Since Aldi’s vegetables looked in pretty good shape and seemed a good deal cheaper than the other supermarkets, I’m going to try to get the fresh items I’ve chosen from there. The best balance of nutrition for the least price seems to me to be a mixture of cabbage (45p for at least 600g), carrots (49p for 1kg) and potatoes (39p for 4 baking potatoes weighing not less than 250g each). The veg comes to £1.33 which brings the total to £4.24.

After narrowing down my options, I made a spreadsheet to check how it came out in terms of calories, protein and a few vitamins and minerals. The obvious omission is omega 3, I don’t think there’s much in what I’ve chosen. I think iodine is one you can get away with missing for a little while, I normally take a supplement when I remember. If this were a budget I was forced to keep there are more than enough calories to keep going for a while, I would have to save up and spring for some iodine tablets and/or a multivitam, I think. Supplement tablets are the cheapest option in the long-run, unfortunately it’s impossible to fit them into a short-term plan like this. It was difficult to find valid-seeming or consistent information so I’ve done my best where there were discrepancies, this is just a rough guide really (just realised I made a mistake with the potatoes, basing them on a 1.5 kilo bag. I’ll maybe change it later).

breakdown of 1 day core foods nutrition

The calcium shortfall isn’t too bad, I could make the B12 match the rda if I up the cornflakes to 100g (but that puts the calories up quite a bit), or I could buy a carton of fortified soya milk for 65p, which would leave me with 11p and I don’t think you can buy anything with 11p these days. Maybe a very small knob of ginger or a small loose chilli.