Living Below the Line

If you’re active in the food blog community or follow Ben Affleck, Mario Batali or Gwyneth Paltrow on social media, you may have heard of the initiative Live Below the Line. In an nutshell, it’s a challenge that encourages people who are otherwise living in reasonable affluence (using a global standard) to attempt to experience what living in extreme poverty might feel like and then subsequently donate to a poverty alleviation charitable organization of their choice.

And if you follow me and my musings, you may be wondering at this point why the words “initiative” and “donation” normally explored in my more social justice-y non-blog life are making an appearance on Chu on This.

But this isn’t a post where I ask for your support to a worthy cause or even encourage you to undertake to experience it yourself. As I hinted in the subtitle, this is a thought experiment. The potential slip into a “Let them Eat Cake” irony that peppers this challenge is not lost on me. Nor is the tension of balancing foreign aid with rectifying much of the poverty we have in our own backyard.

I may not be in the 1% and be able to dine wherever and whenever I want, but there is no denying that I make eating well (and often) a big priority in my life. And the idea of eating and drinking on a mere $1.75 CAD a day ($1.50 in the US, $2 in Australia and £1 in the UK) was kind of insane. I will be the first to admit that I initially dismissed the challenge as another thing I would let “those other people” do. But then, I decided to take a trip to the market. I think it was the creative element of this challenge that really sucked me in. I almost felt elated at one point to have been able to spend a mere 50¢ on sizeable bag of rolled oats (which, I soon discovered, are much less expensive than quick-cook oats). Similarly, white kidney beans were available to me for $3.96/kg while the red were hitting the $4.95/kg mark. The elation turned into frustration at the thought that my “reasonable indulgence” of Haagen-Dazs pint (at $7.69) that I could usually portion over a week, would nearly blow my entire weekly total budget of $8.75. Feelings of guilt (buying eggs for $2 less with the knowledge of them being battery-caged hen produced vs. free range) and confusion (what about taxes? what about sales?) were mixed in with a resounding conviction to follow through with what I had now set out to do.

So with an effort to maintain a certain degree of transparency (and to provide some guidance for others who may be doing the challenge and are in need of ideas), I present to you: my 5-day meal plan.

I’ve purchased most of these ingredients at St. Lawrence Market with a few at Loblaws. I decided to keep it vegetarian because I’m cooking for one person, though if I had a family of at least four I would have definitely bought a versatile chicken or parts thereof. The rules state that tap water is free, and anything you grow in your own home is free (provided that you factor in the costs of purchasing the seed/plant and production) so I have included my mint and basil as free items given their longevity as faithful herbs of my window sill.

Spices, salt, sugar and pepper must be factored in but at their cost-per-usage (I’ve estimated 30¢ for the total of all the seasonings I will be using over 5 days). And finally, I will also be unable to eat or drink anything offered to me for free (which includes my office coffee and treats).

Shopping List:

1 cup red lentils // 2 cup chickpeas (dried) // 1 cup millet // 3 cups rice // 6 eggs // 2 carrots // 2 cups rolled oats // 2 yellow onions // 1 head of garlic // mint and basil (free, see comment below) // 4 hearts of bok choy // salt and pepper // Garam Masala // cinnamon // turmeric // 1 lemon // 1 apple // 3 bananas // 1 tbsp peanut butter // 1 knob ginger // sugar (not pictured) // olive oil (not pictured).

Total Cost: $8.75 (give or take a few cents).

In Canada, the official #BelowtheLine challenge runs from April 27-May 1 this year. Stay tuned for an update on my thoughts at the end of the week.

Update: check out my results post!

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