If you stopped the average Australian on the street they probably wouldn’t be able to tell you precisely how much they spent on food in the past week. But according to statistics, it’s likely they spent more than $100 in groceries alone.
What would happen if you cut that down to just $2.50 a day? Sydney resident Luke Freeman recently challenged himself to just that, and spent all of February this year on a food budget that hardly exceeded two dollars a day. His goal was to raise money for several high-impact charities.
“I've always been quite struck by inequality in the world,” says Freeman, who works in marketing and participates in various charity fundraisers every year. “I have devoted quite a significant amount of my income at different points of my life to try and do what I can to help the many people out there who have the greatest levels of poverty.”
Food insecurity just next door
Freeman makes it clear that living on less for a month when you’re a young professional on a steady income is nothing like the actual poverty experienced by millions of people. For him, the challenge was more about making an impact and encouraging others to think about social issues such as food insecurity and poverty.
Most of us live with well-stocked pantries and fridges, unaware that even in Australia food security problems could be hitting someone just next door. Food insecurity means not having enough food for yourself or your family, and not having enough means to buy it. According to the 2016 report by Australian hunger relief organisation Foodbank, one in six Australians have faced such a situation at least once in the past year. That’s 18 per cent of the population, of which over a quarter face this trouble regularly.
There’s no one social group that stands out here, either; while you might think that homeless people are hit the hardest, it turns out that even with a roof above your head and an unexpected bill to pay you can end up not knowing where your next meal will come from. This is especially true for the Gen Y age group of 18-34 year-olds – a staggering one in three young Australians have experienced food insecurity.
A menu on less
If you only had $70 to live on for a whole month, what would you eat? For Luke Freeman, who is a vegetarian, it ended up being a lot of beans. He started planning a whole month ahead, breaking down the necessary nutrients in a spreadsheet and figuring out what recipes he could retrofit to devise a healthy menu.
“I discovered that I could get dried beans at quite a good value, and especially soybeans – even though they are less flavourful, they have more protein and fat than other beans do,” he explains.
“So, you're trying to get most of your calories from staples and then work back to see what else you can add in. For example, a kilo of frozen vegetables only gives you a small amount of calories, but gives you a number of different flavours and nutrients.”
Freeman’s month ended up being “unintentionally vegan”. Because it’s cheapest to cook food in large batches and then package into smaller portions, he figured that having any animal products in prepared meals would run a higher risk of food poisoning. His favourite dish quickly became a self-invented pasty made out of water-flour dough and filled with a mix of curried beans and vegetables.
“I could heat them up nicely in the sandwich press in the office, and eat them as a snack,” he says. Freeman also quit coffee, and instead drank copious amounts of tea by reusing just one or two cheap tea bags for the entire day.
Living below the line
Freeman isn’t the only one who has applied mindful spending to his grocery habits for a charitable cause. For example, Australian organisation Oaktree runs an annual campaign called Live Below The Line (LBL), which encourages people to live on $2 for five days. These efforts raise funds for Oaktree’s projects in countries such as Cambodia and Timor-Leste.
“The money goes towards education programs that we've developed with organisations on the ground actually experiencing the poverty,” says LBL spokesperson Naama Gilad. This year’s challenge starts on May 1.
Participation in LBL is relatively easy, since you only have to cut back for two days or five days, as opposed to a whole month or longer. But even a few days on a tight budget can highlight the dramatic impact poverty has on one’s health and well-being.
“In previous years the staple foods people went for were sausages, pasta, bread and butter, rice and instant noodles,” says Gilad. “That’s not healthy at all, and we have heard some concerns from previous participants that that is not totally sustainable.”
This year the organisation asked nutritionist Rebecca Gawthorne to provide healthy recommendations for a $2 food budget, including advice on low GI carbs, vegetables and fibre.
After all, low-budget food challenges immediately highlight a basic truth: when you’re poor, getting enough fruit and veg is incredibly difficult.
“Vegetables are really expensive for the amount of calories they provide,” says Luke Freeman. “It's not surprising that often people who have less money have health problems, because vegetables and an understanding on how to get [healthy] nutrients can be harder to access.”