Reflections on the Live Below the Line Challenge, Part 1

A couple of weeks ago, Brett and I took the Live Below the Line Challenge, spending R12 a day each for all our food and drink. We did the challenge for five days. And we survived. Now, some people who have read about the challenge or heard us talk about it thought that it would be very possible and easy to live on R12 a day. And in many ways it was. Other friends were shocked and thought it would be near impossible and that we would be near starving. We weren’t but it was difficult. Here are some things I learnt and some of my thoughts on poverty.

1. We were ‘privileged’ to have 120 rand to play with at the beginning of the week. Pooling our ‘allowance’ for the week enabled us to buy in larger quantities and to save money. More on that later. However, the R12 (or $1.25 or 1 pound) a day poverty line is an average. That means that many people who are struggling to survive and meet their day to day needs live on less than R12 a day. And some have a bit more to live on. But what is true for most of those under the average, is that they are not assured from day to day that they will actually have R12. With no formal employment and subsistence wages, contract jobs, street vending, other jobs in the informal sector (e.g. being a car guard) and begging as primary sources of income, R12 a day is not a “budgetable” amount. Today I may get lucky and earn R20, but tomorrow and the next day I may not get anything. Our friend Lisa wrote a fantastic blog on this which you can find here, but I like this paragraph because it captures the essence of the problem of averages:

“Very few people living on or below that line actually have the luxury of knowing their R12 will arrive reliably each day. Living below the line is not an extended budgeting challenge. It’s not a challenge to Eat Healthy for under R12 a day. For many, it’s the rollercoaster of not knowing, from one day to the next, where the next mouthful of food will come from, if it will come. Which is a completely different thing.”

More thoughts can be found below…


Reflections on the Live Below the Line Challenge, Part 2

The continuation….

2. Because we had the privilege of our 120 rand upfront, in many ways the challenge was what Lisa refers to as “an extended budgeting challenge” – sitting working out a healthy balanced meal plan for the week was stressful.  The list I started out with was completely different to the list I ended up with – for starters there was less meat on the second, no fruit, no dairy, more lentils, and less “excitement”.  Lisa wrote a blog on the challenge, and was concerned that  “One of the regular themes in the blogs and tweets of the participants of the challenge is that they’re bored of eating low-cost food.” She goes on, “This is part of what worries me about this challenge. If it were truly challenging people to bolster their sense of compassion and humanity, boredom wouldn’t be a major theme.” I disagree. The purpose of the challenge was to raise awareness, to “get a clue”, to recognize our own abundance – and certainly one of the major themes of that must be that living below the line is no fun! The food is boring, and bland and it is a struggle to make healthy choices.

3. On 120 rand we were forced to buy small quantities of food items such as rice and noodles. This for me was perhaps the greatest thing I learnt as I reflected on the poverty line. Unfortunately, small quantity items almost always come at a higher cost. Buying a small bag of rice is generally more expensive per kg than buying a larger packet. Here’s a quick illustration: Pantene 2 in 1 200 ml has a per/liter cost of 164 rand. The 400ml bottle has a per/liter cost of 99 rand! I dare not work out the sachet per/liter cost! So if you only have the cash to buy a small amount, you end up paying exorbitantly more for the amount you use than rich people do. Rich people get more stuff for less money than poor people do. This is gross injustice!

4. We had a fridge. Thus we were able to keep the food we bought in ‘bulk’, meat, left-overs and bread fresh. How many people living below the poverty line have a fridge, let alone electricity. This further curbs their ability to eat economically – to buy in bulk, cook and store food, and, in the unlikely event of leftovers, to not waste that food.

5. We only did the challenge for a week. We went into it healthy. Remembering that the 12 rand average covers food, drink, health care, accomodation, electricity, education, transportation etc for those on or below the poverty line, the knock on effect from an unbalanced diet (yes, vegetarianism may be healthier on balance but nearly all vegetarians I know supplement their diet with vitamins or with expensive protein alternatives such as nuts and seeds and low gi food) means the poor are less healthy and have far less (can anybody say nothing?) to get well on.

6. Brett and I ate well. We had reasonable quantities. We ate lots of vegetables and we even had some rice and lentils left over. But there was something lacking from the  diet. During the week we were doing mental work (i.e. transcription) but an hour or two after meals I would get incredibly drowsy and low in energy. Yes, with these minor side effects, the meal sizes sustained us through this work. But I cannot imagine doing hard physical labour on the meals we were eating! I really doubt it would have sustained us through a working day. Food for thought when you look at construction workers, or road cleaners, or gardeners and judge them for being so “lazy”. Think about how many bad character traits may merely be hunger disguised.

Many of you asked how it went. These are just a few thoughts. I may write more in the next few days. I do highly recommend that you take the challenge in your own time and hopefully catch a glimpse of the realities of the other side. I sincerely hope you don’t come out of that time and think you have done your bit. I also hope you don’t come out of it feeling guilty about all you have. But maybe a little conviction ain’t always a bad thing. And if you are a Christ-follower person then go and read this post because it talks about the true motivation for social justice and charity, and if that grabs you then definitely get Tim Keller’s “Generous Justice”.

The menu

Here is the menu, and the shopping list is here.

Monday: (B) Eggs and Toast; (L) Mielies; (S) Roast Veg               (No-Meat-Monday!)

Tuesday: (B) Oats (butter, no sugar); (L) Toast and Lentil Soup; (S) Rice, bangers and Veg

Wednesday: (B) Eggs and Toast; (L) Mielies; (S) Noodles, bangers and Veg

Thursday: (B) Oats; (L) Toast & Butternut/Potato Soup; (S) Fried Rice and Veg (carrots,beans,etc)

Friday: (B) Oats; (L) Fried Rice, Lentils and Veg; (S) Noodles, bangers and Veg

So it’s sparse, I won’t lie, but that’s the idea. It is very, very difficult to eat healthy and balanced meals on this budget let alone to include VARIETY! That’s the point – if it were easy and nice and delicious and attractive then I bet you more people would be doing it.

The shopping list

I have spent a few hours putting together my shopping list and meal plan for the R12 a day Live Below the Line Challenge. It was challenging – I won’t lie! Buying food for the week for R120 is one thing (i.e. R12 x 5days x 2 people), but maintaining a healthy, balanced meal plan is quite tough. So here is my shopping list. Feel free to make alternative suggestions or adjust to your own likes if you are taking the challenge. More thoughts on the challenge itself will follow next week.

Shopping List:

Oats (500gr; 3 breakfasts) – R11.39

Whole Wheat Low GI Bread (1 loaf; 2breakfasts [w/ eggs] + 2 lunches [w/ soup] – R7.29

Eggs (2breakfasts) – R7.49

Brown Rice Parboiled (500grm; 2suppers) – R6.49

Noodles (2 suppers) – R7.78

Lentils (400grm; 2 lunches soup) – R5.99 – can also use soup mix with lentils, beans etc

Pork Bankers (8pieces; 2 suppers; can also put in other suppers or soup) – R16.49 – can rather use chicken pieces, or substitute for other protein such as kidney beans (R10.99 for 500gr) or for more veg (Swiss Chard at 4.99) etc.

Carrots (1kg) – R6.99

Butternut (1.5kg) – R6.24

Potatoes (1.2kg) – R9.70 – can do 600gr potato and 600g sweet potato for the same price

Beans (1 punnet) – R6.99

Onions (2) – R2

Mielies (4pieces; 2 lunches) – R8

Soup stock – R4.89

Lite medium fat spread (for cooking with too) – R8.49 – apparently a medium/low fat spread is better than butter if low in transfat

TOTAL: R116.22

What will we do with that last R4?? Ha ha – well, maybe cost out spices or add in more veg or buy an apple or two or jelly or orange juice concentrate (in the sachets). So many options!

So there it is – if you have any other creative ideas feel free to share – remembering we only have R120 for all food items! (and you can check out the rules here. Good luck to all who are taking on the challenge and I hope it really does change your perspective on the poor, the poverty line, and how you live.

On living below the line

One of the biggest things I have learnt over the last few months is how incredibly blessed Brett and I have been when one or both of us have had a fixed salary.  In December, Brett resigned from his job and soon after my bursary money came to an end. Since the beginning of the year we have not had any regular income and have had to trust God sometimes from day to day for our needs. This has taught me firstly, how many of the things I used to think of as “needs” are really just “wants” or “nice to haves”.  Secondly, it has taught me how little we can get by on without really actually struggling. We never ate or lived lavishly before, but our grocery bill has almost halved during this time and we are still eating healthily. Thirdly, it has taught me that living on less is not easy and comes with a whole set of  stresses, pressures, and relational challenges.

Earlier this month, I stopped writing out shopping lists and instead started writing what I called “wish lists”. I would put on there all the things I thought we needed and some things we just would have liked (like coffee and cheese) and hoped that by the time we had used the last eggs and milk, there would be money to take the wish list to the shops. There always was because our God is faithful and always came through. But waiting was not easy. Neither was counting out and making the difficult decisions on how to allocate our money towards petrol, electricity and food.

From May 2-6,  I will be taking the Live Below the Line challenge. I will be living on the equivalent of 1 Pound a day, or  R12.  I am doing this to raise awareness for and to better understand the challenges faced by the 1.4 billion people who live in extreme poverty. The money that I would have spent on food during the week (check out the rules), I will donate to a poverty alleviation project. This is not a warm-fuzzy-feeling initiative though. The truth is that most of us have absolutely no idea what it is like to live below the poverty line. Conversely, we lose sight of the abundance we enjoy daily. Yes, I will be limiting my food and drink costs to R12 per day while the truth is that for those 1.4 billion people living below the poverty line, their R12 or $1.25 or 1 pound has to cover far more than food. It is all they have to cover their health, housing, transport, food, education, hygiene, electricity and other needs. I cannot even begin to fathom such living.

“Almost a quarter of the world’s population face challenges that are varied and complex, and which prevent people from developing financial safety nets – ensuring they are unable to escape the cycle of extreme poverty. ” (Live Below the Line, on Extreme Poverty)

Redistribution of wealth must start with those who have. And what better way to begin than by realising what wealth we really possess.

(Here is my proposed menu and here is the shopping list for our week)