Planning for the 5 days where we would have to spend no more than $ 2.25 each for all our food and drinks was actually quite involved as I was desperately trying to balance meals nutritionally as best I could given very limited resources. We chose things like lentils as they are a protein and a carbohydrate, oats as they are filling and great for fibre but can be cooked with water and seasonal veg such as pumpkin as you get bulk amounts for little outlay. We measured and calculated and had all our weekly food in a spread sheet so we were able to chop and change as we went along if we felt we’d over or under estimated a quantity of a particular food. We also had a “float” so we could add something in to cheer us up at the end of the week if necessary (became a HUGE necessity!!).
I was prepared for the psychological difficulty of not being able to eat what I wanted (or thought I was) but the physical problems I experienced took me by ugly surprise. I was also naively unprepared for how hard it was going to be to watch Max go through a whole range of difficulties mental and physical.
Monday started with a bowl of porridge made with water for both of us and a little added milk for Max (I was saving mine for my tea!). It was OK and we both braved watching Joe eat his regular muesli and toast. That was until about 10.30 when Max would normally have some fruit for morning tea. The budget did not allow for this so he dipped into his lunchtime allowance of lentil stew that he’d brought in his thermos. I too was ravenous by 10.30am but hung on until 12.00 when I put my portion of stew into my bowl and realised just how small it was. I was shocked at how little we ended up with once it had been split up. It was a toddler portion and hardly touched the sides going down (the photo at the top shows my bowl with the teaspoon!).
Even worse this was to sustain me until 6.00pm when we’d repeat the stew but with some additional rice, pumpkin, peas and spinach. I spent the afternoon hungry, very, very, hungry. I also started to get a headache and feel a bit faint. Max fared better physically thank goodness but by the time he returned from school was desperate for his banana to stave off some of the hunger. Both of us went to bed hungry that night.
Tuesday we woke hungry and felt hungry all day. The portion sizes we could afford just did not contain enough calories to feed our bodies. I also felt really unwell. I was lethargic, headachey, demotivated and faint. Max fortunately was not suffering much physically except for being really hungry.
Wednesday was a very low point for me. I was miserable and felt quite depressed. I was so tired and low on energy mentally and physically. This is so unusual for me as generally I am very positive, upbeat and probably a little on the manic side. I also do tonnes of exercise and although I continued to do this through the whole week I just didn’t have the energy going in to sustain it properly.
Thursday was a very hard day for Max. He was very tired and when I picked him up from school he looked pale and had no energy. I gave him his banana but he was still so, so hungry. By dinner time he was feeling miserable and watching Roy and Joe eat a varied and plentiful dinner was torture. Fortunately we had our “float” to dip into and so we allowed ourselves half a fried egg each. It is hard to describe just how exciting that egg was. We both saved it until last and savoured every tiny drop of yolk and every little piece of white. It gave us a horribly clear insight into just how much such a small thing can mean to someone who is impoverished, hungry and unable to have even the simplest of treats. I don’t think either of us will ever forget how exciting and delicious that half an egg was at that point in time. It is also very hard to convey just how difficult this challenge is to anyone who has not done it. I could not have truly prepared myself for what an enormous undertaking it was for people like us who are used to eating well, never experiencing shortages of anything necessary for comfortable living.
By Friday my body was still totally low on energy but had adjusted to the new “diet” and was coping better. Max on the other hand was miserable in the morning as he was still just so hungry. I suggested he take an extra piece of fruit for morning tea at school and he was horrified as he thought I was suggesting breaking the budget. I explained that we could drop other things and use the last of the float money. He gladly accepted an apple at breakfast and this seemed to cheer him up a little. Unfortunately being the last day of term his class was invited to a shared lunch party and he had to sit and watch the other students all tucking into a heaving table stacked with all sorts of goodies. Max’s teacher, aware of his challenge realised how torturous this was for him and sent him to a different class for a while – a blessing he will not forget in a hurry! The day for me was a turbulent one emotionally. I knew just how much Max was struggling, knew I could fix it and spent an agonising day fighting extreme mother guilt. The emotional mother in me couldn’t stand thinking about how bad he was feeling. The practical side of me understood that it was just hunger, it would pass and that this was probably going to be a life-long lesson that would not be forgotten (didn’t help the emotional side much though!!).
Friday night was terrible for both of us. Max sat at the dinner table and cried as I placed dinner down for Roy and Joe. Their bounty just brought home to him how little he had in his bowl and how boring and repetitive our meals were comparative to what we normally ate. He was tired, he was hungry and he was miserable. I had forgotten how bad I was feeling watching him melt down. Tough, tough, tough.
So, what have we learned from this week? I admittedly learned far more than I was expecting (and learned it in a way I do not care to repeat!):
1. That in NZ it is impossible to eat a sufficient and healthy diet living on $ 2.25 per day for food and that having such a restricted intake of food leaves one with low energy levels, lethargy and feeling generally very under par (with obvious implications in terms of work/study/relationships/sports etc.).
2. For me not having the range of vitamins and minerals I would normally eat meant my body was not able to function properly and all aspects of my life were affected.
3. It renews my dislike of diets in general. I was very unkind to my body during this week and it took me two days afterwards to start to come back to feeling my normal self. I will never willingly subject my body to this sort of deprivation again. For me living a healthy life is achieved by gradually changing habits to ones which are more beneficial for the body. This should be done over time with each change being accepted before introducing a new one. This way it becomes a gradual lifestyle change rather than a “diet” which is a short-term patch and usually painful and not necessarily effective.
4. I realised in doing this that much of my eating was habit/routine based but also it showed me in no uncertain terms how important food is to my life. I love food. I like thinking about food, planning meals, shopping for food (only shopping I like!!), preparing/presenting and serving food. I particularly like eating food. But on a serious note it is a really central part of our family life. I realised how much I looked forward to our family meal together in the evening. Sharing platters of food, chatting about our day and having family time. I come away from the table feeling relaxed, replete and content. During the Live Below the Line Challenge this comforting ritual was upset and I felt I lost a lovely and important part of my day.
5. I can never really understand how difficult poverty is – especially as I was hungry but at the same time well clothed, housed and heated and knew it was a temporary pain that would pass soon enough. However, it gave me more of an insight than I bargained on about just how hard living on a subsistence income really is. After 10 years living in Asia I had been at close quarters with extreme poverty but never walked in those shoes in quite the same way as I did last week.
This whole challenge renews my resolve to ensure that all children receive a balanced, healthy, daily diet where they are able to consume a wide range of foods that deliver all the vital vitamins and minerals that the body needs to thrive. Our bodies are complicated machines and depriving them of critical nutrients leaves them operating less than optimally. This does not just apply to those unable to afford healthy meals but also those who eat a high calorie but low nutrient diet as had become quite common in today’s world.
I also want to extend a huge hug to Max who at 8 did an incredible job of sustaining the subsistence diet over a whole school week. He received an enormous amount of respect from his peers who could not imagine being able to complete the challenge themselves but no one is prouder than me. Max showed an inner strength I did not realise he possessed and has come away from the week with a knowledge that will give him the tools to hopefully make empathetic decisions as he gets older.
Finally, as a mother I was in turmoil watching my “baby” suffer. I just cannot imagine being in this situation daily, powerless to help my child and yet not having the means to do this. Most of us in the Western world do have the power to feed our children balanced and nutritious diets. Let us not waste this huge advantage we have been gifted.