Living Below The Line: Final Thoughts

I’m done!  I survived the Live Below The Line challenge, and am now going to subject this blog to culinary whiplash as we go from $2 a day recipes to the decadence and glitter that is my Eurovision cooking!

I woke up this morning with the feeling of lightness that comes from being able to eat whatever I feel like for breakfast… and then I went and made 40 mini Danishes for tonight’s dessert and forgot to have breakfast until it was nearly lunchtime.

In other words, normal eating patterns have pretty much been re-established.

But before moving on to this far more appealing and glittery stage in my blogging life, it seems timely to reflect for one last time on the past week, and what it’s been like living on $2 a day.  Have I learned anything?

Well, I’ve learned that it actually is possible for me to be more obsessed about food than I normally am.  This probably breaks some sort of world record.  But quite seriously – eating food that never quite fills you up, and that always seems to lack something in terms of flavour sensitises you to the food that surrounds you in the world to an astonishing degree.  My nose has suddenly become this food-detecting device, that notices, in appalling detail, what my neighbours are cooking for dinner, which food shops I’m passing, and what sort of cooking oil is being used at fast food restaurants.  It’s not that I don’t notice these things normally, to an extent, but they are usually background things – one doesn’t really notice them particularly consciously.  For the last week, the slightest whiff of something edible has provoked an instant hunger reflex, and I can just about visualise what the food looks like.

Also, I have spent far too much time counting the hours until my next meal.  It’s embarrassing.

The obsessiveness comes and goes a bit – if I stay away from other people’s cooking smells and occupy myself with a novel or singing practice, or the Eurovision quizzes on TV.  I can forget about food for hours.  Which is a blessing.

I’ve learned that, while I am not a hugely active person, I really hate feeling that my activity levels restricted by hunger / lack of energy.  And they really, really are.  By Wednesday, I couldn’t stand it any longer and decided to walk the 7 kilometres to my singing lesson.  This was perhaps a mistake.  While it did feel good to be outside and to stretch my legs, I found myself getting just a bit dizzy and my vision getting a bit sparkly when I tried striding up hills (as is my usual habit).  I had to slow right down.

I’ve learned what I expected to learn, namely, that living on $2 a day is hard work, even when you aren’t really living on $2 in any real sense of the word.  And shopping is a nightmare.  But I’ve also learned that, for a short time, I can manage it.  This is actually quite reassuring.  Ever since those days of job and food insecurity in my early 20s, I’ve been terrified of being in a position again where I can’t work full time – I’ve always felt as though I’m one pay packet away from disaster, and that if I lost my job and couldn’t find work immediately, that would be it for me.  Now, I reckon it’s more like two or three pay packets.  If necessary, I can live on not very much, especially if I still have my freezer and pantry to work with.  It’s  breathing room.

I’ve learned that there is a huge amount of stress involved in living on such a restricted income.  That’s something I didn’t think to blog about earlier, but it’s true.  That awful fear that there won’t be enough food to get us through the week, that we won’t be able to afford all our basics, that we will run out entirely – I think it must be hardwired in humans, really.  It’s not pleasant.

I’ve learned to measure and weigh everything.  If you have a 400g tin of peaches that has to be divided into 6 breakfasts, you don’t want to run out of peaches at breakfast number 5…

I’ve learned that apple jaffles are really surprisingly awesome!  I didn’t expect to get any food wins out of this week, but that was definitely a good one.

I’ve learned that we have enviably cheap produce in Australia, and I am deeply grateful for this, even if I’m intending to revert immediately to my expensive organic varieties because I like supporting local farmers.

On a related note, I’ve learned that chillis and onions are good news, that you can get an astonishing amount of flavour from a single chicken wing, but that tuna that costs less than gourmet catfood is best avoided.  As are bulk frozen vegetables that taste of nothing – I would have done better to spend that $1.59 on rolled oats or rice or pasta, or maybe some tinned beans or corn.

There are other things I don’t know if I’ve learned or not.  I have a feeling that from now on, I’m going to be much, much more vigilant about not wasting food.  I’m not a huge food waster, but some things do find their way to that lurking space at the back of the fridge and are never the same again.  I think I’ll be monitoring my leftovers even more closely in future.

I’ll also be interested to see what, if any, effect this challenge has had on my ‘What if there isn’t enough food?!’ instinct when catering.

Has this challenge changed my life?  No.  And I didn’t expect it to.  It’s only five days, after all.  Hardly enough to make a huge difference.  It has been fascinating to notice just how fast one begins to feel the effects of food scarcity (I’m still convinced that a good part of this is psychological – though given that my clothes are significantly looser now than they were this time last week, there was obviously a physiological element, too), but that’s about it.  I’ve enjoyed (for want of a better word) thinking about and learning about food security issues, and it’s been interesting reading what other people have written about this, and how differently things work in other countries.

But mostly, I can’t wait to cook without restrictions again – or at least, with only the restrictions of a much more generous food budget.  I have missed my herbs and my spices, my meat and my dairy, and, oh yes, my chocolate.  (I kept on reaching out instinctively to take a piece of the open Easter Egg in my room, and then realising that no, I wasn’t allowed to do that.  And yes, I probably should have moved it.)  And my fruit and vegetables!  Yes, we’ve managed to eat quite a lot of veg in the last week, but we usually eat a *lot* more.  We love our veggies!

Most of all, though, I’ve missed being able to think about food in a creative, enjoyable way.  I’ve thought about food a lot over the last week, but mostly in terms of deprivation.  To me, that’s been one of the hardest things – having to constantly turn my mind away from thinking about something that means far more to me than sustenance.  More even than creativity and sustenance and health – or colour and flavour and smell.  Food, to me, is also about generosity, about love, about caring for the people around me.  It’s about sharing and community, too.

I’ve found it bitterly hard to not be able to invite people around to share a meal over the last week, and I’ve felt ashamed that I didn’t have proper food to offer people who visited.  The ability to offer hospitality is not found anywhere in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, or if it is, it must be well up towards the apex, but it’s a big one for me.  I’m not very good at social interaction, so feeding people is one of the best ways I know to show people that I love them.  It’s painful to lose that outlet, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I would find it rather socially crippling if I could never afford to invite friends around for a meal.  Or feed my lovely scientists at work – many of whom have sponsored me very generously, like the amazing people they are!

Thank you to everyone who has read these posts, commented, sent me supportive text messages, or sponsored me over the last week.  I have truly appreciated this.  With your help, I have raised $1,999 towards education and training programs in East Timor and Cambodia, and am 19th on the leaderboard – an amazing result.  If you are just reading this and realising that you meant to sponsor me and totally forgot – fear not!  Sponsorship remains open until July 30th (or possibly June 30th, depending on which bit of the website you are reading), so you it’s not too late to help me get over the $2,000 mark!

As for me, I have friends coming to dinner tonight, to celebrate the insanity that is Eurovision, so I’m off to cook for that.

You may be certain that I’m budgeting well over $2 per head for this meal.

And I’m so very grateful that I am able to do so.

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7 comments for “Living Below The Line: Final Thoughts

  1. lokic
    May 9, 2014 at 5:28 pm

    Your mention of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs suggests an interesting prism through which to look at this week.

    It’s an interesting experiment, because it effectively involves deliberately collapsing your needs to the lowest level of the hierarchy, to the exclusion of all else. You mentioned the anxieties it provoked, which clearly fit into the second level, and the social aspects (which fit in across the upper three levels, as best I can figure. Maslow, as you so correctly point out, seems not to have considered codes of hospitality in his work).

    I’m sorry I was unable to help sponsor you, and I am amazed at and proud of you for this accomplishment (and the great heart that motivates you to do it).

    • Catherine
      May 9, 2014 at 11:37 pm

      Thanks so much, Loki. And no need to apologise re sponsorship! You do what you can.

      As for Maslow, it’s not quite the lowest level of the pyramid – we still have shelter and breathable air, but it is pretty close. I’m not even sure it’s about laws of hospitality, entirely. I tend to use food as a crutch in social situations in a big way – I know I’m fairly awkward and that people can find me weird and annoying, so I always bring food to share because sharing food is a fundamental expression of goodwill. If you’re the person who brings the cake, people tend to assume you are well-intentioned and overlook a certain amount of social awkwardness.

      (Hmm, I think I just accidentally hit on my plan for world domination / supervillainhood. Nobody will suspect the person who feeds everyone cake, mwahahaha!)

  2. May 9, 2014 at 10:48 pm

    interesting to read about your experiences – makes me feel very priveleged – have you seen the we should cocoa event is focused on making a chocolate cake for 1 pound – should be interesting to see the round up.

    • Catherine
      May 9, 2014 at 11:38 pm

      Ooh, really? I should go give that a look. Sounds absolutely up my alley! Thanks for the heads-up.

  3. 5-tails
    May 10, 2014 at 7:32 am

    I’m reading these backwards and belatedly, so you may have mentioned this already, but I presume you’ve seen the Satter Hierarchy of Food Needs[PDF]? It doesn’t mention feeding others either, but it does seem pertinent in view of this challenge.

    One of the things that has been really brought home to me travelling and living overseas is just how cheap fresh, reasonable-quality produce is in Australia. I can basically expect to pay, at minimum, the same price per pound here for vegetables that I’d pay per kilo in Australia. And while feedlot meats can be cheap, they’re not ideal for a number of reasons. I’m grateful that I have the privilege of choice in all that.

    Also, with my health, believe me when I say I understand never wanting to go back to food insecurity. The short period of my life where I was poor and hungry enough to scavenge leftovers from other people’s abandoned fast food trays is a place I never want to be again, and the knowledge that I will probably never work full-time means this is never far from my mind…

    • Catherine
      May 12, 2014 at 7:51 pm

      Oh, that sounds like a very scary time indeed. Last time I was really poor / hungry that didn’t occur to me as an option, but then, there was a bunch of other stuff going on then, too.

      I’m certainly realising just how good we have it in terms of grocery shopping in Australia. And thank you for the article – very interesting on many, many levels!

  4. May 12, 2014 at 11:02 pm

    A really great post. It does make you reassess things. And I agree that we’re lucky to have such affordable fresh produce here!

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