Live Below The Line Challenge: $1.50/Day Lessons

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Last week I successfully completed the Live Below the Line challenge along with thousands of other people around the country, eating for 5 days on just $1.50 a day. Here are my takeaways from the week:

My challenge experience. In terms of doing the challenge itself, it wasn’t all that difficult. I planned my menu carefully to make sure I got at least 2,000 calories so I wouldn’t be overwhelmed by hunger. My food was bland, but relatively nutritious. I usually drink mostly tap water anyway. To satisfy the somewhat arbitrary rule of only buying entire containers, I bought most of my ingredients from bulk bins and markets by the pound. If I was allowed to buy in bulk, I would have been able to eat even better.

I did feel a low-level hunger, which grew gradually as the week went on. I think this meant I was running a small caloric deficit as I kept up my usual light exercise routine. I lost roughly a pound. By the 5th day, the repetition of eating the same thing over and over was starting to grind on me. In other words: 5 days was fine, but 50 days would have been incredibly difficult.

Poverty awareness: Diet. As I stated in the beginning, this challenge wasn’t about starvation. People in extreme poverty aren’t necessarily starving, although they may be constantly hungry; most of them live in a growing population. What they do have is a very limited diet consisting mostly of whatever staple plant is the cheapest. Rice, corn, lentils, beans, potatoes, etc. This diet may provide enough calories for survival, but may lack in full nutrition. Meat is usually a luxury, eaten on special occasions or in small quantities. I like to think that I did this challenge in the right spirit by cooking exclusively at home from the cheapest staples available in my area.

Poverty awareness: Everything else. Poverty is much more than eating a lot of rice and beans. Inadequate medical care, lack of clean water, and access to education are just a few examples. By design, this challenge only addressed a very small part of the problem. I think of it as a glimpse.

The primary cause for obesity is not the cost of healthy food. I used to think that obese people ate junk food because it was cheap. I’m not sure so sure anymore. Cost is still a factor, but it is definitely mixed in with convenience, taste, and bad habits. I read that a provokative comment about how even if vegetables were free, people would still eat junk food. Even the USDA calculated that an adult could eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables for $2 to $2.50 per day.

I do know you can make a huge pot of soup with lentils, carrots, onions, and leafy green vegetables for under $1 a serving. Even adding meat, it is quite possible to eat incredibly cheaply if you are willing to cook at home. With the internet, you have billions of recipes at your fingertips. In terms of time, you can make a week’s worth of dinners in an hour.

In the end, taking this challenge was a positive learning experience for me. I still love eating at restaurants, but now I better understand all the options out there. The cost of convenience is higher than I thought. I donated $250 to the project, which rather sadly makes me in the Top 400 on their donation leaderboard.

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  1. “I used to think that obese people ate junk food because it was cheap. I’m not sure so sure anymore. Cost is still a factor, but it is definitely mixed in with convenience, taste, and bad habits.”
    Great observation, but I think you just demonstrated that cost is *not* a factor. Obese people eat crap food because that’s what they *want* to do. You can argue all day long about *why* they want to – bad upbringing, comfort eatling, disorders, blahBlahBlah. Doesn’t change the basic truth tho: eating crap food is a choice, and cost has nothing to do with it.

  2. Well, it would be nice if there was a restaurant that would offer fresh, natural, tasty food in a dollar menu format. 🙂 If you remove convenience as a factor, it would be interesting to see how choices change. I think food trucks are the best option for that right now, although some are still rather expensive.

  3. That’s why I love food trucks. Cheap eats that are relatively healthy and most importantly, TASTY! It seems as the food truck fad has caught on though, the prices have crept up steadily. The whole point of me going to a food truck is to avoid the restaurant setting and prices! The ethnic food trucks still seem to be cheap.

  4. Teague says:

    I might disagree with Ken’s conclusion. In many of our poorest neighborhoods there are plenty of fast food chains but no local grocery store. I would not be so quick to lump “access” in with the “convenience” bucket. If I’m working two jobs and have to feed the kids, I have almost no choice but to take them to McDs. It’s far too much trouble to bus to another neighborhood to make informed, healthy and inexpensive food choices that I then have to cook at home. Many of the poorest Americans may be eating crap food because sadly, without undo burden, that is all that is available to them.

  5. “I used to think that obese people ate junk food because it was cheap. I’m not sure so sure anymore. Cost is still a factor, but it is definitely mixed in with convenience, taste, and bad habits.”
    – I don’t usually do the food shopping in my house, but when I do I am shocked how much CRAP costs! A box of oreos is the same price as 24 freaking eggs. A big party bag of dorritos is the same as 5 pounds of ground beef.

  6. Thanks for your insights and the recipes! The banana crepes were actually a big hit in our house and much cheaper than cereal.

  7. WearItOut says:

    Lack of time is no excuse. My mum worked a full time job in a factory when we were kids. She woke up early to pack a lunch, make a flask of tea, cook the main dinner dish, shower, and then go to work. After she came home, she made fresh chappatis (flat bread), washed dishes, mopped the kitchen floor, hand washed some clothes, and finally went to bed exhausted; only to do it all again the next day. She went to work on a bus (no car) in all weather conditions, and walked everywhere so she could to save money. We never ate processed foods ate. Everything was cooked fresh. We were healthy but not rich.

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