Thursday, April 23, 2015

LBTL 2015: Day 5

The final day! I'm so glad it's here.

Again, I skipped breakfast and started eating in the late morning at work.

I have one raw portion of cabbage left. I tossed it with vinegar, oil, and salt for another cabbage slaw. I saved the dressing from the cabbage slaw I ate yesterday, so there was no additional cost to the seasonings. I had this as a snack for $0.13 flat.

Lentil salad. It was yummy!
I steamed up my last two portions of lentils ($0.22) to make into a lentil salad for lunch. I tossed the cooked lentils with two carrots ($0.14), the last 3 tomatoes ($0.21), 1/2 an onion ($0.05), 2 T oil ($0.12), 1 T vinegar ($0.02), and salt ($0.01). I also chopped up the final portion of roasted cabbage to add to the lentil salad ($0.16). That comes out to a whooping $0.93! But I ate some for lunch, and some for an early dinner.

I also had the last portion of potato "leek" soup from last night ($0.21).

When I got home, I added up the damage:
Cabbage slaw: $0.13
Lentil salad: $0.93
Potato leek soup: $0.21

I've got $0.23 left on my final night. I used that to whip up a final batch of potato leek soup. 2 portions of mashed potatoes ($0.12), 1 T oil ($0.06), 1/2 onion ($0.05)... and salt? Can I have some salt? I think I can. Many times this week, I charged myself a full penny for the addition of salt, but didn't use anywhere near the full teaspoon. In fact, I used less than 1/2 tsp on the lentil salad. I can use the other half to season my soup.

That means I'm ending day 5 at exactly $1.50.

The end couldn't have come soon enough. Even though I did very well this year and didn't go hungry like I did in prior years, this is tough. I find myself envious of things others are eating, almost resentful. I can't imagine what it must be like to live this way day in and day out. In fact, Live Below the Line is not a proxy of what it means to live in extreme poverty. Those who fall below the global poverty line must do everything for $1.50 a day - food, housing, transport, medical care, education... And no, $1.50 doesn't go a lot farther in their country. That figure of $1.50 is purchasing power parity - adjusted to reflect the value it would have in the U.S. That's why it's EXTREME poverty. It means having exceptionally little. Such a struggle.

Thank you to everyone who has supported me in this challenge. If you haven't already, please give to The Hunger Project and help empower those living below the line everyday.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

LBTL 2015: Day 4

Remaining staples, without potatoes
When I got home from work, I calculated what I'd eaten during the day:

The final portion of shepherd's pie (still delicious, best thing I've made all week): $0.37
Roasted root veggies from last night: $0.28
Cabbage slaw: $0.15

Potato "leek" soup
That's a total of $0.80. $0.70 left for dinner. Deja vu. I'll need to think about lunch tomorrow as I make dinner tonight. I've finished all my leftovers - except the mountain of mashed potatoes I made on day 1. 5 portions of those remain. In fact, potatoes are the only ingredient that's not running low. I have 3.6lbs of potatoes still in the bag. And while I'm sick of them, it's the reason hunger hasn't hit this year. And even the rest of the ingredients aren't super scarce. They are certainly enough to get me through the finish line tomorrow night.

One portion of roasted cabbage. I ate three.
I decided to make something like a potato leek soup tonight. I put 3 portions of mashed potatoes ($0.18), 1 onion ($0.10), 2 T oil ($0.12) and 1 tsp of salt ($0.01) in a pot with water to boil. Of all the food I've made this week, the potato leek soup was a close second to the shepherd's pie, and far superior to the other soups I've made this week. I served out two portions at $0.21 each. I had one as an early dinner, and am looking forward to having the second at work tomorrow. $0.49 left in today's budget.

Next to the potatoes, cabbage is my most abundant resource right now. I cut 4 portions of cabbage ($0.52) into wedges and roasted with 2 T oil ($0.12) and salt ($0.01) in a 425 degree over for about 45 minutes. Each wedge comes out to about $0.16. I ate three of them as my second dinner, and saved the last for tomorrow. That brings today's total to $1.49. Barely under the line again!

Can't wait until I finish out tomorrow. It feels like it's been so much longer than it has been.

I hope you will take a stand against extreme poverty with a donation.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

LBTL 2015: Day 3

Potato cabbage soup, shepherd's pie and cabbage slaw for lunch
This challenge puts me in a scarcity mindset - always a fear or anxiety of "not enough."  I smelled cinnamon rolls from a bakery I passed on my way home from work and thought "Ooo maybe I'll make cinnamon rolls when I get home... oh, I can't." And yesterday I saw a billboard for ice cream. "Mmmm, I'll have a little bit of that strawberry ice cream I've got in the freezer tonight... oh, I can't." Everything is off limits. Out of reach. So it must be to live in poverty. "No" to so many things. And harsh judgement from society if you dare say "yes."

Yesterday I was operating with an abundance mindset, and things almost got away from me. Not today. I haven't been hungry (bless that 10lb bag of potatoes!), but I haven't been having fun like I was earlier. And before I settle in to make dinner, I need to take stock of what I've spent today:

Two serving of root veggies for roasting
Leftover potato and cabbage soup, plus an added tablespoon of oil: $0.26
Cabbage slaw: $0.15
Shepherd's pie: $0.37
"Tea" and sugar: $0.02

Tomato lentil soup and roasted root veggies for dinner
That brings me to $0.80. Not bad. I can have a decent dinner for $0.70 for sure. I haven't mentioned the cabbage slaw before. I prepared two portions last night, consisting of 1/8 head of cabbage ($0.13), 2 T oil ($0.12), 2 T vinegar ($0.04) and salt ($0.01). I'll have the second portion tomorrow. The "tea" and sugar is really just sugar in terms of cost. I reused yesterday's tea bag to the bitter end. I can't afford another $0.16 tea bag.

Dinner is roasted root veggies. 3 carrots ($0.21), 5 potatoes ($0.10), 1 onion ($0.10), 2 T oil ($0.12), 1 T vinegar ($0.02), salt ($0.01). $0.56 total ingredients, and it will make two portions at $0.28 each. I'll eat one tonight and take the second for lunch tomorrow. That leaves me with $0.42 for the rest of dinner. I also lentil tomato soup. 1/4 C lentils ($0.13), 3 tomatoes ($0.21), 1 T oil ($0.06). I didn't use a full tsp of salt on the roasted veggie, so the rest of the salt will go into the soup. The lentils got away from me and burned a bit. No choice but to eat them anyway. I actually didn't mind too much. It was nice to have a different smokey flavor. I miss variety!

I ended the day at $1.48. And only two days left in the challenge! I plan to make cinnamon rolls on Friday. I could use a treat. And I'm boycotting potatoes for a month.

Big thank you to everyone who has supported me with a donation to The Hunger Project! You've really kept my spirits high.

Monday, April 20, 2015

LBTL 2015: Day 2

As I learned in previous years, skipping breakfast is a good way for me to limit my food intake. I left for work shortly after 7am, and got in around 8:30am. Around 9:30, I ate a portion of shepherd's pie, which, by the way, is just as delicious cold as it is hot.

I've never had tea in prior years of LBTL. I always want tea in the morning, but get worried I'll use up too much of my budget and find myself hungry come dinner. But I had room in the budget yesterday, so I took the risk. Tea time! PG Tips with a bit of sugar. I made two cups with the same tea bag. I do that on a normal day - PG Tips is nice strong tea, and I usually make small cups.

Around 1pm I ate two of the left over cabbage rolls I made last night. I had the third around 5pm before wrapping up work and getting on the train. Really yummy the second day. So glad I made that little impromptu tomato sauce with these. It adds a nice tang to the mild cabbage and filing.

Throughout the day I munched on carrot sticks as a snack. I've learned that eating small portions every few hours is a great way to stretch small meals. But I have to say, I never felt like I was depriving myself. My portion sizes have been generous, the food was tasty, I had a nice cup of tea, and I wasn't hungry! LBTL isn't so hard, I'm getting good at this!

I didn't watch my budget closely today because I was a total rock start yesterday. Time to figure out how much money I have left for dinner. Here's my budget breakdown pre-dinner:

The tea that stole my dinner
Tea + sugar: $0.18
Shepherd's pie: $0.37
3 cabbage rolls: $0.54
Carrot sticks: $0.21

Oh no, I've spent $1.30. Is that right?! That can't be right!! Ugh, that is right. Only two dimes to rub together for dinner. I'm sort of regretting that cup of tea... No! I regret nothing! I can do this.

Ok, so I'm going to make a soup. Potato soup. Because I can afford that. I'll make a double portion so I have one to take to work with me tomorrow. That gives me $0.40 to work with in the pot. That's not so bad. Right?

It took me 30 minutes to figure out the exact combination of ingredients I would use. I wanted an onion - $0.10. And some cabbage - $0.13. I need enough oil to keep me full. 2 T - $0.12. That leaves $0.05. 2 potatoes and 1 tsp of salt. That's what $0.05 will buy. I dug through the bag of potatoes, trying to find the biggest ones. They are all so small!! 2 potatoes would make a meager single portion. No way I could stretch that into tomorrow. Should I ditch the cabbage? Then the soup would only be potato and onion. That didn't sound too exciting. Plus, I've got 7 portions of cabbage left, and don't want to find myself eating only cabbage on day 5.

Simple potato cabbage soup
I poured 1 T of oil into the pot and added the onions. Then added 2 chopped potatoes to see how much food that really was. If it was enough, I could add more oil. It wasn't. I decided to skip the extra tablespoon of oil I wanted in the recipe. That saved me $0.06 and bought 3 more potatoes. I'm not happy about the trade off. But I really shouldn't complain. I've eaten well today.

I didn't peel any of the potatoes tonight. They went into the pot, green and all! (I googled it. I'll be fine). After sautéing the onions and potatoes with oil and salt, I added water and brought to a boil. Once the potatoes were soft, I added the chopped cabbage and boiled another 5 minutes.  This made two nice sized portions - one for tonight, one for tomorrow. It was a bit bland. Could have done with more salt, and of course more fat. But this wasn't in the budget tonight. I'll pump up the seasoning in tomorrow's portion.

So I'm off to bed full but sort of unsatisfied. I got ahead of myself today. Not bad, but I'll need to be more cautious tomorrow.

And please consider giving to those who have to live every day below the line - and stretch $1.50 to include food, housing, transport, and health care. Make a gift to The Hunger Project.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

LBTL 2015: Day 1

Since I'm starting LBTL on a Sunday, I'm using today to get some cooking out of the way and have quick meals ready during the week.

Potatoes are my main food, so I want to make sure they are easily accessible when hunger strikes. I peeled and boiled 18 potatoes with 2 tsp salt to make mashed potatoes. Many of the potatoes were green under the skin, so I was glad to have enough food to get away with peeling them (peels are food too)! I drained the water (which I saved for later), added 4 T oil, and mashed. I'll use there as a base for other things. The total came to $0.62 as follows:

4lbs of mashed potatoes
18 potatoes: $0.36
2 tsp salt: $0.02
4 T oil: $0.24

I'll expect 10 portions from this, or about $0.06 each.

Then I prepped what I'm called "shepherd's pie." I used the salted potato water to boil up 3 helpings of lentils. In another pan, I sautéed onions, carrots, and tomatoes with salt and oil, and added the cooked lentils. I'll top this with potatoes for an easy lunch dish during the week. I made four servings of shepherd's pie filling:

3/4 C lentils: $0.33
3 servings onion: $0.30
Prepping shepherd's pie portions for the week - $0.37 each
3 carrots: $0.21
3 tomatoes: $0.21
3 T oil: $0.18
1 tsp salt: $0.01

Which comes to $0.31 per serving + $0.06 of mashed potato on top.

I also prepped some carrot sticks for snacks at work.

So what did I actually eat today?

Shortly after finishing two boiled potatoes, I ate a quick salad of 1 carrot, 1 tomato, a sliver of onion, salt and vinegar. These tomatoes are super sweet. It was crisp and bright. Very delicious! Used up a total of $0.20 this morning.

2 potatoes: $0.04
1 carrot: $0.07
1 tomato: $0.07
Vinegar: $0.02

I used so little onion, I'm not even counting it in the calculation.

Shepherd's pie for lunch - $0.37
One portion of the "shepherd's pie" for $0.37. This was quite tasty and satisfying (my partner wanted to eat some but resisted)! I'm up to $0.57 for the day, leaving a huge $0.93 for dinner!

I decided on stuffed cabbage rolls. It's something I've never made, but figured it wouldn't be too tough. I peeled off 5 large leaves from the head of cabbage and boiled for a few minutes in salt water. I cooked one onion in a tablespoon of oil with a dash of salt until crispy. Then added one portion of mashed potatoes and another tablespoon of oil. I cooked 1/2 cup dry lentils. When the lentils were soft, I added those too. This became my stuffing for the cabbage leaves. I was worried that some of the cabbage leaves were pretty torn up when I took them off the head. But this didn't seem to matter when it came to stuffing. Everything wrapped up nice and tidy.
Stuffing the cabbage leaves. The torn leaves worked just fine!

Traditionally, stuffed cabbage is cooked with tomato sauce. I quartered 4 tomatoes and cooked them in a pan with oil, salt, and vinegar (these are sweet tomatoes, so I wanted to add some acid). I layered the stuffed cabbages on top and covered. Many of the recipes I found online say to cook for another 40-90 minutes. I think those recipes have raw meat in them. I certainly don't want to cook my cabbage that long! I gave it about 15.

I had so much money left for dinner that I didn't pay close attention to how much I was spending. Let's see how I came out:

Pretty! Cooking stuffed cabbage with tomatoes - $0.18 each
1/8 cabbage: $0.13
1/2 cup lentils: $0.22
1 portion mashed potatoes: $0.06
1 onion: $0.10
4 tomatoes: $0.28
3 T oil: $0.18
1 T vinegar: $0.02
2 tsp salt: $0.02

Whoa, I cut that close. $0.91 or about $0.18 per roll. Bringing the day's total to $1.48, or so I thought. Those cabbage rolls were big! And even though I was really hungry, I only ate two (including the biggest one). I'm saving the other three for a future meal or snacks. So really, dinner was $0.37. That makes my total food for the day $0.94.

You know what that means!? Room for tea!! At $0.16/tea bag, I've never had room for tea in the past. And I'll even have a spoonful of sugar, which the internet tells me is $0.02. Ending the day at $1.12. I'm not hungry - thanks to that lucky 10lb bag of potatoes. I am already getting tired of potato though, and we're on day one! But so far, I'm in good spirits and feeling like I can take out the next four days without a problem.

Don't forget that this is a fundraiser to fight against extreme poverty and hunger, and I'd love to have your support. Consider making a donation to The Hunger Project.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

I picked the tomatoes. LBTL 2015: Preparation

This 10lb bag of B sized potatoes
needs washing and counting
After bringing all my items home from the 99 cent Only store, I still had to decide which item I would exclude (I'd bought one too many). I figured I'd think it over as I prepped the rest of my food.

When buying food on the cheap, you may end up with some items that have bad spots, or even a few rotten ones buried in the middle of the bag. I want to know right away whether my food quantity will be reduced, and whether there are some items "on the brink" that I'll need to use first.

All the potatoes got a good washing and were counted: 55 small potatoes. Not one needed to be thrown out, but many are tinged green under the skin. I'll want to peel these. Some of the carrots had nasty ends that needed to be cut off, but were other wise in good shape: 14 carrots. The onions were removed from their bag and inspected, and none of them seemed to be rotten: 6 small ones, 2 large. I'll cut the large ones in half. That will give me 10 portions. The cabbage comes out of its bag. Looks to be in great shape. I'll divide this into 8 portions. Count the little grape tomatoes: 14. Lentils have info on the back of the package. A serving is 1/4 cup dry, and there are 9 servings in the bag. I'll stick with their measurements. Chick peas are the same.
My cheat sheet for the week, rounded to the nearest penny

Once I know how much I have, I do some simple math to come up with the price per portion. This is how I know whether I'm on budget for the day, and how much each meal costs. I usually write this all out on scratch paper, but this year I made a spread sheet to share with you. You'll see a lot of my calculations are per item, rather than per weight or measurement. There's usually a big fluctuation in size from one potato to another (especially when your bag of potatoes is "off-brand" from the 99 cent Only store). But I find this makes my day-to-day cooking much easier. I don't have a kitchen scale, and I wouldn't really want to weigh each portion anyway. Much easier to grab one potato, and know that it's $0.02.

And now to decide what to cut...

I thought about the kinds of recipes I would make with each item. I looked at the weather. I talked with my partner. Finally, I decided to cut the chick peas. It's going to be chilly most of the next week. I'll want a lot of warm foods, like soups. Chick peas are better in salads (or at least that's how I prepped them last year). No crackers or bread to have with a hummus. No curry powered or coconut milk to make a chick pea curry. And I don't think chick peas are as great a match with potatoes as lentils or cabbage.

A ton of food for $6.00. My staples for the next 5 days.
Oil, salt and vinegar (and maybe tea!) will take $1.50.
When deciding on my staples, I was really thinking about what sorts of recipes I'd make with them. I'm picturing mashed potatoes with a stew of lentil/tomato/onion on top, like a shepherd's pie. I'm thinking potato and cabbage soup. I'm thinking potato carrot puree (though, I sort of feel like using my Vitamix is cheating). Carrot sticks and tomatoes as a snack. Fried tomatoes, potatoes, and onions for breakfast. A slaw of cabbage, carrot, onion, and tomato. Baked potato with caramelized onion on top. Roasted root vegetables and cabbage with a side of lentils.

I know I'll have enough food with the potatoes, so I hope I'm making the right choice to leave the chick peas behind and choose those tomatoes. I do feel like I'm taking a risk here - eliminating a protein in favor of flavor. But it's only 5 days, so no big deal. It's only 5 days. For me. What if it weren't? What if $1.50 had no end in sight, and I didn't know how long it would be until I could afford a "real meal"? Would I make the same choice? Probably not. I think I would have skipped the tomatoes and gone for the chick peas. More protein. More fat. More food.

Challenges like Live Below the Line have been criticized for giving people like me a false experience of poverty. First, I don't think they claim to be offering a true-to-life poverty experience. At it's core, this is an awareness and fundraising stunt - just like a running a marathon or shaving your head against cancer. I've never walked away from this thinking I know what it means to live in extreme poverty. But it does help make some of these abstract concepts a little more accessible. For example, world food price fluctuations mean something to me now. When you're counting every penny, a change in grain prices determines whether or not you go to bed hungry this week. I'm not poor, so food price fluctuations don't hurt me. But I have a little more understanding and empathy than I did before I took this challenge.

Of course living on a tight food budget for 5 days is not an approximation of living in poverty. If that is ever in doubt, just remember: I picked the tomatoes.

LBL is a fundraiser, and I hope you'll take a stand against extreme poverty and support me by contributing to The Hunger Project.

Shopping for Live Below the Line, 2015

I've decided to take the Live Below the Line challenge for a third year: Spend no more than $1.50 per day for food and drink for 5 days.

I'm starting my challenge a week earlier than the rest of the crowd. I'll be traveling for work during the designated time, which means it would be impossible for me to do it. I won't have access to a kitchen, and I'm certain homeland security won't let me get on the plane with jars of soup in my bag. So, I'm starting April 19th! It's a good reminder of lessons I've learned in the past when taking this challenge: poverty means few choices. What a privilege to choose when I will eat meals that cost only pennies...

Select your beans carefully. Those pretty yellow ones only
have 4 grams of protein per 1/4 cup. Lentils have 13. 
I've been scoping out my trusty 99 cent Only store for a few weeks to get a sense of what I might be able to buy this year. Last year, a 5lb bag of potatoes really saved me from hunger. Can I find that again? They frequently have bags of dried beans and legumes: 1lb bag for $1. But selection fluctuates, sometimes dramatically. Every once in a while, I'll find 2lb bags of pinto beans for $1.

I've figured out a good system for this challenge in the past, I think. Buy 6 staples at $1 each, and leave $1.50 for seasoning (oil and salt). The staples need to be easily mixed and matched, with qualities that allow them to be prepared in many different ways - lack of variety is one thing that makes this challenge so tough. So after a few laps around the 99 cent Only store, looking for items with the most weight, and some careful analysis of the fat and protein content in the bean options, here's what I found in my basket:

  • Potatoes: 10lbs for a $1. Obvious. 10lbs!! I may get board, but I won't be hungry. No way I'll eat all of these.
  • There was a 2lb bag of carrots. Can't pass that up. Great for cooking and for a raw snack. 
  • 2lb of onions? Essential flavor ingredient. Sold! 
  • A big head of cabbage for something green. Great in soup, roasted, or as a salad. 
  • And look at those plump grape tomatoes on the vine! Lots of flavor in only 3/4lb.
  • A bag of lentils, good for protein. Toss with tomatoes and onions for a salad, or add to soup.
  • And a bag of chickpeas! Good protein and high fat (for a bean). I made some great meals with chickpeas last year.

But that's seven items. $7. That would leave me with only $0.50 for salt and oil. And that's not enough. Salt is really important to making food palatable. And oil? Aside from the added flavor and the practicality of preventing food from sticking to the pan, this is pretty much the only source of fat! There is no way you can stay full without it.

I snapped this photo on my scouting trip last
week. There were only a few bags left today.
I thought long and hard about what to cut from my basket, and how that would change my meals... "Can I buy the potatoes and just act as if they were $0.10/lb, and I only bought 4lbs? I could free up $0.60 that way. But that would be cheating." Seasonings (like salt and oil) are the only things you are allowed to buy in bulk and count only the portion you use during the 5 days. "Maybe I should nix the tomatoes. They are the least amount of food for the price. But I want the flavor! And besides, I'm not going to get hungry with 10lbs of potatoes at my disposal!" I was so grateful for the tomatoes I had last year... On and on I went, considering each item in the basket again and again. Until finally, I left the store with all seven. I couldn't decide. "I'll choose when I get home" I thought, and went to pay with a little wave of guilt. "I have the privilege of deciding later. I have more than $6 in my pocket..."

In the check out line, the woman in front of me looked back and sized up my basket. "Your head of cabbage is only one pound. Mine is it two pounds!" she chided. She held hers up in one hand and grabbed mine with the other to prove her point. I looked at them side by side. The cabbages had the same label, which did not indicate weight. But hers was obviously bigger than mine. "See!? They charge by the head! If you're going to shop here you need to be smart about it!" she admonished. I thought I had been...