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.


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