Living on $10 of food for a week

I was reading a question on Quora that asked what it was like to live on $7 of food for a week.

I found the answers very interesting. Some had gone through the experience through necessity, while others offered advice on how best to spend that money and make it count over a week.

So I decided to have a go myself (upping the sum to $10 because I like round numbers and it sounds just as hard).

I thought it would be an educational experience, giving me some insight into a world I’m entirely unfamiliar with.

Now, before I go any further I think it’s probably best to say that I’m very much aware that doing this for a week, with the safety net of being able to break it and grab a burger if it all got too much, and knowing that it would all come to an end seven days later, is nothing like the REAL experience of having to live on that little food for a week. I’m also aware that this could come across as some kind of crass poverty tourism. But my intention was purely to go through a new experience, one that millions have to deal with all over the world. I thought it would give me more empathy along with an opportunity to leave my comfort zone.

So it started with shopping. I decided to go to a shop called Target, which sells lots of different products in bulk, and at the lower end of the price range. Armed with advice from the Quora people, I chose 18 (non-organic) eggs for $1.99, a large container of oats for $3.49, a 2.5lb jar of (shitty) peanut butter, for $2.99, and the rest on bananas, which I bought at Trader Joe’s (a mid-range supermarket) because they were cheaper. So I had protein, carbs and fat.

Things I learned from this:

  1. It would be easier in some ways to spend $20 over two weeks – not from an endurance point of view, but for the sake of variety. I had to choose between oats and rice, and I selected the former because I thought it would go better with the bananas and peanut butter. If I were doing this for two weeks I could have bought both and changed things up each day. Instead I lived off a lot of banana porridge.
  2. I wasn’t able to take advantage of knowing when the sale prices were happening, or using coupons, or checking out the ‘must sell today at knock down prices’ section of various supermarkets. I suppose all of those things would have given me an advantage in spreading my money around effectively, but I wanted to replicate the lack of choice that surely faces many people in this position. Most won’t have cars, so they can’t check a variety of places for the best deals, and many would get their money at unpredictable times, so the ability to plan ahead may not be a luxury they could fully enjoy.
  3. Fuck organic. I think there’s a lot of skepticism about what’s really ‘organic’, and the extent to which that is truly beneficial, but if you have $10 of food for a week that issue is irrelevant. Four organic bananas vs eight normal ones? Easy decision. I recall Delia Smith explaining that cheap, battery-farmed chickens and eggs were an obvious option for many families, much to the horror of wealthier people. I now see exactly where she was coming from. My peanut butter choice was an exercise in gaining bulk calories, but it’s full of the kind of crap I wouldn’t normally eat. ‘Good’ food is definitely an indulgence at this budget..

I added a further rule where I could accept food that was offered to me, or partake of free food if I had the opportunity to do so. I don’t know how many $10-a-week people get to eat snacks at work, or leaving dos, but I thought there was probably a bit of that going on. And I didn’t just stockpile tonnes of office trail mix as that would have corrupted the experience too much and been less realistic, but I did have the odd handful here and there. I could also use ‘reasonable’ extra ingredients, by which I mean stuff I could swipe from a fast food restaurant (salt, pepper and ketchup), as well as a bit of butter.

So what was the eating like? Interesting from the experiment point of view and very dull from a cooking perspective. But I did discover a couple of beneficial things. For example, I normally have a rasher of bacon and three scrambled eggs for breakfast. I chop the bacon up, fry it, then add the eggs, which cook in the bacon fat. However, this time I had to cook the eggs in butter, and my god they tasted SO much better. So I now have a new way of cooking eggs that will improve them immensely. I also had to have my banana and porridge with none of the maple syrup or honey that I’d normally add. And it was a little blander, but like removing sugar from my tea, it actually turned out to be fine, and healthier.

On the downside, over the course of the week my bananas got a bit riper than I would have liked, and I worried that they wouldn’t last me the whole seven days. And eating half-bananas (opening the banana, eating half, then keeping the other half in the fridge for later) is a new experience for me, but was very necessary to allow me to eat porridge with half a banana twice a day. And the peanut butter tasted a bit shitty (partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, corn syrup), but not too bad. It was only the repetition of these dishes that made them less pleasant. The other downside of the peanut butter is that it gave me rotten indigestion, so I gave it up on Thursday, binning 1.5 of the 2.5 pounds. But I didn’t replace it with good quality peanut butter because that didn’t fit with the budget, and if people who really eat on $10 a week make a mistake they don’t have the safety net to rectify it. Instead I became even hungrier and wished I’d bought some rice, or more eggs, with the peanut butter money.

Of course, the other big problem was the number of calories I was consuming. Three eggs a day is 166 calories, while two bowls of half a banana plus porridge was probably another 200-300. Add in a bit more banana and peanut butter and I was probably coming in at under 700 calories a day. So I was fucking hungry, and by Friday I was finding it hard to think clearly. It might have been the lack of food, or the heat here in LA, but I couldn’t rouse myself to do anything in the afternoon. Yes, my hunger was self-imposed, but it gave me a good idea of how debilitating it is to operate with a constantly growling stomach. It’s harder to work, to drive, to engage in conversations, and all of those difficulties affects other areas. If you can’t concentrate at a job interview, or you scrape a car while you’re parking you’ll have other consequences to suffer, increasing the hardship. This is definitely one reason why it takes a big effort to break the cycle of poverty. But because hunger is invisible and comes with a stigma it’s also hard to get sympathy for those circumstances.

In the end, after a VERY welcome catered party on Saturday night, I kind of cheated on Sunday, eating three more eggs than my original purchase and going out for a bowl of chili at lunchtime. So I really managed six days, but I could have done the seventh with a gun to my head.

So it was interesting as an idea, boring as an experience and effective as a method of weight loss – I shed nine pounds in the first four days, partly because I didn’t ease off on popping to gym or going for runs. Most days I burned 1200 calories by 10am, so the 700 I replaced  them with barely touched the sides.

I don’t think I’d do it again (unless I wanted to lose ten pounds in a week for some reason, or I suffered a catastrophic loss of finances), but I’m glad I went through it. Being hungry is fucking hard for lots of reasons, many of which aren’t apparent until you go through a week of it with no choice (I know I had some choice, but I stuck to it because otherwise there would be no point in the entire exercise).

By the way, I’m also in the midst of another experiment: April has been a month devoid of social media (well, 99% devoid of social media). What has that been like? I’ll explain early next month.