Written by Alex (Community Outreach and Engagement Coordinator at FoodCycle Cambridge)
What is the Breadline Challenge?
So, FoodCycle HQ have set their supporters a challenge for this week – to try and live on a food and drink budget of £2.86 a day. This is the benchmark set by the sixth Real Life Reform Report, published in March of this year, which reported that 30% of people were regularly spending less than this on food each week.
The idea of the challenge is to increase awareness of the horrific (and growing) levels of food poverty in the UK, as well as raising some money to support the fantastic work done by 19 FoodCycle hubs across England. I’m going to be working out what I would have spent each day on food and drink in an average week (taking last week’s receipts as a guide), and will donate the difference to FoodCycle once the week is over.
What difference will it make?
Of course, it is only a week. There’s no quick fix for the issue of food poverty. To play devil’s advocate, a good friend asked me earlier if this couldn’t be seen simply as more ‘poverty tourism’. After all, there’s an end in sight for me – unlike for a lot of people currently living in food poverty. Once the week’s up I can go back to my normal food shopping habits. I can buy that coffee on my way to work that costs almost an entire day’s budget without even batting an eyelid. I can have that extra egg, or piece of toast and think nothing of it. A trip down the pub with friends on Friday evening? Sounds great.
I’m not kidding myself that this is going to be anything like really living on the poverty line – not even close.
For many people, including a lot of our regular guests at FoodCycle Cambridge, it can be difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I can’t begin to know what it must be like to be in this situation with a family to feed, or what it’s like having to look for work when I haven’t eaten properly – if at all.
So no, I don’t know what it’s really like to live like this long term. But I do know that raising awareness and having some honest conversations – especially with politicians, but also with each other – about the realities of life on the breadline is an important step in the right direction. And that’s why I signed up for the challenge. Raising money is a bonus. For me, it’s about showing others (and myself) how hard it can be to live – and to live well – on the kind of money lots of people in the UK are managing with week in week out.
The tyranny of The List…
All the advice I got before signing up to the challenge said the same thing. Make a plan and stick to it. I think that’s what worries me most about the week ahead – not being able to think ‘I really fancy some cheese’ and dropping by the market to pick some up. And while I’m there, some nice crackers to go with it. And might as well have some olives too – well, you get the idea.
So, I sat down and flipped through my mental rolodex of trusted FoodCycle recipes, consulted a few blogs (such as Jack Monroe’s, more of whom later in the week) and came up with what I thought was a pretty balanced and economical menu plan. I’ve made sure there are three decent meals a day, especially a good breakfast with slow energy release foods such as porridge. Unsurprisingly I’ve gone more or less veggie for the week, apart from one tin of fish. I felt going vegan for the week would be a step too far, so I treated myself to some eggs. There’s almost no cheese, which will no doubt amuse everyone who knows me.
I also drink a lot (and I mean a lot) of coffee, but that’s out for the week, although I did buy some tea bags and milk that will also be useful for porridge, which I find soul-destroying made with water. I’ve cut out butter (too expensive and not strictly necessary), sugar (I don’t eat that much anyway, and will use fruit to sweeten my porridge) and salt (I’m relying on stock cubes to add a bit of seasoning to dishes). There are very few processed or convenience foods on my shopping list, partly because they’re expensive but also because they’re generally not versatile enough to stretch across several recipes. If I was going to do this, I wanted to make sure I got the most value for my money.
Even though I thought I’d done pretty well at planning my meals, I still found it almost impossible to write the shopping list. I crossed off several things I’d originally thought I’d be able to afford. A packet of value digestives would give me a nice mid-afternoon sugar hit, go nicely with a cup of tea and wouldn’t break the bank, right? Wrong. If I wanted my spinach, the biccies had to go. I spent a full five minutes agonising over whether to buy some broccoli to bulk out some of my meals, only to reject it in favour of extra apples. Let’s not even talk about the near-meltdown I had when I thought I’d forgotten to factor in the plain yoghurt for the savoury scones that I’m eating with most meals (as well as making breadcrumbs and using as my one spot of baking therapy for the week).
I like to think I’ve become much more thrifty and waste-conscious over the three years I’ve been volunteering with FoodCycle, but I’ve never shopped like this before, constantly having to think about (and rethink) what I put in my basket. That’s lesson number one, right there.
What, cheating already?
The final bill came to exactly £20.02*. What a result, I thought to myself.
Actually, I feel a bit like I’m already cheating on the challenge. Okay, I’ll take water when I have a coffee meeting with a colleague on Wednesday. I won’t be going to FoodCycle lunch on Saturday. I’m being very good and not using the pots of herbs on the kitchen window sill (I’ll be freeze drying any that need eating, so I don’t waste them).
However, I did shop for my food online, justifying the decision by telling myself it was so I wouldn’t be tempted to stray from The List by all those buy one get one free offers, or the lure of the reduced section. Honestly? I didn’t have the time or the heart to traipse between several different shops, looking for the best bargains as many people have to. When I picked up my shopping, I used my weekly bus ticket rather than walking to collect it, as I’ve seen more than one food bank client do – often for several miles. Lots of households don’t have access to the internet or a laptop, so wouldn’t be able to do the research I did before going shopping.
But, for better or worse, I’ll be starting the challenge tomorrow morning – bright and early with my first bowl of porridge, half a banana and cup of tea. Wish me (and all the other FoodCycle supporters) luck – I think I might need it!
*My shopping list was as follows (everything was bought from Asda):
- Smartprice porridge oats – 75p
- Smartprice crunchy peanut butter – 62p
- Smartprice mozzarella – 43p
- Smoked paprika – 74p (no herbs, but I thought one or two spices were essential)
- Curry powder – 60p
- Vegetable stock cubes – 75p (annoyingly, there weren’t any cheaper ones)
- 3 bananas – 34p
- 1 bulb of garlic – 25p
- 600g bag of apples – 85p
- 2 lemons – 60p (I debated buying juice, but decided I could use the zest in a risotto)
- 650g punnet of mushrooms – £1.38 (I thought long and hard about these, but they can go into several dishes)
- 1kg bag of brown onions – 74p
- 2.5kg bag of potatoes – £1.69 (I’d have preferred sweet potatoes, but couldn’t afford the quantity I wanted)
- Smartprice plain flour – 45p (wholemeal would have meant less fruit and veg)
- 80 Smartprice tea bags – 50p
- 500g shredded beetroot – 88p
- 4 pints semi-skimmed milk – 89p
- 6 mixed weight free range eggs – 85p (could have got cheaper, but free range was non-negotiable for me)
- 1kg Smartprice rice – 60p
- 500g Smartprice pasts shapes – 35p
- Smartprice tinned tomatoes x 3 – £1.02
- Smartprice sardines in tomato sauce – 34p
- Tomato puree – 35p (could only afford a small tin, so will need to eke this out)
- Chickpeas x 2 – 76p
- 1kg Smartprice frozen peas – 78p
- 500g frozen spinach – 97p
- 500g red lentils – £1.09
- 500g Smartprice natural yoghurt – 45p
Not factored in: cost of vegetable oil. I already had a new bottle of Aldi vegetable oil that cost 89p for 1 litre. I plan to use only 6 tbsp worth, at a total cost of 7.12p.