Food Basket Challenge: Whew! It’s Over!

March 31: 1 egg, hummus, peanut butter, vegan marg, condiments (pickles and jam), lime cordial, maple syrup, 2 apples, onions!

[Long Read]

Background

Rom and I did a Food Basket Challenge for the month of March. We limited our grocery budget to $340 for 4 weeks which is $42.50 per person per week. That is for food only. Our normal budget is $440 which is $55 per person per week. We plan to donate the $100 difference to the Food Bank.

For new readers, we are a family of 2 adults, we cook vegetarian, we both work full-time outside the home, we bring lunches to work, we cook dinners from scratch, and we make extra so we can eat leftovers. Our normal grocery budget is probably lower than average, although we have a history of going out to eat a lot.

The reason I wanted to do this was to gain more empathy for those who can’t afford nutritious food or have limited access.

To further experience what it’s like to have limited access to food, we only went grocery shopping twice by car. We made two 2-week meal plans and bought everything we needed for them in just two excursions. To amp it up a little, when we needed a few things between trips (within budget), I walked to a store and carried back what I bought.

For more details on Canada’s Nutritious Food Basket (food costing tool), see Time for a Food Challenge.

Since it is called the “nutritious” food basket, I wanted to maintain our usual calories and nutrition throughout the month. I am an active person and normally eat 2100 calories a day so I tried to stay at that level, and did some tracking throughout the month.

Week 1

We bought 2 weeks worth of groceries and stuck to the meal plan. I had a free lunch at work, a rare event. Rom had one free work lunch this month as well, plus a farewell to a colleague that involved cake! March 5 was Pancake Day (Shrove Tuesday) so we had blueberry pancakes for dinner. When a person is setting up their own household, they usually have to buy baking supplies over many weeks or months. For this reason, I didn’t do any baking during the month. In the spirit of the challenge, I charged a box of pancake mix to the grocery budget ($3.38), as well as a bag of frozen blueberries ($4 on sale). We have maple syrup in the house but didn’t use it: luxury item! However, we had two avocados in the house and used them for avocado toast rather than let them go to waste 🙂 We charged the grocery budget their current price of $1.79 each.

Something weird happened. I stopped thinking about food. This was a first!

Week 2

In which we tried to afford socializing… I bought ingredients to make eggplant lasagna and had a lovely evening cooking and entertaining. We were the recipients of wine and a chocolate dessert from our company! I am so glad we did this and have no regrets. However, I added up the cost of the ingredients for the lasagna afterwards and it was $24.89. Far better than an evening out at a restaurant, but not really do-able within the challenge budget as I came to find out.

Later that week was Pi Day (3.14) so I walked to a local shop and bought a small but delicious pumpkin curry pie with white beans, which we shared for dinner with some sides. (It had the same flavours as pumpkin or squash ravioli). At $10, I was sure we could absorb the cost and compensate for it later. If we weren’t vegetarian, our best bet would have been those frozen individual meat pies like Swanson’s which are $1.57 each at Walmart!

Week 3

When we went for our second grocery shopping trip, I realized we wouldn’t be able to make a planned meal of stuffed peppers, even though we were going to stuff them with rice and lentils – because we couldn’t afford 4 peppers. (They average $1.87 each). We spent the rest of the allotted budget with none left over. I started feeling uneasy because I could see we were running out of lots of things. I conceded that Alpen cereal is not that bad. It is filling and gets me through the morning.

I made macaroni and cheese with pumpkin puree in it and there was enough for an extra meal. Similarly, Rom made a lentil shepherd’s pie and we got 3 meals out of it instead of 2. Good thing, because we were unable to make the planned carrot-rice quiche thing. We were too low on carrots and cheese.

Week 4

This week we were in countdown mode, waiting for the challenge to end. It felt like we were out of everything. Rom was out of soy milk and one day he had his Alpen with water 😦 I had the last 2 carrots in my work lunches and then had no vegetables in my work lunches for 3 days. Salads were a thing of the past. For two lunches, I had tortillas with hummus on them. The only fruit left was apples. We ran out of yogurt; there was a 4-pack of those cheap pudding cups in the cupboard so I was glad to have them. Rom needed the rest of the bread and cheese for sandwiches for his work lunches so we couldn’t have toast for breakfast. I had oatmeal. I found a small stash of coffee in my desk drawer at work which made 3 cups; otherwise I resorted to the jar of instant in the cupboard at home – at least I had that (plus tea). We had good, basic dinners every night but a minimum of snacks. Rom had some graham crackers.

Other

This month there were 21 work days and 5 weekends. For lunches, I had salads for 10 days, rice with chick peas or beans for 8 days, the tortillas with hummus for 2 days, and one lunch supplied by my employer. For breakfast I had toast with peanut butter and bananas until I couldn’t any more, Alpen cereal with milk, and oatmeal. For lunches on the weekends, we had our usual eggs or pizza.

As regular readers know, we have a standing date to go for “Sunday dinner” at my parents’ place every week. That provided us with 5 excellent full meals. To be honest, I am not sure how we could have wrung 5 more dinners out of our own budget this month, unless we had extra helpings of rice or pasta. So you can see how the extravagant spending on the lasagna and the Pi Day pie caught up with us.

We were invited out to dinner one evening and declined; we also decided not to go see Captain Marvel because we couldn’t afford either movie popcorn or bringing our own snacks. We went out to a concert for which we’d bought tickets in December. We didn’t go out to dinner first as we normally would have, and didn’t buy drinks at the show either. We still enjoyed it, though.

Conclusions

I thought this would be moderately easy. We would eat pretty much the same as usual, but with cheaper ingredients. We’d fare OK with frozen and canned fruit and vegetables. Sure, we would run low by month-end, but we had the skills to make our food stretch.

I didn’t anticipate the effect on my mood. By Week 3, I felt like a different person. I hardly thought about food. When I remembered what we were having for dinner, I would feel glad it was there. I didn’t really crave anything because I simply couldn’t have it. I wished I could have bagels and good coffee on the weekends but I put it out of my mind. A sort of apathy set in. Rom said, “It put me off food.” We both found there was nothing to look forward to (food-wise) and it sapped a lot of joy out of life. I did not realize how much time we would usually spend food shopping, going out for coffee, researching restaurants, and trying new foods on a whim. We keenly felt the lack of variety. Food was just “functional.” I did not even feel like myself.

I was especially bothered by a creeping sense of dread that we were running out of things and there was no way to “fix” it, even though we always managed to have enough food for meals.

Knowing that we couldn’t go out for meals or coffee with family or friends was disheartening. It was a bit of shock to find out we couldn’t afford to have people in, either! I am always reading in cost-cutting articles and posts that it’s easy to find low-cost or no-cost things to do. But all of those things are so much better when you can socialize over food and drinks too. Sharing meals is a relaxing and bonding experience in a different way from going on a walk or playing board games.

Among my co-workers, we are all foodies. I avoided those conversations and didn’t tell anyone about the challenge because I didn’t want them to help me cheat!

We celebrated Pancake Day and Pi Day with food but not St. Patrick’s Day. It’s a good thing Easter wasn’t in March because we couldn’t have done much for it – maybe organized a potluck and brought a dish.

Living with Poverty and Food Insecurity

Well, I learned a lot about the experience of living on a low income with limited access to food. But my experience was nowhere close to the real thing. I have worked with lots of families who have nothing left in the cupboards but a half bottle of mustard and a couple of hot dog buns by the end of the month. And they would eat a mustard “sandwich.” This month gave me a better understanding of the level of planning needed to get by on such a low income. For example, who knew we would have to count slices of bread to make sure we had enough for work lunch sandwiches? That I wouldn’t have a few crispy vegetables left over to dip into my hummus? That we couldn’t have a handful of raisins when we got hungry? Even though we planned out every dinner, we would have had to plan every breakfast and lunch in detail if we always lived this way. Some of our fall-backs, “Oh, we can always have tea and toast” were not the case.

We took pains to make sure our total intake every day was nutritious. Tracking for myself only, my calories fell from 2100 to 1800 as the month went on because there wasn’t much to eat. According to my tracker, I averaged 58% of calories from carbs, 27% from fat and 15% from protein, plus 36 g fibre/day. That is within a healthy range.

So, is living on the Nutritious Food Basket possible? Yes. Desirable? NO.

I lost 5 pounds and Rom lost 8. I know, haha, how convenient that we lost weight! I don’t recommend this method, though. It was isolating, demoralizing and repetitive.

A few observations about food shopping and the budget:

It was horrible having to shop at just the one neighbourhood grocery store and being beholden to their prices. First, I couldn’t go to another store where I knew the prices were always better. I couldn’t go to another store just occasionally to take advantage of sales, because of the need to travel (walk, bus or taxi). Walking for groceries means you have to plan around the weather and you sometimes have to get through an extra few days when it’s icy outside. I couldn’t stock up on anything when the prices dropped, although a person could do this by budgeting carefully over a period of several months.

We don’t eat meat; to give you an idea, lean ground beef is $5/lb and there is sometimes fresh local fish for $5/lb. The beef could stretch to 4 servings of chili but the fish would only serve 2 after cooking.

This month we didn’t need any cleaning supplies, personal care items (except for the shampoo in Week 1), or over the counter meds. If we had needed to buy something like tampons or garbage bags, I probably would have been crying! (especially since I know the dollar store ones are useless!)

One of my biggest a-ha! moments was thinking about how this would feel for a family with kids. Rom and I both remember having to ask our moms before taking anything from the fridge or cupboards, because maybe that thing was needed for a meal or was being portioned out carefully. Sometimes we kids would squabble over food or sneak things. On this low a budget, parents would have to be The Police all day, every day, and constantly monitor what their kids could take. I can sure understand why parents on very low incomes buy their kids pop or Slushies when they go out, because it would be exhausting saying no all the time.

Finally, I would like to encourage others to reserve judgment a little more when it comes to Food bank users. At a local “casual freebie” food box that I contribute to, I see people putting in ramen and KD. I have heard people say, “It’s good enough for me; it should be good enough for them!” If that is all you are able to contribute, of course it provides calories. I will be more conscientious now about providing a wider variety of foods, and some of the more filling foods, like peanut butter, nuts, cooking oil, cereal and canned fruit. It could really make someone’s day. The real best way to make a difference is to give money to the food bank because they can pounce on big bulk deals that individuals don’t have access to.

Our Total Cost

We spent $245.58 on groceries this month, and used $106.08 of unopened food items that we bought in previous months for a total of $351.66. The goal was $340 so we overspent by $11.66. Other than the lasagna and the curried pumpkin pie, the biggest contributor to the over-expenditure was that we used a large supply of walnuts and almonds from the cupboard. If we had bought peanuts at the Bulk Barn instead, we would have been under budget!

For the super-curious, you can see a complete list of everything we bought or used and how much it cost here: Food Basket Challenge Complete List

Since our actual outgoing money for food in March was only $245, we will donate the balance ($195) to the food bank. If any readers are able to give food, money or time to people who are “food poor” this month, I would be very grateful.

We will be restocking our kitchen soon and going back to normal and that will feel very strange indeed.

Did you have any food highs or lows in March?

9 comments

  1. Fiona

    What a fantastic blog post! It’s only by doing a challenge like this that there can be a more realistic insight into the psychological & emotional challenges of low incomes and tight budgets. It is very heartening to read! I have been wondering how things would go at the end, thinking it could not be easy…congrats to both of you for making it through!

    • Thanks. I think most people who know how to cook and are willing to pack lunches and eat leftovers – feel they could “ace” a tight budget. I “sort of” felt that way. I knew it would get tough but I didn’t anticipate how isolating it would be not to talk about food or meet up with friends or look forward to things food-wise.

  2. Nicola B

    I found the psychological effect of your experiment really interesting- I was wondering how I would react to a similar challenge…I would dislike it if I ended up feeling hungry (and I wonder if I would rebel at some point if I was fed up of not being able to buy something I wanted when I was tired etc!) However I don’t think I am really a foodie (I love eating but will happily eat the same breakfast and lunch each day and most days the same dinner!) so I’m not sure it would stop me thinking about food!

    I must remember to buy something extra to put in the basket for the food bank when we next food shopping.

  3. Margie from Toronto

    It’s been an odd month food wise. I’ve been finishing off items from the freezer (mostly red meat that I want to finish cooking) – and I’ve been using my pantry more so things are looking rather depleted (which makes me nervous). I’m glad that I’ve had all this during a financially tight month but it has been a wee bit boring.
    My one splurge was on some shrimp, cod and salmon that I found at a good price – but because I bought these items it meant that I simply couldn’t spend on other things – and that does focus your attention. I still have a lot of these items in the freezer as I’m eking them out with a lot of veggies to fill the plate.
    I am spending April getting a few things sorted – doing a bit of a restock (both food and non-food) and then starting in May I am putting myself on a very strict budget as I am determined to get a couple of things paid off by the end of the year! I will be eating more vegetarian meals – and for the sake of calories I am finding that I manage quite well with two meals and a snack – trying to stay around the 1400 calorie mark per day.
    I have cut back on eating out – making it a real treat instead of a two or three times/week event – and most friends are quite happy to switch to a coffee or maybe an ice-cream rather than a full meal – so easier on everyone’s wallet & waistline.
    I intend only eating red meat when I do eat out and sticking to vegetarian and seafood at home – with the occasional bit of chicken. We’ll see how it goes.
    It has been very interesting following your posts on this matter.

  4. What an eye opening post! Imagine the psychological effect if this was unending? If you knew you couldn’t step out of the financial limit!!

    I’ve been “on strike” in cooking this term. Just too tired and over it. Mr S has taken over which means he cooks dinners I don’t really like. But I don’t complain as it is better than me cooking. And we’ve had a few more takeaways than normal. And bought salads from the deli and added them to meat we throw on the barbie. I will step up again soonish. None of our practices this term would be possible if we were on low income.

    • Yeah, I think the worst part would be never going out for restaurant meals or meeting up with friends over food, even at home! I expect after a couple of months you’d see the world as “haves” and “have nots.” No wonder there is social unrest!

      I don’t like every meal Rom makes, but it’s better than being on permanent cooking duty.

  5. Pingback: Life Update – August 2019 | An Exacting Life

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