Living Below the Line for DIG

Being the Executive Director for Development in Gardening, an organization represented in this year’s Live Below the Line campaign I felt it was only right that I commit to actually participating in the campaign myself. I certainly could not be asking others to do something I would not do, and I saw it as an opportunity to connect with DIG’s work in a way I don’t typically experience in the US. 

I decided several months ago to take the 5 day challenge, which is to eat and drink for $1.50 or less every day for 5 consecutive days. The challenge provides a way to raise support and awareness for the 1.2 billion people around the world living in extreme poverty. It’s also a powerful moment to step out of ones normal shopping and eating habits to look at how we eat from the perspective of people in very different circumstances. 

The reality of my decision to participate hit home last night, 1 day before the start of the challenge. I realized I needed to actually make a plan and go shopping for the week ahead. I did a little research, found some great blogs and recipes and felt there were 2 ways to approach it.  I could either see this as a meal-by-meal challenge where I budget 50 cents per meal and buy whatever I want, so long as I stay in that 50 cent restriction. This would mean I would have a huge shopping list that could range from a small portion of soba noodles, to slivers of ginger, to a chicken thigh, or an egg. Toying with the idea that I could have all kinds of flavors and foods represented felt overwhelming and somehow like cheating when I started my list. Obviously, it is perfectly ok to look at the challenge in this way but, for me, trying to break-out the cost of a tiny sliver of cabbage here or an eighth of an avocado there was way too much work and a little too easy to stretch the rules. 

So, I went with the simpler approach, which was to take the week’s total of $7.50 and buy everything. I would figure-out later exactly how to portion and mix my purchase during the week knowing that things might get a little repetitive. I liked that this option represented more of how people living below the poverty line ACTUALLY have to shop, in bulk, counting cents and making really hard choices. 

Market stall in Jinja, Uganda. Photo taken by Cary Norton while visiting DIG’s gardens in the area.

So, after jotting down some suggested staples like rice, beans, and eggs, I made a list of luxury items like chicken, kale, apples, and cheese, then promptly headed to the grocery store with my calculator, pencil, and paper in hand. 

To say this was a completely different shopping experience is an understatement. I started with the rice and beans and found myself really torn over the decision of white rice or brown rice. They were only a few cents different per serving but it was enough to cause me to pause in the aisle a good 5 minutes. I really wanted the brown rice but could use the extra cents on something else. In the end I went with the brown (.10 cents a serving) having any dreams of quinoa quickly dashed. 

Next up was protein. I knew that in order to make it through the week I needed plenty of protein, so I opted for black beans over kidney beans and planed to have a serving every day (.12 cents a serving). I wanted to have 2 eggs a day since I figured I would try and have an early lunch and skip breakfast as a way to get more diversity in my meals. This came out to $1.14 for 10 eggs. It felt both cheap at .14 cents an egg and super expensive as it took a huge chunk out of my budget. Shopping started to get real. 

As I made my way to the produce section, I saw this perfect little chicken. I thought, YES, a whole chicken. I can boil it and use the stock to make soup or cook my rice. At .99 cents a pound the chicken cost $3.66…way too much. But I wanted it, and while I set it off to the side, I vowed to return for her. 

While in produce I bought 2 onions, then floundered over sweet potatoes over russet potatoes. I knew nutritionally I was way better off with the sweet, but even with a great sale price, the beautifully orange sweet potatoes were just a touch more expensive. I compromised and got 2 sweet and 1 russet. 

Next I wanted color; take me to the greens! This is where my heart broke; I was shocked! How can anyone on a strict budget afford vegetables? Even the old standards of broccoli and collards were way out of my league. I could have easily blown my whole $7.50 on asparagus and spinach alone. I was crushed but determined to have a decent amount of vegetables so I sorted out a half bunch of kale for 50 cents and was elated when I found bags of frozen green beans and frozen mixed vegetables on clearance! Sure their expiration dates were fast approaching, but if I split the bags in half I could for sure have veggies in every meal. 

About $2.75 worth of produce being used for a cooking demonstration and nutrition class for a DIG group in Western Kenya

Next, I wanted to pick up some fruit thinking if I was super hungry one morning I could have some to tide me over, not to mention vitamin C! I live with a toddler so you can never spend too much energy boosting your immune system. Well fruit was pretty much ALL out of the question. No berries, no kiwi, no mango or melon. I sat with apples in one hand and bananas in the other. With apples at .49 cents each and bananas weighing in around .27 cents I had to go with 3 bananas and sadly put my tart little apples back. 

My last stop was to back for my chicken. I really wanted it so I figured that if I cut it in half I could make it work. When I got home I did a little butchering and cut it right in two, cooking up my portion, saving the stock to mix with my rice, and using the bones to cook with my black beans. 

This whole shopping experience never made it more clear to me how much a garden can do for someone living out this reality every day. Not only would a garden provide much needed color and invaluable nutrients, but it would provide significantly more food to eat, and in the cases of many of DIG’s farmers, it provides a little added income to boot. I was only sad that my garden was not in bloom yet so I couldn’t reap the benefits this week. 

Now I’m ready for the week ahead and cautiously optimistic about it. You can be sure though, that I’ll be doing my best to avoid the kitchen. Temptation around a beautifully stocked refrigerator can sometimes outweigh even the best intentions. 

Support me in my campaign by donating to DIG here
or try it yourself:

Check out my final food purchase for the week!

  • 1/2 a chicken $1.83
  • 2 onions $0.49
  • 10 eggs $1.14
  • 5 servings of beans $0.60
  • 5 servings of rice $0.50
  • 2 sweet potatoes $0.50
  • 1/2 bag of frozen mixed vegetables $0.55
  • 1/2 bag of frozen mixed green beans $0.35
  • 1 potato $0.22
  • 1/2 bunch of kale $0.49
  • 3 banana $0.81

Total Bill: $7.48
Note: I chose not to count the cost of oil (and I probably should but I’m doing the best I can here) and I chose not to count for my spice cabinet or any herbs I could harvest from my garden.