a peek inside the fishbowl

25 Apr, 2013

Can you live below the line?

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Challenge me, challenge you|Yaktivism

I am fretting because I’m not sure if I have enough food to get me through next week.

I’ve never been truly poor. I was an only child raised in a suburb in a middle-class family. My mother stayed at home. My father owned a store and had a couple of employees. We had two cars, green grass, a dog, and there was always enough to eat.

Although I don’t remember wanting for anything growing up and I can’t say that money was plentiful, my parents did make a significant contribution to my university education. A scholarship made it a little easier, but still, a post-secondary education isn’t cheap. While I was away at school I worked a variety of different jobs to pay the bills. I do remember the times between paychecks when my bank account was nearly empty, and having to decide whether I could afford to buy milk that week. I also remember times when I couldn’t afford butter or margarine, and having to eat my KD with nothing but powder and a little water. But that wasn’t true poverty. In hindsight I know I could have called my parents and asked for money. But I never did.

I had options, but many people in this world do not. That’s why I’m participating in the Live Below the Line Challenge between April 29 and May 3. According to the Global Poverty Project, 1.4 billion people are living in extreme poverty. These are people who can barely afford to eat and are often faced with indescribable hardship and impossible choices. Picture yourself having to choose between purchasing food or medicine for example. Can you imagine being a mother under such circumstances? I cannot.

Live Below the Line is a way to get people thinking about those who have less, and, here’s the crux of it, as part of my participation in this project I have agreed to live on $1.75 a day for five days.

Why $1.75? I wondered about this number, and that was Mark’s first question too. Doesn’t $1.75 buy a lot of rice and beans in developing countries? Well, here’s the answer in case you’re wondering too.

I’ve already made a couple trips to the store to buy my food. I’m not supposed to do a big shop (a trip to the grocery store usually runs $100 or so) and subtract my foods from that. My cash flow has to be like their cash flow. I have $8.75 to spend, and that’s it.

Pennies are making a huge difference. I keep doing the math, again and again. I’ve already spent most of my allowance: 99 cents for a can of diced tomatoes at the Superstore and $3.94 at Bulk Barn, where I’m pretty sure the cashier overcharged me for one item. I’ve also had to return one item (well, return it to my cupboard unused) because I’ve decided to forgo the luxury of green tea in exchange for other things. I have a couple items left on my wish list and I’m hoping I will have enough for a can of peas and maybe, hopefully, an onion. I would love a potato. My saving grace will be a dozen eggs bought cheaply from a local farmer. I’m just hoping that deal works out.

This is what I’m looking at as I type this:

Live Below The Line

I will post a more complete picture complete with cost breakdowns and a “menu plan” soon.

My mind is buzzing. How am I supposed to do this while feeding my family? How am I supposed to do this while I’m supposed to be working? How can I live without fresh vegetables? AND COFFEE.

I have already given up 100 times and I haven’t even started.

I’m worried and I’m saddened and I don’t think I can do it. I’m worried because there really isn’t my much food here to sustain me, and I’m saddened that so many people have to live like this every day of their lives.

So there it is. Do you feel like joining me in this impossible challenge? Or maybe giving up a visit to Starbucks today and putting that money elsewhere? Just for today? You can do that right here.

I think the hardest part of this challenge won’t missing big, beautiful, balanced meals for five days, it will be knowing that I can go back to eating what I always do when it’s over, and knowing that so many people cannot.

More to come.

13 Responses to "Can you live below the line?"

1 | Kaitlin

April 25th, 2013 at 12:01 pm


One of Toronto’s city councillors, Kristyn Wong-Tam, did a similar challenge living on $6.65 a day for *everything*, including transportation. It’s roughly what’s left for a person in Toronto living on state support after paying rent.


2 | Judy

April 25th, 2013 at 1:12 pm


Andrea, in South Africa many people live on PAP. It is made from Maize meal and when they have extra money they add meat, or gravy. It is made often in the morning at rural schools as it fills your belly (but is not necessarily nutrious).

3 | Sarah McCormack

April 25th, 2013 at 1:16 pm


this is very thought provoking. i think the idea is that it is nearly impossible, so if you can’t do it, that’s part of the point. right?

I will be interested to see how it works out for you.

I work every week on trying to keep to my $140\wk grocery budget for 4 people. I have kept it for about 8 years and continue trying. But your endeavour will be eye opening, for you and your readers.

side note- next time try it during your winter spending embargo. the 2 go nicely together :)

4 | coffeewithjulie

April 25th, 2013 at 2:12 pm


$1.75 a day? Honestly, I don’t see how it’s possible. You can’t even get a loaf of bread for that price!

5 | JaDa

April 25th, 2013 at 2:16 pm


Affluence, charity and giving back have been reoccurring conversations in our house lately. But the idea of having only $1.75 for food a day seems unfathomable. I honestly think I spend more on pet each day than that. Good luck on your journey; I think it will be an eye opening experience that I for one will be awed to read about.

6 | Kathryn

April 25th, 2013 at 4:01 pm


It’s a great pursuit to measure wants and needs, and put a lens on the anxiety of food security and poverty.

So sweeping disclaimer aside, I think projects like this are dubious projects in lives built around higher financial support. I can walk to work and prep food for $1.75 a day, but I can only indulge that project because I already have the shampoo and makeup, wardrobe of clothes, computer, phone, etc I need to show up for my comfortable job.

I like the idea Kristyn Wong-Tam’s approach to relate to the poverty line in her home town.

7 | Lisa from Iroquois

April 25th, 2013 at 5:25 pm


Good luck on your adventure. I read somewhere, earlier today, there are some pretty big name stars also attempting this. Can you imagine $1.75 a day in LA? One detail about your planning that did catch my eye – you were lucky enough to have the money in hand to plan and shop ahead. Now imagine if you can’t even pull the pennies together to do that? Makes me shudder.

8 | Hollie Pollard

April 25th, 2013 at 8:58 pm


You know Andrea I have done this and it is doable I did it for me and Rachel for $3 a day for years. Yeah that is a harsh reality you don’t have to go to the third world to see families making do on very little. Thankful I was for the breakfast program at my daughter’s school. and the snack program. It is doable but hard.

9 | andrea tomkins

April 26th, 2013 at 8:21 am


It’s going to be tough, no question.

Kathryn, I also have everything else I need: shelter, fuel, clothing, etc. I live comfortably, but that doesn’t make a project like this one dubious at all. Live Below the Line doesn’t *completely* allow me to walk a mile in another man’s shoes, but it does lend a taste of how difficult it can be. It’s designed to start a conversation and – as you say – put a lens on food security. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

10 | Jayda

April 26th, 2013 at 10:31 am


I just love your challenges. I am signing up. This is going to be hard!

11 | Living below the line - The view from Sunday night >> a peek inside the fishbowl

April 28th, 2013 at 5:59 pm


[…] here are the foods I have collected to eat this week for the Live Below the Line challenge. This is all I will be eating from Monday April 29 to Friday May […]

12 | Tina

April 28th, 2013 at 9:55 pm


I have a friend who did this for Lent one year. He had read about people on welfare having $40 per month left for food after they paid for housing. $10 a week for six weeks. He did it, but he really struggled with his mood, performing at work and concentrating. Good luck.

13 | Laurel

April 30th, 2013 at 2:50 pm


I am intrigued and will follow along as an observer. Fortunately or unfortunately I do have a lot of past experience with not having enough to eat or in some cases, nothing. THIS stays with you forever in some way or another.
I am thankful for what I have and tend to have more on hand than I need although I am personally not a big eater.
I’m often in the grocery store thinking I don’t know how some do it-groceries are very expensive and eating ‘well’ even more so. I do know how it feels to be hungry and go hungry so it’s an issue close to my heart that I try to contribute to.
YOU go Andrea!

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The Obligatory Blurb

My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human offspring: Emma (23) and Sarah (21). During the day I work as a writer at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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