Around 2.5 million Australians live below the poverty line on less than $400 a week for a single adult or A$841 for a couple with two children.
I joined 8,500 Australians on the charity challenge last week to live below the extreme poverty line, spending just $2 a day on food for five days.
This is my third year doing the challenge and this year my husband joined me. Having $20 between two seemed to stretch much further than $10 for one person. But it was still tough and my diet was far from complete.
Budgeting and food choices
Essentially, $2 a day bought me a lacto-ovo-pesco vegetarian-style diet (milk, eggs and fish) but with very small quantities of these protein foods.
Dried chickpeas and a legume-based soup mix added to the protein content and provided a nutritious and tasty soup. The inclusion of flour in the food budget meant I could have damper to accompany my meals.
Vegetable choices were limited to the cheaper ones such as potatoes, butternut, onions and Italian pureed tomato sauce – nothing green in sight.
I had to select cage eggs rather than free range, limiting my choice about animal welfare.
In addition to the limited variety of foods, the exclusion of fruit meant this diet didn’t meet the Australian dietary guidelines. There were no healthy fats such as avocado, oily fish or olive oil. Nor did this diet result in weight loss because it was not low in kilojoules.
Over five days these nutritional inadequacies would be of little consequence. But over time this type of intake would lead to serious health problems.
Around 760,000 Australian adults (4.5%) are at risk of iron deficiency anaemia. My iron intake averaged 9 milligrams a day, which is only half the recommended dietary allowance of 18 mg a day.
Adequate folate intake is essential in women of childbearing age to prevent neural tube defects in their offspring. My intake was only half of the recommended 400 ug/day. Similarly, my iodine intake, which is needed for normal thyroid function and is particularly important in pregnancy for fetal brain development, was only half the recommended amount.
Had I substituted my homemade damper for commercial bread, I would have received higher amounts of both of these nutrients since bread is required to contain folic acid and iodine.
If I was pregnant, I would not have been able to purchase supplements containing folic acid and iodine, as recommended by clinical antenatal guidelines. As such, policymakers should investigate making these supplements available free of charge on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme for vulnerable groups.
Variety is the spice of life
By far the most difficult part of living below the extreme poverty line is the lack of variety. The diet was bland in colour because of the lack of variety, thereby indicating a poorer quality diet.
I repeated the same meal because it’s cheaper to buy in bulk. Leftovers simply cannot be thrown away, so food waste becomes much less than the average 41% of household garbage.
Spending money on beverages was not an option. I drank only water – hot and cold. Next year, teabags will be an essential item.
Time management and forward planning
Another difficulty is the need to plan ahead. Having only $2 a day means that all foods eaten outside of the household need to be prepared beforehand.
I also spent hours more than usual doing the weekly shop. I visited three different grocery stores to compare prices, including a large greengrocer, Aldi and IGA. It pays to shop around but those on low incomes would ill afford the transport costs associated with going from shop to shop.
Australian households’ spending on food
Contrary to popular belief, Australian households spend more on current (unhealthy) diets than required to purchase healthy (recommended) diets. The majority (53-64%) of food budgets is spent on “discretionary” choices: foods that aren’t essential to health that are high in saturated fat and sugar (this includes take-away foods and alcohol).
There has been much debate about the impact of changing the goods and service tax (GST) to encompass basic healthy foods. This would increase the cost of healthy diets by around 10%. In real terms, a healthy diet would cost a family of two adults and two children an extra $56.39 per week.
Since low-income families spend a higher proportion of their disposable income on food, around 30%, this tax change would hit the poorest hardest. Such a change would have a devastating impact on people living below the poverty line.
After five days living on $2 a day for food, I have a much greater respect for those living on a tight budget. And I will think twice before spending two days’ allowance on a coffee, or even buying a bottle of water.
Associate Professor, School of Medicine, University of Wollongong