The rules were simple: consume only $1.75 worth of food and drink each day, and do it for five days. We pooled our money together and bought groceries as a team, but each of us went into the Live Below The Line Challenge with different strategies, expectations and motivations.
What began as a 'fun' food challenge for three Huffington Post Canada editors turned into a eye-opening experience we won't forget.
Each editor shares their story below.
BRIAN: My mom laughed at me when I tried to explain what I'd be doing over the next five days. I'm still unsure if she didn't think I'd make it or she already saw the futility of it all. In her eyes, I've never once come close to living in poverty.
After all, I could still afford a roof over my head. I could still pay my heating and electricity bills. I had access to a stove top, an oven, a refrigerator and a microwave. I was entering this challenge from a position of privilege, and no lack of money would change that.
But that didn't mean living on $1.75 a day would be easy. And it didn't mean I couldn't learn something from it. For the first time in years, I experienced what it was like to be hungry. I've been hungry plenty of times in the past, but only for a few minutes and never to this degree. This was a kind of hunger I was helpless to stop. This was a level of hunger I simply had to live with.
We started with $26.25 worth of groceries including milk, tofu, eggs, lentils, rice oats, kale, carrots and mandarin oranges.
Despite skipping a meal due to exhaustion one night, I found myself short of a meal by the end of day five. All that was left was less than 25 cents worth of spices, milk and oil. And so for my last eight hours of the challenge, I didn't eat.
I had many people ask me what my first meal would be once I was done the challenge. I wanted it to be celebratory. It had to be grandiose. So I sought out the most expensive poutine I could buy within walking distance of my home. I had I ate. And I ate. And I ate until I couldn't eat anymore.
And I felt disgusting. But this wasn't the kind of disgusting most people feel after cramming cheese curds, fries and gravy in their mouth. This was a disgust that stemmed from guilt. In a matter of minutes, I had dropped more than $15 -- nearly twice the amount of money I'd had to live off for the week -- on one poorly thought-out meal.
I don't think I can ever feel comfortable spending that much money on junk food again.
EMMA:I looked forward to the challenge, which is probably kind of perverse considering that the lives of the people we were trying to emulate often aren't fun. But I enjoyed the strategy behind grocery shopping, liked that I had to calculate down to the cent how much I could spend and felt satisfied when my purchases came in under that amount. But if I had to do that every week, I think I'd break down and cry.
Initially, I thought my portions were a good size and pretty similar to what I usually ate: a good portion of rice or oats with some protein and sauteed veggies. But an hour or so later, my stomach would start to gnaw on itself. By Thursday, the shaking and dizziness -- feelings I associated with low blood sugar -- stopped. Instead, I just felt tired and fuzzy. From Thursday morning to Friday night, I had a headache.
Near the end of the week, predictably when I was the weakest, I started to question the whole concept of the challenge. What was the point of this tiny act of martyrdom? How close had we, with our access to multiple grocery stores, foodie sensibilities and desk jobs, really come to approximating the lives of people in developing countries? How had we helped? It felt more detox than hunger strike. But then I thought about how fuzzy my brain felt. I was exhausted, faint and emotionally low. The only thing I felt inspired to do was think about my next meal. I realized that was the point. While my week-long experiment would not spark any systemic change, I understood a bit more how limiting starvation or near-starvation can be: all you think about is food and how much of it you have left.
A typical meal included rice, lentils and onions.
JOY: Every day during the challenge, I had a growling stomach. It surprised me at first because I felt like I was eating a lot between the rice and the lentils. In some cases, my portions were bigger than I typically ate, but I still felt hungry. At first it was the kind of hunger I'd felt during detoxes and cleanses, a longing for something decadent and sweet. But as the days went on, the hunger grew into a need for fuel to keep my brain and my body functioning.
In the days following the challenge, I was asked repeatedly if and how the experience affected me. I can honestly say, it did and continues to affect me to this day. In the video above I talk about the guilt that I felt while cooking during challenge week. It was a feeling I experienced throughout the challenge and on the final day it brought me to tears. In the beginning I was so focused on conquering the challenge that I quickly lost sight of the bigger picture -- the billions of people who suffer in extreme poverty everyday. But in the end it all came back to me and when it hit me, it hit me hard.
Running out the door on day five, I decided to take some water with me and I absentmindedly grabbed an old bottle of water from the fridge. Bottled water was not part of this challenge. When I realized what I had done it was too late, my heart sank and not just because in my mind I failed the challenge; but because in that moment I realized how lucky I really am. Clean drinking water is a necessity of life and yet the World Health Organization says 750-million people around the world don't have access to safe drinking water.
And it's not just the water that the world's poorest don't have access to, it's the refrigeration, the storage and the food itself. This challenge was eye opening for me, living on such a tight budget even for just a few days really made me appreciate what I have. From saving citrus peels for seasoning, to slowly chewing so I could savour every bite. I will never take food for granted again and even now I am driven to find more ways to limit my food waste.
All that remained were a few spices, some milk and a splash of oil.
While the challenge gave us a new perspective on poverty, we struggled with the concept as a whole. Is attempting to live with so little for five days insulting to those who do this every day? Can we really appreciate what it means to be hungry when we're counting down the hours until we can eat again? Is the struggle of being surrounded by free food and not being able to have any even realistic for those living in poverty?
No. None of it is fair, or right, or justified. But maybe the lessons we learned about ourselves and our consumption habits are part of a bigger picture. Most of us found a new love for lentils and we were all shocked by how much we spend on groceries in a typical week. In the end, we all walked away with a new appreciation for food and the privileged background we often take for granted.
The Live Below The Line Challenge officially kicks off on April 27, with restaurants across Canada joining the cause by creating special $1.75 menus to help demonstrate what it means to live on so little.
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