Living Below the Line - Understanding the Challenge

I must admit that I felt just a little bit of trepidation as I contemplated the terms of the Live Below the Line challenge – live for five days on only what food and drink can be purchased for $1.50 per day. What if I totally underestimate my caloric need and end up spending the whole week with plummeting blood sugar levels and gnawing hunger pangs? What if it turns out that I’m essentially clueless as to my nutritional requirements and I end up getting a little loopy by day three? Yes, and as soon as I recognized this most central of human fears – the fear of not having enough – I realized that I absolutely had to accept the challenge. Over a billion people, without having any choice in the matter whatsoever, live day in and day out for years on end or for the entirety of their lives with the uncertainty that I was fearful of experiencing for just five measly days. Okay, then, count me in.

The Buddhist practice that I embrace encompasses the bodhisattva ideal – the vow to save all beings rather than merely working for the liberation of oneself. In reality, such a vow is so incredibly huge that it becomes all too easy to pay it lip service in lieu of really taking it to heart. Sure, I vote with a social conscience. Yes, I embrace the philosophy of living simply so that others may simply live. Yeah, I embarked upon a career change in order to better align that which I truly am with that which the world truly needs. Unfortunately, though, it’s all too easy to become complacent or self-congratulatory about the role that we play in making this big huge world what it is – teetering, as we often do, between thinking that we’re doing quite enough and thinking that we can never do enough, anyway, no matter how hard we try, so why bother. And so it is that with this Live Below the Line challenge I am reaffirming my bodhisattva vow to save all beings. For me to really take seriously this vow I must be willing to feel at least a little bit of what all beings feel.
Five days worth of food?

After much reflection and exploratory shopping, I assembled the food cache displayed in the photograph above. Excluding the one-pound bag of brown rice at upper left the total cost came to $6.05, or $1.21 per day. The $0.99 bag of brown rice represents my “food bank.” If it turns out that I’ve underestimated my needs, then I’ll break it out. Otherwise, I’ll have a modicum of leeway with which to “purchase” something as yet unforeseen – some soy milk perhaps, or a bit of sweetener, or maybe a tin of tuna fish or some olive oil.

Some truths become readily apparent as one begins to assemble such a cache of food as the one above. First and foremost is the fact that most of the food by volume will be in the form of dried grains, beans, or legumes. Thus, instead of making food-buying decisions based upon nutritional need, one makes them on the basis of that which will most adequately stave off hunger. I’ve tried to achieve something of a balance with my purchase of some fresh vegetables, but a diet of all fresh fruits and veggies would be both cost-prohibitive and not very filling. Can you imagine living for an indefinite period without the means to adequately address your nutritional needs?

Another fact of being challenged in such a way is that variety is of secondary or tertiary concern – or of no concern at all, for that matter. I quickly went from thinking that I might be able to have a regular dinner of fresh greens with home-made salad dressing to realizing that I’d have to make one big pot of something that I’d end up eating for both lunch and dinner for the entire five days. This lack of variety encompasses a virtual lack of anything that might be considered a luxury or an indulgence. For instance, this coffee shop frequenter must now get his caffeine fix from a ration of four teabags per day, at a cost of 1.1 cents each. I didn’t even know tea could be purchased so cheaply, but I'm glad for it being so!
Another “luxury” that I’ve allowed myself is that of continuing to take my usual B-vitamin supplement. I priced these at 6.1 cents each after managing to find a 90-count bottle of NatureMade multi-vitamins marked down to $5.49 from $10.99. One might be able to indulge in a few such “luxuries” by teaming up with others who, due to this challenge or necessity, are working within similar dietary constraints. For instance, the fact that my girlfriend and one of her daughters are also taking the challenge allowed me to purchase a variety of green vegetables which we then apportioned amongst the three of us. The curious and the fact-checkers amongst my readers can check out my receipts and menu below.


So, the challenge has begun! I’ve had my 1.5 cups of unadorned oatmeal for breakfast this morning and I’m sipping on 2.2 cents worth of tea! My lunch and dinner soup/stew is in the fridge. I’ll have more to say about its preparation in my next installment. Thanks for checking in! And please don't forget those who have no choice but to live with so many constraints. 


Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank



  1. We really don't know about those who live without the things we take for granted daily. I may join you on this five-day quest for knowledge.

  2. Yes, it IS a quest for knowledge. Thanks, Mindy! I wish you just enough hunger for the advancement of knowledge!


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