Could you feed your family for $50?
The worst moment came at the end of the fourth day. I had $5.50 left to feed my family of five for the next 24 hours - our final day of 'living below the line' - and I was stocking up at the local supermarket.
I popped a bag of rice ($1.69) into my basket, along with a six-pack of eggs ($2.03). I usually buy free-range eggs which cost almost three times as much but when you're feeding your family on $2.25 per person per day, ethical food choices are a luxury you can't afford.
I picked up a few kiwifruit and a bunch of slightly over-ripe bananas. According to the sign they were $1.50 - a bargain! I put them into my basket feeling pleased with myself and headed to the checkout.
That's when I made the embarrassing discovery that bananas were a luxury I couldn't afford either. Rather than being $1.50 a bunch they were $1.50 a kilo, and they weighed in at about $3 - well over budget.
As I gave the bananas to the checkout operator to be returned to the shelves, I was struck by how privileged my life is. Unlike the 1.4 billion who live below the poverty line in developing countries, not to mention thousands of low-income New Zealanders, I rarely think about the cost of food.
I'd already had a glimpse of that a week earlier when I made my first ever trip to Pak 'n Save to prepare for five days of living below the line. The prices were a revelation. Who knew you could get bags of own-brand pasta for 62 cents or multigrain bread for $1.69?
But, as I measured out tiny quantities of brown sugar and assorted pulses from the bulk bins, I was humbled to see other shoppers doing the same. Unlike me, they weren't economising for just a few days. They shopped like this all the time.
I signed up to take part in the inaugural Live Below the Line in August last year, along with my colleagues at Volunteer Service Abroad, one of the charities involved in the event. The aim is to raise awareness about the estimated 1.4 billion people who live below the poverty line ($2.25 a day) in developing countries, while raising money for organisations that help fight extreme poverty.
In the interests of maximising my spending power I enlisted my husband and three teenage and young adult children to the cause. That gave me $56.25 to spend on food for five days.
Before the challenge kicked off, my workmates and I sent jokey emails to each other about the bargains we'd found (the best buy was 20 bread rolls for $1.38) and organised complicated food swaps. I traded a quarter of a cup of cooking oil for some garlic and carefully halved my $3.84 bag of coffee to share with another coffee-addicted colleague.
But as the week went on, the reality of living on a tight budget began to sink in. The biggest shock for me was how much time I spent cooking. No sooner had I prepared one meal than I was thinking about the next. Some nights I literally got up from the dinner table to start cooking lunch for the next day.
Coming up with interesting and tasty meals tested all my culinary skills. Meat was off the menu. Instead I soaked beans and chickpeas, I boiled lentils and I made a weird barley salad. I made my own yoghurt - and my own chapattis. Sometimes I cheated. I used spices from my pantry (I gave them a nominal value of $1) and I picked spinach and parsley from the garden and persuaded myself that they were cost-free.
We may have been eating "peasant food", but I certainly wasn't cooking it in peasant conditions. Whipping up a curry or a batch of chapattis is a lot easier when you have sharp knives, good quality cookware and a food processor.
Even so, I spent a lot of time worrying about how much I'd spent, carefully noting every purchase to make sure we stayed within budget. The final total was $55.32. On the last night all we had left was one serving of porridge, a crust of bread and a handful of barley.
Living below the line was a fascinating and rewarding experience. Thanks to the generosity of our supporters, my family raised more than $1000 for VSA's education work in the wider Pacific.
On a personal level, the experience changed my attitude to wasting food: I now try to use everything I buy, rather than throwing food out. It also provided a tiny glimpse into what life might be like for women in developing countries.
But for me, the biggest lesson I learned was how hard it must be for the thousands of ordinary New Zealanders who have to feed their families on not much more than $2.25 per person a day. I am filled with admiration for them.
Live Below the Line runs from September 24-28. For more information see livebelowtheline.co.nz.