How I got by spending $3.30 on food each day for 200 days
OPINION: As a medical student with growing student debt who needed to move out of his parent's Auckland home for a placement in Waikato, I realised I would become a part of the demographic that we studied regularly at medical school - the materially poor who performed worse on nearly all health outcomes.
As an avid promoter of healthy lifestyles, I thought I'd try an experiment to show it's not all about the money.
So, for the last 200 days, I've eaten on a budget of $3.30 a day, eating the exact same food, every day, every week.
HERE'S HOW IT WORKED
Breakfast (when I had time for it) consisted of two Weet-Bix and milk (about 30 cents a day).
Lunch consisted of ham and toast purchased for the week (about $1 per day). Occasionally I'd treat myself by adding lettuce and even cheese if I really wanted to splurge, which averaged about 30 cents extra.
Finally, the dinner special: pasta, mince, pasta sauce and onion, together costing about $2 a day. There's a lot to like about this meal besides its price. It took 20-30 minutes to cook the entire week's dinners (a bonus for a busy medical student), it tasted good enough for me to eat every day for 200 days (Monday to Friday) and had a good range of protein and carbohydrates. Add a bit of vegetables into the mix and it may have ticked all the nutritional boxes - something I will keep in mind for my next 200 days.
This was my diet for 200 weekdays straight, with weekends being my cheat days to rejuvenate, whether it was bacon and eggs, fast food or occasionally continuing the $3 a day tradition anyway out of routine. I also maintained 20 minutes of vigorous exercise each day, which cost me nothing and helped me keep a balanced lifestyle.
There's a lot to like about this bare-bone diet. Not only did it free up my decision-making strength for more important life considerations , it also relieved me of many of the anxieties associated with the poor student lifestyle by realising I could survive comfortably with very little.
Most importantly, this experiment illustrates the reality of poverty in New Zealand with a rather controversial opinion: it's not just poverty of material wealth, but also a poverty of culture.
Here I was, living on $3.30 a day for food, living at one point in a house with nine other students squeezed into a four-bedroom home, and living in what many refer to as a "high-risk" neighbourhood filled with takeaway stores, fast food and crime.
I would be tempted every day on my walk to the hospital with two giant signs advertising a tempting $2 pie combo, and admittedly I gave in about twice during the 200 days.
According to everything I had been taught at medical school, this environment should have sent me on a path towards poor health and a failure to achieve. Yet, in this environment I became the healthiest, most productive and most successful I had ever been.
At the same time, I witnessed firsthand the health struggles of those in poverty during my medical community visits throughout the year. I noticed that while material poverty was present in the majority, there were usually other more challenging social circumstances such as abusive relationships, solo parenting, drug abuse or other criminal involvement.
I was very fortunate to instead associate on a day-to-day basis with my medical student flatmates, doctors at the hospital and ambitious colleagues - a network of intellectually stimulating peers that led to minimal drama and distractions at home.
While I don't suggest that poverty isn't a factor in health, social and cultural issues - such as family violence, binge drinking and fast food - may play a larger role than material poverty.
However, targeting material poverty with food-in-schools campaigns sounds a lot more attractive, and often gets much more public support in funding.
Plenty of effective campaigns that have targeted culture, whether it's Family Violence - It's not OK, Smoking - Not our Future or John Kirwan's Depression Campaign, have led to far better outcomes than the "feel-good" breakfast in schools programme, and a bigger emphasis on these cultural interventions could have great benefits for New Zealand.
Having now returned to my parent's home in Auckland and finished my experiment, I'm already missing my daily pasta and mince ritual, though I have come out reassured that one can maintain a relatively healthy lifestyle even with very limited amounts of both time and money.
Moving forward as a society in tackling our social issues, reducing material poverty alone isn't enough - instead we must focus on interventions which will encourage a change of culture.
Mark Bekhit blogs at markbekhit.co.nz.
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