In February 2010, I quit my job. I did so with $15 in my purse and no new job lined up. I made my decision at 4.50pm after a particularly nasty day – by 5.15 I had cleared my desk, taken down photos of my kids, packed up my coffee cup, box of earl grey tea and some two minute noodles out of a drawer and cleared the computer cache of a bunch of recipes I had drafted.
I am a foodie from way back. I cook so well, people have moved to the other side of the world to live with me so they can eat my food (this is true). I am the one my friends ask for a recipe when they don’t have one. I write about food elsewhere, I study new recipes, I share my meals with those I love.
I had $15 in my purse and an empty pantry and fridge. My last pay was banked a few days after I left work and my immediate needs were to pay the rent. So, with a heavy heart, and still no job lined up, I went to Centrelink, as mendacious and Kafkaesque as any bureaucracy in the world, and signed up for social security, or as it is known in Australia, a Newstart Allowance.
It became quickly apparent that the allowance was barely enough to cover my rent and utilities. It left me with just $120 per fortnight with which to feed my family.
And with that, this project was born. The Challenge began with one purpose – to feed my family – an 18 year old boy and a 17 year old girl – 14 meals for $120. I refuse to resort to frozen meals, highly processed foods or calorie-dense, nutritionally poor meals. I don’t do margarine.
Since the Challenge started, food prices have inevitably gone up and from the beginning of 2011, it has been impossible to keep to such a strict budget. However, I still use $120 as a guide to feeding my family each week – $120 to feed them breakfast, lunch and dinner. Three meals a day, every day. Breakfast usually consists of breakfast cereal or toast, with a cooked breakfast every Sunday; lunch is a packed lunch of sandwiches, fruit plus a baked item or treat; dinner is a home-cooked meal.
It’s not just me that has this challenge. Around the world, millions of people are living with low disposable incomes – they are students, they are single income families, they are the working poor, they are heavily indebted, trying-to-pay-it-all-off people, they are saving for a deposit for a house or a wedding or a year travelling. They are amongst us all.
$120. Seven main meals. Breakfast and lunch. Some snacks for lunch boxes. The occasional sweet treat. No margarine and no bad food.
It can be done.