$5 a day challenge: A real food fight

This is the first in a week-long web series that documents Kevin Rey’s experiences living off of $5 worth of food a day. Check back daily for another post.

Things are way too expensive in Vancouver.

By now, I think we’ve all had that moment where we’ve seen yet another bombed-out crack house with no windows and at least three ghosts selling for a cool $1.5 million on the real estate market. We just don’t react anymore, because it’s so common to see.

Early this semester, I wrote an article about just how absurd it is to rent as a student in Vancouver — but in all honesty, the financial gouging doesn’t stop there. The same premium prices apply to many other facets of life, like gas and food. Expatistan, a website that aggregates prices for all kinds of products, ranks Vancouver as the third most expensive city in Canada, and 27th in North America out of 67.

Starting in 2012, an organization called Raise the Rates has shown just how disconnected wages are with the cost of living in Vancouver. Each year, they issue a challenge, asking participants to only spend the same amount on food that someone could if they were on welfare. Since rates have been frozen while rent and other costs have steadily increased, in 2016 that amount was $18.

Only $18 for an entire week’s worth of food.

I’m not going to pretend that students at SFU are under the same kind of pressure as people supported by welfare (although there were SFU students who literally couldn’t afford a place to live, so they camped out on campus), but we do have to pinch pennies lest our student debt become sentient and try to conquer the world.

We’re also bombarded by a never-ending torrent of information that is asking us to consider society, our health, and the environment with every transaction we make. Eat less meat, buy local and organic, no dairy, no gluten, no cannibalizing other students. You know, the usual.

Taking all that into consideration, The Peak and I hatched a plan. We thought it would be interesting to see what kind of life is possible when we really hunker down on our food spending. So, for the next week, I am going to only spend $5 a day on food.

Some thrifty (read: graduate) students among you have probably already figured out that something like this should be easy for me if I roam campus for scraps and free food from departmental events. But for almost all of us, that’s not really possible.

I’m going to behave like a reasonable student with limited free time.

Here are the rules of my $35 Week Challenge:

1 – I can only spend up to $35 for the week on food and drink.

2 – I can only accept free food if other students could reasonably do the same.

3 – I am going to buy local as much as I can, since I’m constantly being told to do so.

By the end of the challenge, we’ll see if I’ve managed to survive mostly intact, or if I’ve started to do an impression of Matt Damon at the end of The Martian.

Today was my first day on the challenge, and I can already tell this is going to be really difficult. There’s something about seeing a bounty of untouchable food at home that seems to make me even hungrier than I would normally be. At the same time, I can’t help but be a little disappointed in myself: I haven’t even gone 24 hours and my stomach is ready to leap out in search of a better host.

New Westminster has a great farmer’s market that brings in produce from Chilliwack and Surrey, as well as other homemade cheeses, wines, and such. So, I went in search of my supplies for the week. The vendors were all very friendly, and I had a good time doing my best impression of an environmentally conscious retiree.

But the thing is, $35 really doesn’t go that far. I had an existential crisis when a vendor told me that the butternut squash I had brought him would be $5 on its own. I immediately thought of one day in the week where all I would eat is that squash, and I think my stomach started to pre-emptively digest itself.

Full disclosure: I normally shop at that farmer’s market and will probably continue to do so after this challenge ends. There are lots of good tangible reasons to buy local produce like freshness, reduced environmental footprint, and supporting farmers who treat their animals well. The big problem is that their stuff is several times more expensive than the food imported from China that ends up in the chain grocery stores. For better or worse, my local pride got the best of me and I ended up buying mostly local.

After some deliberation and fretting, I decided to pick up these supplies for the week:

  • 12 eggs
  • Two cans of tomato paste
  • 900g red kidney beans
  • 800g long grain rice
  • 800g all purpose flour
  • 800g semolina flour
  • Four onions
  • One head of garlic
  • One loaf of bread
  • One jar of strawberry jam
  • One litre of one percent milk
  • $2.50 for things like spices, salt, and butter, that are really hard to buy for only one week.

We’ll see how this week goes.