Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Forty Dollars a Day

How much do you spend on food each day? Do most of you even consciously count? What would you do if you could spend only 40 Hong Kong Dollars a day on food?

Some friends and I were having this conversation one random day, and decided to experience this ourselves. For 3 days at our own choosing, we pledged to spend only HK$40 a day (equivalent to around US$5.2). "Why 40 Dollars?" you might ask. Well this is partly inspired by the Hungry for Change campaign organized by Justice Centre Hong Kong, a local NGO advocating for refugee welfare, and 40 dollars is daily food allowance provided to asylum seekers stranded in Hong Kong since they were not allowed to seek employment. (even worse when they were only provided $40 "worth" of food, not $40 in cash - so they don't even have a choice of what to eat)

Fish, Potatoes, Onions, Milk - these were turned into 2 meals. One hearty fish chowder, and one baked fish pie (cost? around $15 per meal)
I personally don't see that so much as a hardship "challenge" per se, or even as an attempt to fill someone's shoes. I am sure many people live on that kind of budget on a daily basis not necessarily by choice, given the high housing and transportation cost, children's education and so on in Hong Kong. Rather I am hoping through sharing my own experience I do my small part by shedding light on some of the food-related issues our society faces and to learn something for my own benefits in the process.

Before we start, we set our own rules - $40 means $40 worth of food and drinks per day, so even if you didn't pay from your own pocket, it still counts. And we included everything - regular meal, snacks, drinks etc. For items that we consumed only minimal amount such as oil and salt, we tried to estimate the cost and put that in as well.

For me, the first realization was eating out became next to impossible. True you may argue one could get a cheap McDonald's burger for $6, or a bowl of plain noodles for $10 somewhere, but that's about one could afford every now and then, and they weren't sufficient for one meal. Of course it goes without saying you could basically say goodbye to your daily $30 a cup Starbucks grande latte.

Japanese oyako-don (chicken and egg rice)
And having that constant feeling of "making ends meet" with a tight budget wasn't pleasant at all - every time I buy food I keep thinking how much I have left to spend. And I have to make sure everything I bought I could utilize it fully over multiple meals, so I need to plan ahead of what to cook and made sure there's as little "wastage" as possible. For example in the past sometimes I might conveniently use only the broccoli florets and ended up throwing away the remaining half, but this time, I diced up all the stemmed part to make a fried rice after taking the florets to do a baked fish pie. Or the canned tomatoes - so often I just threw away most of the juice in the can, but this time, I used til the last drop to make a soup for my noodles.

Noodles in Tomato and Egg Drop Soup
Another realization was food that I normally took for granted has suddenly became unreachable. Well I always knew fresh meat is pricey, but now I realize it is prohibitively expensive. Therefore I had to resort to frozen chicken thighs and fish fillets from the local wet market and rationed them carefully, so my $8 piece of frozen chicken could last 3 meals. On the other hand, I had a new found love for eggs - they are cheap, they are versatile, they are delicious and they are a good source of protein. I ended up eating eggs also every day. So were rice and potatoes - both economical source of carbohydrates that kept my stomach full and warm.

I also had a smack in the face by reality in the first morning. I woke up and immediately reached for my bowl of cereal and nespresso coffee, thinking I could at least afford what I considered the cheapest breakfast option I normally have (as opposed to going to a cha chaan teng or fast food joint). Then I realized even that cost $13 - essentially blowing my Day One budget apart. And for the next few days, every time I subconsciously tried to reach for snacks in the afternoon as I always did, I realized it has become tradeoff between a bar of chocolate now, or a slightly proper meal in the evening. It was painful - it's like the harder you tried not thinking about it, the more it popped up in my head.

Baked Fish Pie - big enough to serve 2
So, how much did I end up spending in that 3 days? $110, so I guess I barely got by with $10 to spare, but only after I skipped breakfast for 2 days. So for me, I suppose living on $40 a day was not out of the world impossible but I definitely felt the constraints. I even came up with a few recipes that I could share at a later time on how to cook a nutritious, decent frugal meal using limited choice of ingredients. And we were the lucky one that on Day 4 we could go back to our normal routine, sipping artisan coffees and nibbling on fancy macarons that alone cost $40 a pop, but for many, spending $40 a day is not a 3-day challenge but a matter of survival. 

And it didn't have to be that way. In Hong Kong, over 1 million, or 1/8 of the population lives under poverty line, and globally, 1.4 billion people lives on less than US$1.5 a day. At the same time, over 3200 tonnes of food waste is produced in Hong Kong EACH DAY, and our per-capita average was well above our nearby cities. Through awareness, advocacy, volunteering and action, hopefully we all can take our own little first steps to make changes to deal with the many food-related issues our society faces.

Whether it's the refugee welfare, poverty or food wastage issues that touch you most, here are a list of local organizations that you could obtain more information: 

Justice Centre Hong Kong Hungry for Change: www.justicecentre.org.hk/hungryforchange
Christian Action Refugee Centre: www.christian-action.org.hk/refugees 
Feeding Hong Kong: feedinghk.org
Foodlink: www.foodlinkfoundation.org
Green Monday Greenluck Banquet: www.greenmonday.org.hk/greenluck/

To find out more on how we did in the 3-day HKD$40 challenge, please find our pictures on our Instagram feeds under hashtag #crazyhashtag40d: iconosquare.com/tag/crazyhashtag40hkd. Also check out my friend e_ting's blog on the same subject.

1 comment :

bluebalu said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post - and applaud you for giving it a go. I know 40 HKD is not a lot of money to spend (and you rightly said there are many people in HK that have to live on less) but that's usual the minimum I'd spent on lunch alone... so it really opened my eyes and I'm not sure what I would buy/cook to get me through a day! It definitely made me think and more aware - thanks!