Sunday, May 1, 2016

Optimizing Below the Line

The week's food for Live Below the Line 2016
Over the years that I've been involved in the Live Below the Line challenge, friends have voiced concern about whether I consumed enough calories over the week. My response has been to address them in a cursory fashion - it's only for five days, no real harm done. This year I thought it would be useful to provide a bit more detail on how my dietary choices for the week stack up. It's  interesting, because even in the microcosm of a week of impoverished eating, we can glean insights about the trade-offs confronted when living at the poverty line. And maybe consideration for these trade-offs happens overtly, making calculated decisions over the week as I have done, weighing the costs and benefits of consuming adequate calories versus avoiding often highly processed foods. Or perhaps not so overtly or consciously contemplated (we don't all like playing with spreadsheets...), where foods are chosen that induce happiness or make you feel full or are just plain convenient. For many, in the end it's still an economic choice.

On looking at the spread of food I picked up for the week, it actually not only looks adequate, but relatively varied and nutritious. However, it quickly becomes apparent that optimizing solely for calories leaves some gaps in variety and micronutrients that are sought after in a balanced  diet. In years past, I've forgone additional grains in favour of a nice cabbage or a few extra sweet potatoes. But this was also possible given that I only undertake this 'challenge' for a week. For those who don't have the option to go back to their 'regularly scheduled programme' after five days, a calorie deficit day-in and day-out, months and years on end, can be wearing and debilitating. In this year's breakdown you'll notice that starchy staples (I include split peas) make up over 85% of calories and over half of my budget. FAO estimates that over 70% of calories in the developing world come from carbohydrates in contrast to less than 40% in developed countries, which seems to check out. 

Item
Calories per Day
Other Redeeming Qualities
Cost
Rolled Oats (750g)
600
High in fibre
$1.05
Brown Rice (1kg)
700
Protein
$2.29
Split Peas (500g)
330
Protein and fibre
$1.60
Potatoes (500g)
90
Um…
$0.50
Sweet Potato (240g)
40
Beta carotene/vitamin A
$0.48
Pumpkin (675g)
65
Beta carotene/vitamin A
$0.99
Carrots (400g)
30
Beta carotene/vitamin A
$0.52
Onion (170g)
15
Flavonoids
$0.26
Canned Tomato (400g)
15
Vitamins C & E; lycopene
$0.59
Salad (120g)
5
Vitamins A, C, & K; Iron
$0.30
Bananas (600g)
100
Potassium
$0.75
Salt (25g)
0
Iodine; flavour enhancer ;)
$0.05
Curry Powder (15g)
0
Anti-inflammatory properties
$0.50
Cinnamon (2g)
0
Anti-inflammatory properties
$0.12
TOTAL
1990 kCal/day

$10.00

The trade-off perhaps also helps to explain why the food security discussion has for so many years focused on quantity over quality (it could also have something to do with the history of food aid...). Getting people enough food is far easier and cheaper than getting the right food to them. Some effort has gone into the breeding and integration of fortified crops like golden rice and orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, both of which try to address vitamin A deficiencies, particularly among malnourished children. More recently, development groups have tried promoting home gardens as a means of introducing variety and nutrient-dense foods into both rural and urban diets. In developed countries, we are less plagued by a reliance on cassava, maize, and rice, and moreso on processed foods that replace nutrient-dense whole ingredients with cheap fillers and additives.

Finally, let's turn to the situation here in Australia. It has been quite a shock to me, finding the cost of food here in Brisbane greater than either Washington, DC or Oxford (check out the related posts for past budgets...). I think part of the reason the breakdown this year is so carb-heavy - and I should note it's the highest calorie count of the five years - is because fruit and veg is so gosh-darn expensive. This in and of itself is astonishing considering how conducive the weather is to growing crops year-round (kinda like California...) - 2/3 of Australia's land is devoted to farming, although 90% of that is for grazing animals and livestock. According to the Queensland Farmers' Federation, the state produces the majority of the country's banana, pineapple, mango, mandarin, avocado, beetroot, and  tomato harvest. That said, there are a couple of things that could be driving the prices up: Australia is a large country, concentrated in urban hubs (with a tiny part of the population growing food distributed across the vast rural areas), so the distance food travels is generally high; water is scarce and irrigation is usually a necessity; and a small number of retailers (well, two) dominate the sale of food. So for now, I will have to make due with produce from the 'sale' shelf and large quantities of rice over the next five days. At least it provides ample fodder for contemplating 'nutrition security' and the everyday challenges of making dietary trade-offs when faced with financial constraints.

Don't forget, You still can donate this year!

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