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$5 a Day Challenge: Starving for sustainable solutions

I am not the zero-waste person I want to be . . . but I will keep trying

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Image Credits: Phoebe Lim

This is the final post in a week-long web series that documents Kevin Rey’s experiences living off of $5 worth of food a day.

When my editor and I were talking about this challenge in the planning phases, she said that I should feel free to bail out if I started to become really malnourished. Of course, I laughed it off and said I would be fine, and went ahead with the challenge anyway.

She apparently didn’t believe me, because after she saw the groceries I’d bought, she repeatedly told me that I was “going to die.” But after spending $35 for a week’s worth of food, I managed to survive.

It definitely wasn’t totally smooth sailing, though. At the outset, I was faced with this idea of “planning ahead” that I really wasn’t used to. Because I didn’t want to deal with the nitty-gritty details, I made a few mistakes with my money.

Like how I bought milk, but I should have gotten cream or something that was better to cook with. I also managed to eat eight eggs in one week, which is probably too much cholesterol (even though eggs have been OK’d by new dietary guidelines). I should have also been a bit more aware of where my protein was coming from, since my diet was really carb-heavy. Soy isn’t a viable replacement for me because of allergies, but I probably could have gotten some mushrooms or fish.

This week, I made a few blunders in the kitchen, too. Right after all that talk about reducing food waste, I realized that I had let some pasta dough go bad in the fridge. There’s also that gross alfredo sauce that I might not be able to do anything with.

Every time that happens, I’m reminded of the other times I’ve wasted food, and I feel guilty and frustrated that it’s happened again.

That’s not the first time I’ve felt “trapped” when it comes to food. A while ago, I watched a particularly convincing documentary that made an excellent case for buying local food. The next time I went to the grocery store, I read through the label of everything to see where it was made, and I put back everything that I wasn’t sure was from Canada. I was also trying to think of the nutrition of everything I was buying and maybe try to get an organic version of it if I could.

But because I was so hung up on trying to do something that was environmentally blameless, I ended up buying almost nothing. I was overwhelmed by the perceived weight of my actions, so I didn’t do anything.

I was also comparing myself to this mythical hyper-sustainable person I thought existed somewhere in Yaletown or the West End. This hypothetical person only buys used clothes, makes everything from scratch, has their own balcony garden, and generates no garbage. I am definitely not that person.

I’m in my third year of my PhD, and I have to juggle way too much to be 100 percent local and zero waste. But despite the fact that I’m not perfect, I think I’m making progress.

I started making my own pasta, so I cut down on the packaging and processing. I also learned that using dried beans isn’t that hard, so I can cut down on the cans I buy from the store. Those changes are pretty boring on their own, but over time, I think they will matter in some tangible way.

So I’ll wrap this $5 a day challenge up with a new challenge for you: change one thing about the way you eat for the next week.

You could commit to cooking one more meal for yourself than you usually do. Or you could eat one more meal made with leftovers. At the grocery store, you could buy one less thing that isn’t grown in North America, or plan to go one more day without eating meat. You could also bring one more meal with you to school rather than buying. Start small, and celebrate your success.

Because I think if we took small steps together, we would set ourselves up for the dramatic changes we really want.

Thanks for reading, and good cooking.

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