This week I had the nerve racking but ultimately rewarding experience of presenting a talk (twice) on The $35 Food Challenge as part of the City of Sydney Library’s ‘Lunches with Bite’. It would be an understatement to say it was a fantastic experience. Once I started talking I found I just couldn’t shut my mouth. And the reason is this.

It is estimated that 2.2 million Australians live in poverty. That’s 11% of us, and that percentage has been increasing over the years. Well may we say that Australia, as a whole, has weathered the global financial crisis and its aftershocks. Well may we say that as a population, we are objectively materially better off than at any time in our history, and yet convinced we’re all hard done by. But for that 11% of us for whom something like meeting a friend for coffee, going to a restaurant, catching a bus, ordering a pizza, recharging their mobile phone credit or even using their heating in winter is something they really have to weigh up, that kind of information brings little comfort, if any.

In fact, it is a slap in the face to every person living in poverty, because if we are so well off, why are those people not being taken care of? Why are Australians in poverty not being given to opportunities the rest of us have? In fact, why is there ONE SINGLE AUSTRALIAN LIVING IN POVERTY AT ALL? Why is there any one of us for whom a visit to the doctor, or the dentist, or an interstate relative is a complete financial impossibility? And WHY the FUCK are there children in this country, IN THIS CITY who don’t have access to the coloured pencils they need to do their homework, or enough food for their school lunch? AND WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT IT??

*Ahem*. You can consider that rant as bonus content. They certainly didn’t get that at lunches with bite.

I can’t thank Ellen Lowry and the rest of the folks at the library enough for having me, I really appreciate having an opportunity to speak on this subject. A huge thank you also to everyone who came out to hear about the Challenge, especially those of you who asked questions, made comments and generally got angry about poverty in Australia and creative about how to navigate your way through the process of going without. When this was just a kernel of an idea, I never imagined it would get anywhere near the kind of attention and uptake it has so far, and it is only growing.

Resources
And on the subject of thank yous, did I tell you there’s a $35 Food Challenge Food Spending Tracking App? You can find it at spending.the35dollarchallenge.com, it is free (you just need a name and password to use it). The app was designed, completely unprompted and at no cost whatsoever, by Jacky Lo of the blog Food Rules, who had the idea, emailed me to ask if it was ok (to which I replied OH MY GOD YES THAT WOULD BE AMAZING SORRY TO YELL AT YOU IN CAPS, or words to that effect) and the rest is history.

I also had a few requests for the powerpoint slides I used, you can download them here. The reports I referred to in the presentation are here and here, however ACOSS (The Australian Council of Social Services) will release their most comprehensive survey of poverty in Australia to date tomorrow, to mark the beginning of Anti-Poverty Week. You should also check out Four Corners’ ‘Growing up poor’ if you get a chance.

*Phew*. So, The $35 Food Challenge starts tomorrow. Are you ready?

It’s not too late to support The $35 Challenge. During Anti-Poverty Week, from October 14-20, you have $5 a day to spend on food. By experiencing poverty for just 7 days, we come to a better understanding of the realities and stresses of living in poverty. By blogging or tweeting this experience, we can raise awareness of an issue so often swept under the rug. And by donating the remainder of the money we would usually spend on food to Foodbank, we can make a real difference. For more info, click here.

For the first few years I lived out of home, I remember quite clearly my grocery budget – $35 a week. That number is burned into my brain. $35 after rent, bills, a weekly train ticket and whatever uni required that week. And that’s if nothing else came up. When you only have $35 to live on, essentials tend to fall by the wayside. In fact, they have to. This was my experience. I’d have a coffee once a week, and my aunt paid. I only went to bulk-billing doctors in my area, all of whom were overworked and uninspired. I barely exercised, except to rush between the places I needed to go. I didn’t buy shoes. I didn’t go to the dentist for 6 years. Eventually I dropped out of uni and went and worked fulltime in a cafe.

And if you think I was frittering away my money on trivial things, you’re wrong. I never ate in restaurants. Me and my housemate drank two beers a week together, and that’s only because our pub had a thing called ‘free beer Wednesday’, so that cost us all of $3.80 each. My Friday ‘treat’ was a $4.50 toasted sandwich at the uni tuckshop. For my 20th birthday, I treated myself to a new top, $15 at Myer.

What’s crazy is that I didn’t know that I was living in poverty.

I don’t remember those times as miserable, in fact, I remember them as a lot of fun. But when I look back on it now I’m amazed at my resourcefulness, I’m amazed at anyone’s resourcefulness at surviving on so little for so long. I’m also very thankful for the family and friends who kept me from going under- I don’t know where I would be without their help. Many people out there don’t have such support network, I have no idea how they struggle through each day.

This is not a hard luck story, but it is an example of what it’s like to live in poverty. And what’s worse it’s not uncommon. Approximately 2.2 million Australians live in poverty. That’s 11.1% of us without access to basic necessities like healthy food, dental care, transport, affordable housing and education. In a country of relative wealth, in stable economic times, I think we can all agree that is a disgrace.

But this is not about despair, it’s about action. It’s time to act to raise awareness rather than hiding our heads in the sand. That’s what we’re aiming to do with The $35 Challenge; experience poverty, raise awareness and raise money for a worthy charity, Ozharvest, who do so much for Australians in poverty.

I hope you will join us in the inaugural $35 Challenge, as we do our bit to raise awareness and funds in the fight against poverty. Every little bit helps.

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