Our Affordable Living Advisor, Chris Clyne, recently asked himself that question. He decided to try living off nothing but the contents of an emergency foodbox to try and answer this, and gain valuable insights along the way.
A foodbox is an emergency food package containing a minimum of three days’ supply of nutritious and non-perishable food which is given to someone in crisis from organisations such as foodbanks eg Midlothian Foodbank (such as those run by the Trussell Trust) and community groups and churches eg Edinburgh City Mission.
To better understand why Chris decided to set himself this personal challenge and to find out how he got on, we caught up with him to ask him some questions.
Hi Chris! What do you do?
I’m an Affordable Living Advisor at Changeworks. I give energy advice to residents in Midlothian who may be struggling with the cost of keeping their home warm or are worried about their gas or electricity bills. I also give advice on food waste and waste prevention, how to make food stretch further and meal planning. I deliver face to face workshops to help people manage their gas and electricity costs in addition to cutting their food waste, using our Kitchen Canny kit.
I try to help people manage their household budget. I aim to be a first resort, rather than a last resort.
Who do you work with?
I am currently working on the Midlothian Area Resource Co-ordination for Hardship (MARCH) project, a partnership between Midlothian Council, Midlothian Financial Inclusion Network (MFIN) and Changeworks.
The project objectives are to help people:
- Experiencing hardship and those affected by Welfare Reform to have improved access to welfare advice through increased local and targeted provision
- Be better able to manage their money, minimise their fuel costs and avoid food waste
- Access timely and effective support due to improved co-ordination and awareness of sources of hardship support services.
What’s in a foodbox?
According to The Trussell Trust, a typical foodbox contains enough nutritionally balanced, non-perishable food, such as dried and tinned foods, to last an individual or family a minimum of three days.
All foods are donated by schools, churches, businesses and individuals, or through supermarket collections. The donations are then given to foodbanks, who distribute them to people in need.
What is a foodbank?
Foodbanks, such as the Trussell Trust, are usually run in partnership with churches and community groups and provide a minimum of three days emergency food and support to people experiencing crisis in the UK. Redundancy, illness, benefit delay, domestic violence, debt, family breakdown and paying for the additional costs of heating during winter are just some of the reasons why people go hungry.
In addition to foodbanks, there are also social and community cafes, some run by parish churches, where the food is free of charge or for a donation.
Where did your foodbox come from?
I actually went to a supermarket and bought the contents myself, rather than from a foodbank. I based contents on a typical food box handed out by a foodbank. The foodboxes at foodbanks are specifically designated for those in need. The cost of the contents came to £20.18.
Why did you decide to try this out yourself?
It came up in conversation in a course I was doing, while working at social cafes. I saw a food parcel and wondered if I could take it to the extreme by making the minimum three days stretch to two weeks.
Also, through the MARCH project I sometimes meet people who receive the foodboxes and thought I could help them better if I understood more what it was like to live off the contents and share my experiences.
What did you think meals would be like?
I thought they might be repetitive, boring and bland. In some cases that was true due to the limited ingredients. I ate a lot of pepperoni pasta, which became quite repetitive. So I wanted to see if I could come up with recipe suggestions using the contents of the box to make meals more interesting, or at least give people ideas on how to use the contents, even if they vary a bit.
Did you think you would feel hungry?
I thought I would be fine. In the first week I didn’t go to bed hungry at all. However, into the second week I felt hunger pangs and more fatigued than normal. I realised this might be because I usually eat larger portion sizes and also eat between meals.
So were your portion sizes much different from normal?
Breakfast was slightly smaller than usual but lunch was about same size. Evening meals were generally lower in nutritional content. If I was unemployed, I would have been more likely to eat more as I would not have been distracted by work.
How easy was it to live off the contents?
I found it easy to start off with, but towards the end it became more difficult because I started feeling hungry more often.
Did it go as you expected?
On the whole it went better than expected. I managed to create recipes with the contents, for example fish cakes, and salmon with tomatoes in pasta. It forced me to make dishes I would never normally eat, which was actually a good thing.
I thought I could manage for 14 days but in the end I managed 10 days. There was a small amount of food left over, but it had become quite difficult to turn it into a meal without adding additional ingredients from elsewhere.
Did you use any other food stuffs from your cupboards?
Only salt and pepper.
What kitchen and cooking equipment did you use?
I used only one gas ring, a microwave and a kettle to save on electricity. I also used a pot, a pan, bowl and plates. The rest was just the usually crockery and utensils.
How did you feel during this experience?
The food was not as nutritious as I would normally eat. There were no fresh fruit and vegetables.
I started feeling hungrier into the second week which started to affect my judgement. I also started to get out of bed later. In general I didn’t feel as confident and had difficulty holding conversations with people – partly due to difficulty concentrating, fatigue and tiredness. I can see how easy it could be to fall into a kind of rut.
How did it affect you physically?
It affected me less physically, with only a very slight weight loss noted.
Were your expectations too high?
As the food parcel was expected to last a minimum of three days, I think I did quite well to make it last 10 days. However, by then I think it was already starting to affect my health. If I had no other options, then I would have tried to stretch it to 14 days, but this would have been at a clear cost to my health and wellbeing.
What did you take from this experience?
It certainly gave me an interesting insight into the difficulties people face when food is in short supply. I think that if I was unemployed and eating from a food parcel or even on this kind of diet for a prolonged period, I would have ended up in a rut that would be difficult to get out of. I can see how it could be easier to make mistakes, how my morale and self-esteem could be affected.
I think this experience will help me relate better with people who are undergoing extreme financial hardship. It’s given me more insight into how I could help them in my day to day job.
From a personal point of view, as a result I now enjoy cooking more and I’m more likely to cook from scratch for myself more often. I also eat more regularly throughout the day.
What advice would you give to anyone who receives a foodbox?
It is possible to make the box last longer, maybe six days and have better meals. However, much really depends on the individual, their different appetite and energy levels. I would also suggest trying to have four small meals a day to keep up energy levels rather than trying to stretch it out too much. Store some foods in the freezer or keep in sealed tubs, and plan meals carefully.
Would you change anything about what you did?
Not really. I might try to come up with different recipes.
Thanks for your time Chris! We hope your experience helps you pass on useful insights to anyone who needs them.
You can check out some of Chris’ foodbox recipes here.