Foodie Paul Johnston usually spends his days capturing images of delicious meals created by some of Edinburgh’s top chefs.
As a leading food photographer, there’s no shortage of mouth-watering dishes to tuck into once the camera has been put away and the job is done.
But what used to be one of his favourite perks of the job has now turned into its biggest pitfall.
For Paul, along with wife Mary, has just embarked on a food challenge with a twist and pledged to cut what they spend on food and drink to a mere £1 a day each – not even enough to buy a typical takeaway coffee.
As if that’s not tough enough, the string of tight rules and regulations they have attached to their month-long challenge means that even though Paul is regularly surrounded by the very best of delicious free food, he can’t tuck into a single morsel as every bite they take must come from their tiny daily budget.
“It’s torture,” says Paul, 45, who hit on the £1-a-day meal challenge to highlight a string of food-related issues, from the difficulties faced by families scraping by on a tight budget to the scourge of food waste.
“I work a lot with chefs like Mark Greenaway photographing the food. Usually when the work is done we’d tuck in because you don’t want it going to waste.
“It was only the third day of the challenge and I arrived to find Mark had made a beautiful chocolate dessert and a dish of monkfish wrapped in Parma ham. Any other time I’d have been right in. Instead I had to apologise and walk away.”
Paul and Mary’s challenge – aimed at raising money for food waste charity FareShare – kicked off on the first day of the month. They set aside a total of £56 for their entire month’s food and drink shopping bill, a fraction of what they would normally spend on their favourite organic meats, free-range eggs, trips to the fishmonger, and fresh fruit and veg.
Instead, that’s all been swapped for supermarket “basics” ranges of bread, pasta and teabags, cheap frozen meat and fish, a collection of spices and herbs to jazz it up and a single packet of digestive biscuits to see them through the whole month.
However, as they eke out their month’s rations and make the most of products like the 20 frozen sausages Mary found for £1.50 at her local supermarket, the couple’s cocker spaniel, Bailey, is living it up on top-quality meaty rations.
“The dog is actually going to be eating better than us for a month,” says Mary, 34, who works as a contract analyst.
“The freezer is full of duck and salmon with apple and butternut squash because he’s a working dog and he needs his food.
“While he’s tucking in, Paul and I will be making the most of what there is and hoping it tastes OK.”
They have already spent around £45 of their month’s budget stocking up, leaving a mere £10 for any extras. That includes Mary’s special dairy-free milk, an essential as she can’t drink ordinary milk.
The hope, explains Paul, is to highlight the tough choices that many families have to make every day because they can’t afford anything but the basics.
“I’m a big foodie and I try to support local suppliers, but that goes right out of the window when you have a tight budget,” says Paul.
“On the other hand, it’s been interesting to really look at supermarket prices – a lot of everyday products are so cheap, they are either making a loss or not paying their suppliers enough.
“It’s been interesting too to compare how the more expensive things we’d normally buy compare to the really cheap versions. We bought seven frozen fish fillets that had come from Alaska and still only cost £1.65 – yet if I bought two bits of haddock from the fishmonger in Leith, I’d probably spend around a fiver.
“They looked OK at first but shrank when we cooked them. And the cheap sausages contained only 42 per cent meat, which makes me wonder what is in them.”
The couple’s daily coffee has been replaced by bargain teabags that cost just 20p for 40. But even they have to be rationed, so Mary now drinks the occasional cup of hot water instead.
Their normal breakfast cereal has been replaced by cheap porridge made with a splash of water. And lunchtime sandwiches, crisps and juice have been ditched in favour of homemade soup and a slice of “value” bread.
“It’s so easy to go to a shop or vending machine and spend £3 or £4 on lunchtime drinks, snacks and crisps,” says Mary.
“Being on this budget means you have to think about everything you eat and drink.
“I’ve actually been properly hungry for the first time in ages, so the food we are having we really appreciate.”
Dinnertimes are usually some bargain meat or fish from the freezer, livened up with a sprinkling of herbs or spices which have all come from their £56 total.
And that could prove the biggest challenge, for just a week in and Paul is already finding himself craving strong flavours to give his tastebuds a lift. “I’m putting chilli on everything just to liven it up,” he says. “And while I’m not a big drinker, I’m starting to crave a sip of cold beer in the evening.
“Our only treat is a packet of digestive biscuits. I’ve taken to dunking my occasional biscuit into my tea very slowly, savouring every single bit of it.”
The couple have set up a blog to document their food challenge and its impact on their mood and health. And family and friends who are supporting them have raised more than £500 for FareShare. The couple plan to add £150 to the total, the amount they would normally spend on their food for the month.
“We’re finding it is possible to feed yourself on just £1 a day, but it’s whether it’s morally right that people are buying food that is really not great quality is another question,” adds Paul, whose business, CopperMango, specialises in food photography.
“It will be interesting to see how it affects us – there are already days when I’m moody and grumpy which I think is down to not eating what I normally would.
“We’re also finding it’s very restrictive. I used to wonder why people would spend money on cigarettes and drink and not have much money for food. Now I realise that the food they have is so dull that you get to the point where you’d rather spend money on cigarettes or drink that you might get a bit of pleasure from, than eat. Already, it’s been an eye-opener.”
FareShare aims to help tackle hunger by dealing with food waste. For more information, go to www.fareshare.org.uk.
Drastic 8lb weight loss after just nine days
Less than a fortnight into their month-long challenge, and living on £1 a day has already taken its toll.
Paul was shocked to find he’d lost eight pounds in weight after just nine days – and suffered a sudden energy slump during a weekend stroll around Arthur’s Seat.
As the days rolled by, the couple’s conversations increasingly revolved around fantasy dinners and favourite foods.
In his blog, Paul also points out that while the couple have managed to buy bags of frozen “value” meat, closer inspection of the packaging revealed it contained 25 per cent fat. “I do worry about the impact on people’s health if this was the typical mince they were eating on a regular basis,” he blogged.
The couple are keeping a record of everything they cook, buy and eat on their blog, plus detailing their activities and how they feel.