Live couldn't be better for Lydia Harris who opted out of supermarket spending - period. Photo/ Stuart Munro
Live couldn't be better for Lydia Harris who opted out of supermarket spending - period. Photo/ Stuart Munro

Zero grocery bill: Why this mum of four is smiling

A year ago when a Whanganui mother-of-four decided to opt out of grocery spending for 12 months few people believed she could do it.

But 365 days down the track and a zero dollar food bill is only the beginning.

With just three days until Christmas I imagined teeing up an interview with Lydia Harris (previously known as Lydia Harvey) to be near impossible.

Most people at this time were running around like headless chickens scraping up the last bits of their Christmas shopping or frantically tying up the loose ends at work before they headed on holiday.

But not Lydia. In fact she seemed relatively stress-free when she answered my phone call at 11am on Friday and agreed to catch up that afternoon.

She warned me that her place was a bit messy as they had only shifted there a few months ago.

When I arrived two of her children were zooming around the house on their bikes soaking up the summer sunshine.

I counted 19 chickens in a pen on my right and five beehives planted under a tree. Walking around the side of the house I was greeted by a goat and a dog before setting my eyes on one rather large vegetable garden.

Nineteen chickens keep Lydia busy but provide a good dose of eggs. Photo/ Stuart Munro
Nineteen chickens keep Lydia busy but provide a good dose of eggs. Photo/ Stuart Munro

Lydia gave me a quick tour before we sat down for the interview. But before I could get a question in, she insisted I have a slice of banana cake that she'd "just whipped up" a few hours ago.

Absorbing all my surroundings I began to see the perks of this so-called simple life.

So, how did it all start?

A few years ago Lydia's youngest child, Ashton, became chronically ill.

After taking him into A&E one night they were told to cut gluten and dairy out of his diet.

So, they did and within a month he was back to being his usual cheery self.

Five-year-old Ashton was diagnosed with coeliac disease and it was then that Lydia began to re-evaluate her family's eating habits.

"I had thought we ate relatively healthy but after my son got sick I started asking questions - anything I didn't understand I would Google and I realised that so much of what we eat isn't even proper food."

Her son's diagnosis was topped with a harsh reality of not being able to foot their weekly grocery bill.

It was at that point Lydia decided to take the plunge into what she calls a "backdoor revolution".

Along with producing fruit, vegetables, eggs, honey and nut milk, the family acquire food through a type of bartering arrangement.

Honey galore right in Lydia's backyard. Photo/ Stuart Munro
Honey galore right in Lydia's backyard. Photo/ Stuart Munro

"My motto is that if you give freely, it will come back to you freely. We always have so much surplus, and we give what we have and although we don't ask for anything in return, people happily give back to us."

Theory put into practice

Take-off wasn't as smooth as Lydia had hoped.

"Although we weren't spending money on groceries, the first nine weeks caused a lot of stress and I had been portrayed in the media as a bad mum which was tough.

"I got to the point where I said to my kids I can't stop you from eating treats and each week I gave them a $5 allowance, that they worked for, and they could use it to buy what they wanted."

She said what was interesting was that initially her children started using the money to buy McDonald's but it wasn't long before the novelty of fast-food wore off.

"They realised they could spend their money on other things because actually they were getting pretty good food at home. After that it was easy."

But her children weren't the only ones who took time to adjust.

"I found that people who were struggling themselves would come and check on us to see how we were getting on and see if we needed any help. But after a few months they could see that our lifestyle was becoming a lot more relaxed and they started getting on board."

The ripple effect

What started out as a way to cut costs and improve the family's diet turned into something more.

"I think no groceries is the bare minimum of how our life has changed. We've learnt that there is a better way to live and it's opened our eyes in more ways than one."

The first has been getting rid of "stuff".

"We had a huge home with lots of stuff, more than we ever needed, and then we ended up here in a situation where we had to start again."

As the year progressed Lydia started to realise that they actually needed fewer and fewer things.

"I think we get into the habit of buying - it's a birthday so we buy, it's Christmas so we buy, something has happened so we will just buy this."

She said getting rid of their TV had been a huge help because they weren't getting bombarded with commercial messages.

"We consume without even realising the cause and effect of stuff and I think because of everything around us we have actually been designed to want more."

Throughout the interview Lydia mentions these rules of thumb she has, one being that nothing is allowed to live in the house if it's not going to last a lifetime.

Certainly not short of vegetables. Photo/ Stuart Munro
Certainly not short of vegetables. Photo/ Stuart Munro

"It's made us value memories and time spent together rather than having things and this desire to want more."

And it doesn't end there. Because she isn't buying products from the supermarket she doesn't collect plastic which means no rubbish.

"We don't have rubbish because we don't use plastic and our food scraps are either given to the chickens or made into compost and put back into the garden.

Understanding food waste has changed Lydia's way of living.

"I had always been aware of food waste but I didn't realise actually how much food waste we were accumulating. On a global scale I would read about it all the time but locally I would think surely that's not happening here but it is and it's huge."

She said the further she got into the year the longer the ripples of impact would stretch.

"Supporting local businesses has been another part of it. I find that there is so much tape around small businesses and I think we will actually lose them if we don't support them - and I think that's the corporations' goal, to control what we consume."

Lydia is often found visiting local farmers and popping down to the markets to support local sustainable businesses.

"A lot of the older generation have been coming to me really inspired. They'll tell me stories about when they were kids and would go to town once a week to go to the butchery and the bakery. Hence the idea of a backdoor revolution."

She said it had become a thing in their community that when someone has surplus of something they will leave it on someone else's doorstep with knowledge that they know how to process it.

"You work out what comes from who and you just make sure you share what you can."

Although Lydia says she has not pushed her way on anyone, people have continued to take an interest in her way of living.

"We now do a hump day pot luck dinner every week and get four or five groups of people turning up each time.

"It's so funny because they will turn up and say 'look no plastic' and what's really cool is quite often they will bring something that I don't have access to and they'll take home excess homemade stuff so in a way we are food swapping."

Lydia's children Kaya (12) Ashton (5) say they love their new life. Photo/ Stuart Munro
Lydia's children Kaya (12) Ashton (5) say they love their new life. Photo/ Stuart Munro

She said her teenage son and his friends love it.

"I thought teenagers would be put off all this non-package stuff but they're like 'man your mum makes the best food'. We have a burger bar set up and they just help themselves."

Lydia's children Kaya (12) Ashton (5) say they love their new life. Photo/ Stuart Munro

Near the end of the interview I glanced around at her garden and noticed an array of diverse coloured vegetables - dark purple beans, bright orange cauliflowers and black tomatoes. So, I asked Lydia - "what's with the odd coloured vege?".

She was glad I asked because she said that had been one of the coolest things she had learnt this year.

"One day I tried growing potatoes from a packet in store and they grew with nothing at the bottom. I thought that was really odd so I did a bit of investigating."

She said that's when her interest in seeds began because she found out that a lot of manufacturers chemically treat their seed potatoes to prevent sprouting.

"That's why all my plants look different because traditionally that's how they were grown. Things like kumara, potatoes and corn aren't the colours you see them in the supermarket, they have been designed to be like that so people are buying with their eyes."


Check out Lydia's bright orange cauliflower - straight out of the garden. Photo/ Stuart Munro
Check out Lydia's bright orange cauliflower - straight out of the garden. Photo/ Stuart Munro

After stumbling across this information Lydia has set herself a new challenge to bring back the natural balance by saving her seeds.

"Because unfortunately when you start altering seeds and put them into a different state it affects things like pollination and natural growth. In this community we have a shared seed bank."

Looking forward

Overwhelmed with the abundance of knowledge Lydia had just planted me with, I nearly forgot to ask the most important question - will she continue with the no supermarket spending regime next year?

Without hesitation she replies, "absolutely!".

When she started she thought she would get to the end of the year and be dying to go out and spend but it's been the complete opposite.

"Life is so much simpler. I'm not stressed about getting food on the table and there's no desire to want more."

After the success of her blog called Back to Basics, which has gained followers in India and Australia, Lydia plans to take her mission to another level.

"Next year I would like to work on small workshops for low income families because I think everyone has this perception that everyone needs to be doing everything but that's not true."

"The main thing is to make conscious choices and that's what continues to drive me."