Last month I somewhat impulsively committed myself to ‘Live Below the Line ’. For those of you unaware of the campaign, it encourages the Western world to step into the shoes of the 1.2 billion people that live below the poverty line by challenging them to live off £1 per day for 5 days. It’s pretty gruelling.
I’m a real foodie, it takes something really special to trump mealtimes as my favourite part of the day. For the 5 days of this task (this sounds so short now it feels pathetic) mealtimes quickly became something to quieten my belly (and my whines to housemates) rather than something even remotely enjoyable. With my £5 I bought:
- Carbs: Rice, loaf of value bread, 1 pack of value noodles,
- Beans and pulses: 1 tin value baked beans, lentils
- Fat: Butter (to cook and spread)
- Fruit and veg: x2 bananas, x2 carrot, x2 onion, x1 tin value tomatoes.
- Treats: x1 value biscuits, x1 value chocolate bar, x1 value rice pudding.
- Seasoning: 2 stock cubes
This challenge taught me a lot, but not quite what I was expecting. I was expecting to better understand and empathise with those in the developing world. I got at most a glimpse, summarised in the feeling of ‘hunger sucks’, but nothing more. The fact is, 1.2billion people is a lot to focus on, their lives, economy, culture and struggles are too distant from my own life. That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the importance of supporting such a cause (quite the opposite), just that this challenge didn’t bring me any closer.
For me, it came much closer to home, specifically Oxford. A few doors down from my house is a food bank, it opens twice a week and it supports an increasing number of families in crisis and it’s not an anomaly. The number of foodbanks in the UK has risen to 445, serving 1.1million people (up from 26,000 in 2009). We can no longer consider extreme poverty as something that happens elsewhere. Living in Oxford on a budget is tough, as with everything else here, food is expensive, there’s only 1 cheap shop I could find (Lidl) and it’s on the other side of town. The bus fare would negate any cost savings. I was stuck with Sainsbury’s basics. Here are my takeaways (pun not intended):
Hunger really does affect job performance
My productivity was hit by almost endless energy slumps, my belly rumbled 2 hours prior to any meal, my head pounded for 3 days solid with separation anxiety after an abrupt breakup with caffeine. I was tired, distracted and grumpy; not exactly a model employee.
Fresh food was the first to go
A balanced diet is no where near as compelling as a balanced budget - everything became about feeling as full as possible as cheaply as possible. Usually, I easily meet my ‘5 a day’ target, but with £1 per day, I barely made that over the whole 5 days. This might be fine for someone young and healthy for 5 days, but what habits does this entrench in children? How unhealthy must this be long term? Which leads me on to…
Forget long term, this is unhealthy from the off!
On Tuesday I fainted. Note: this is not a common thing for me, the only other time I’m aware of being unconscious was when I accidentally ran into some automatic doors that didn’t open in time - not exactly comparable! Takeaway (sorry, again) message - the effects of no protein and limited vitamins come in thick and fast.
Poverty is isolating
This might seem obvious but I was shocked by the extent. I’m fortunate enough to be surrounded by people who were exceedingly generous, curious and supportive of the challenge, but even so I felt my social life slipping. I couldn’t contribute or participate fully in birthdays, drinks after work were a no-go (yes I know you it’s not obligatory to drink but sipping on tap water with a hungry belly whilst everyone else sips on G&T isn’t fun). Perhaps the biggest moment for me was when my best friend, whom I had not seen in months, cancelled our plans because “there was nothing we could do on such a limited budget”. With an empty belly draining my coping mechanisms, disruptions to other elements of my life were tough to stomach (pun intended). I don’t blame him, I couldn’t proffer an alternative, but I was hard hit by the realisation that in a capitalist economy, even life-long friendships require financial investment.
More than anything, I’ve gained an awareness of the issues facing residents of Oxford and the UK. The fact is this is no longer a problem we can associate to the developing world, this is something our neighbour, friend or colleague could one day face. For me, this challenged the very divide between the developed and developing world. Surely we are all still developing? Perhaps we are further down the line and our problems are less acute, but that doesn’t mean progress should cease. At the risk of sounding too meta, it feels like we are at a crossroads, between a blinkered view of the impact of poverty in the UK and an opportunity to channel our comparative wealth and education into championing continuous reform.
Perhaps I could have reached the same conclusions by doing some research online, but I probably never would have found the time. The live below the line challenge is far from the only way (or even the most productive way) to engage in poverty issues, but it grabs you and consumes your mind. Your own hunger provides a very real emotional imperative to take action. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but I’d recommend it to all.