Internationally, the Extreme Poverty Line is defined as the equivalent of AU$2 a day. 1.4 billion people currently live below this line, that is 1.4 billion people who do not have the basic choices and opportunities that most Australians take for granted. Imagine just eating below the poverty line for one week – Rachel Hills did. She writes
This morning I ate muesli for breakfast. It was delicious. This is not noteworthy in itself – I eat muesli for breakfast most days, and it’s always delicious – except for the fact that it cost almost as much as my entire food budget the week before.
I’ve just finished doing Live Below The Line, a joint initiative of the Global Poverty Project and the Oaktree Foundation, which challenged Australians to spend just $2 a day on their total food budget for a period of five days – the equivalent of the US$1.25 per day that the World Bank defines as the Extreme Poverty Line. (Click here for more information on how this amount was calculated.) Having recently moved to London, I was living off 93p per day. 1.4 billion people around the globe do it every day.
As my first paragraph may have tipped you off, I’m a bit of a foodie, and going into the challenge, I was a little scared. Would I last five days without my muesli, or more importantly, without my favourite fruits? There would be no takeaway sandwiches, no Coke Zero, no wine, no fish.
In truth, it was easier than I expected. It helped that my boyfriend (full disclosure: who works for the Global Poverty Project) and I were doing the challenge together, and thus had a whooping £9.30 to spend between us. It also helped that most people had done it the week before, so we could learn from their mistakes: carbs might fill you up on the cheap, but if they’re all you eat you’ll just end up feeling sick and sluggish. (You can see the food we did end up purchasing above.)
As it was, I felt hungry much of the time, but it wasn’t the constant distraction I had anticipated. I found myself feeling dizzy and my toes turning numb as I walked to the bus stop after work, but it wasn’t the perpetual light headedness others had described.
What hit me most was how quickly Live Below The Line altered the way I thought about food.
One young women who’d recently completed the challenge commented on Twitter how disgusted she had felt when she saw someone take a bite into an apple, decide they didn’t like the texture, and throw it in the bin – something all of us have done at one point or another. Preparing my first breakfast of porridge and half a banana, I discovered part of the fruit was bruised. Normally, I’d have thrown that part into the bin, but this time I ignored it. I couldn’t afford to picky when I didn’t have the luxury of going out and buying a new banana.
Normally, if I felt peckish between meals, I’d buy myself a piece of fruit, a muffin or a chocolate bar. During Live Below The Line, I took a bite of carrot whenever the hunger pangs got too much, or drank another glass of water and decided to suck it up until dinner. I learned quickly to eat only when I was hungry and to stop eating when I wasn’t: food I didn’t eat today was food I could eat tomorrow. I was also struck by the things I didn’t miss. I confirmed my suspicion that my daily Coke Zero (or two) was less an addiction than a bad habit. And I didn’t long for my near-daily bar of Cadbury once.
These lessons are what Live Below The Line is all about. Living in extreme poverty doesn’t mean eating nothing at all. It means having to constantly think about what you do eat – about which foods will best satiate your hunger without sacrificing your health. It means knowing that eating more in one meal means you’ll have less to eat in the next. It means knowing that the kind of “treats” most of us in countries like Australia, the US and the UK indulge in on a daily basis – coffee, chocolate, alcohol – will cost you a day’s pay (or in the case of a glass of wine, 3-4 days’ budget!).
More than that, it means knowing that when something does go wrong – say, if you get sick – you’ll have to choose between fixing the problem and eating that day. People living in extreme poverty don’t spend their entire “$2” on food – they have to stretch it across accommodation, transport, education, clothing and more. One participant who took the challenge particularly seriously wrote of how she had to choose between a Panadol to treat her cold, a tissue, or her next meal. Living in extreme poverty means lacking the choices that most of us take for granted.
Living Below The Line for five days was do-able, if unpleasant. It was made easier knowing that it would soon come to an end (by day four, my boyfriend and I were fantasising about the pizza we’ll be ordering tonight). My boyfriend’s colleague, Richard Fleming, did it for 90 days. I would not want to do it permanently, though, and no one should have to.
Do you think about the food you eat, the money you spend on the food you eat? Could you survive below the line for a week?