York: Five days below the Poverty Line

Reliving the lives of billions: talks to two people at York who, this week, are living off just a £1 a day

“When you first say five pounds and five days, most people say, well that’s quite easy. I could do that. Then they take a second to think about it.”

This week twelve students and our five full-time YUSU sabbatical officers are to join thousands worldwide in embarking upon the Global Poverty Project’s Living Below the Line initiative. The challenge: to live on just a pound a day for five days.

The sabbatical officers’ sponsorship page tells us that “this challenge demonstrates the problem in a concrete way.” And indeed this campaign is an effective way for us in the first world to relive what 1.4 billion people – over 20 times the population of the United Kingdom – go through every single day.

My greatest revelation in all of this was that you could get a bag of frozen mixed vegetables for 72 pence

With inflation taken into account, £1 is the current global figure to define extreme poverty. And as the website notes, this isn’t just for food and water, this is for all the expenses of daily life. It’s extraordinary to think how we fritter our small change away. A bottle of water at Costcutter, £1.50. A return bus into town, £2. Even entry and a shot at humble Willow comes in at three times the daily target. A bit of mid-revision retail therapy? You can forget it.

Where does one start in trying to plan fifteen meals at a meagre 33 pence a-piece? Olivia Beecham, who is leading the sponsorship charge with an impressive count of over £1300, is organising the James College team: “I’ve actually made a menu for myself. Water and oats, every morning. Then I have the choice of rice and pasta with kidney beans, tomato sauce or frozen vegetables.”

I can’t say the salivary glands were set into action at the sound of this, however, Olivia then moves onto what she calls her ‘luxuries’: “I’m quite looking forward to my one tin of rice pudding, and I’ve got some meatballs.”

On the menu this week... Olivia's supplies

Bob Hughes, YUSU’s Welfare Officer, also had his attention piqued by the frozen vegetables: “My greatest revelation in all of this was that you could get a bag of frozen mixed vegetables for 72 pence. I’m going to power on through those vitamins.”

Apparently getting a balanced diet isn’t top of either’s list. Olivia takes a line with which I’m sure many British people could sympathise: “No tea is the main thing for me. No tea, no coffee. It’s psychological, I feel hungry all the time, even though I’m not. It’s just because I know I can’t eat whenever I want to.” What day of the challenge are we up to? “And yes I know, it’s only day one!”

Bob may just have budgeted for a sanity-restoring cuppa. “Coffee and tea are a big one. I think I’ve got about 18 pence left, I think the standard price is about 2.5 pence for a tea bag. I might ration them and see how I go.”

So what has that £4.82 been spent on? “I’ve used one of the recipe guides which was on the Living Below the Line website. I’ve got some really cheap jars of curry sauce which look disgusting, I’ve been informed it might be alright but it looks pretty vile. And quite a few bags of pasta. Spaghetti, rice, that kind of stuff. The cheap sauces will hopefully make it palatable!” Once again enough to send one’s taste buds into panic.

But it’s the vending machine, bearing down upon a mid-afternoon rumbling stomach, which Bob is most worried about: “I think I’ll miss snacks the most, because I graze quite a lot. Those little high sugar pick-me-ups throughout the day. I think I’m already missing them!”

How else does this compare to normal life and the inevitable food budget? “This is bad because I don’t necessarily set one. I probably spend about ten to maybe fifteen pounds [per week]. I tend to buy in bulk and do a lot of my own cooking. So that side should be alright.” Cutting down food expenditure by a factor of two or three seems a stretch. And Bob does admit a notable barrier to getting through this week: “I do eat quite a lot.”

Receipt for the weekly shop for two, £9.97

Living Below the Line no doubt provides participants with a great personal challenge, but it is perhaps its effectiveness in spreading awareness that has made it the global success it has become. Placing how much we spend into perspective is what Bob sees as the primary benefit: “Five pounds for Monday to Friday is the same as two sandwiches in Brown’s. The world’s poorest people live on roughly a pound a day for everything, including shelter, including medicine. Yes I’m living on £5 for food, but I’ve got my laptop here, a bed to sleep on, and I can keep myself entertained on things that I just wouldn’t be able to afford if I was in absolute poverty.”

Olivia agrees, saying “the whole point is that it makes you think about those people who don’t have a choice, they have to live on this amount of money every day.”

The money raised goes straight to charities, tackling poverty at the grassroots, although Olivia and Bob’s chosen causes, Restless Development and International Service respectively, go about this in very different ways. Bob expands on the work International Service does: “It raises money and awareness for local areas in poor countries to make sure they have enough food available. They also focus on the education, encouraging people to find new ways of growing their own produce, so there’s a sustainability factor in there as well.”

Olivia’s chosen cause directs its energies specifically towards young people: “I really like what they do. It’s a youth-led charity and it basically helps empower young people in the developing world. It teaches them how they can become doctors, lawyers and so on. But it also shows them how they can get more involved in their government, and in turn encourages governments to involve their nation’s youth.”

Olivia actually has another reason to undertake the challenge: “I actually want to work in the charity sector. I want to do things related to poverty or education.” She acknowledges the difficulties in the sector, but feels that getting stuck in is a way to avoid this: “I’d like to work in the third world, I’d like to be there on the ground. The charity sector is so commercialized. People are so worried about admin fees. You work for a small charity and you don’t get paid, you work for a big charity and people look down on you.”

For us students there is certainly something to be learnt for our own lives – that your loan (or overdraft) can stretch further than you might think. Olivia, like me an habitual Morrisson or Tesco’s shopper thought so: “I’d never been to Aldi before I came to York. You get a lot of stuff for you money!”

Bob thinks everyone should have a go: “If people find it interesting they should think about doing it next year. However, this is with all the optimism of only being half a day in!”

No matter what strains fall upon those undertaking the challenge this week, one can always stand by the poster on Olivia’s wall, which advises in all its wisdom, that you should simply ‘Keep calm, and have a cupcake.’ £1.50 in Costa? Sadly this may not be on the menu.

To find out more, or to donate, go to www.livebelowtheline.com and search any of the participants, or follow Olivia’s progress at olivialivesbelowtheline.tumblr.com

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