It’s a truth universally accepted: students aren’t the most efficient when it comes to budgeting food. For the late-night library owl or the post-clubbing reveller, the need for quick sustenance burns an easy hole in the pocket. Spending a fiver on a meal deal and a coffee is a bad practice that most of us readily admit to: but what if those five pounds were all you had to feed yourself for a week?
Kajsa Arnlund, a second-year German and Linguistics student at York, took up the Breadline Challenge to put herself to the test. An initiative championed by UK charity Child.org, the challenge involves participants living on five pound’s worth of food and drink for five days: nothing more. With half of the world’s population living on less than two and half a dollars a day, and 3.7 million children living in poverty in the UK alone, perspectives on our own consumption habits start to take shape.
“The main motivation for me was reading more about the charity which we would be supporting. Child.org is an organisation with a large focus on social entrepreneurship, working hard to ensure that money raised directly helps people who need it,” Kajsa said. The food writer Jack Monroe was one source of inspiration, whose frank accounts of raising a child under the breadline has shaped her approach to cooking. “Although I was aware that my challenge could never truly match the struggle of children and adults living under the breadline every day, I was excited to be raising money for such an inspiring cause.”
On such a budget, however, there is an inevitable lack of ethical and environmental choice. In making the week’s scanty food shop, Kajsa noted that she “no longer had the financial flexibility to purposefully choose organic, fair trade free-range products or products with more sustainable packaging.” With caged-hen’s eggs around a pound cheaper than more animal-friendly alternatives, responsible consumerism took a back-seat to basic nutrition. With no spare change for a mid-afternoon snack, each meal became a serious affair: “Having to stick to one pound per day meant that grabbing a quick coffee or something from a vending machine just wasn’t feasible, and meant that my diet was stripped back to the basic principle that the food I had was going to get me through the day, and nothing more.”
“I thought I would have missed something specific, like chocolate, cake, or tea, but mainly I just missed being able to eat when I was hungry. We do really take for granted the fact that when we do feel a bit peckish, we can rifle through the kitchen cupboards or pop to the shops.
For those living under the breadline, small and often sporadic meals reduce energy levels and mood. Although this is the norm for those to whom it is reality, for Kajsa, it was unfamiliar. Balancing work and study on pittances of food – with nothing more than the odd banana to sustain her – began to take its toll. “On the Thursday night I felt very ill, as I think I was just running out of energy whilst trying to keep up with approaching assessment deadlines and trying to squeeze as much work into the day as possible.” Consistently low energy levels led her to consider the long-term effects of such a diet, “not only with regards to weight loss, or other physical changes, but in terms of their mental health and general motivation.”
Kajsa ended the week after having raised over £660 for the charity, and with a clearer awareness of life for those who live on very low incomes. Yet for millions, the challenge is ongoing. “The week offered me some insight into living under the breadline, but the light at the end of the tunnel was always that my challenge lasted only five days, whereas for some people this is just real life. I hope to continue to support Child.org to combat this global issue.”