Living below the Line

talks to York students about a challenge to raise awareness for food poverty


Image: Ethan Coyne

Thirty pounds… Forty… Fifty? How much would you estimate that you spend on food and drink each week? This is a conversation I find myself having with several other York students, in a meeting for the University of York’s International Development Society. We’re cosied up on sofas in a corner of the Yourspace YUSU lounge, huddled in jumpers and sharing some delicious home-cooked dishes brought in by society members. After some discussion on the topic, it becomes apparent that for many of us, the money we spend on food and drink might be a lot more than we like to admit.

Once you factor in the odd takeaway, a few drinks in Salvo’s (or whatever your preference), and maybe a coffee here and there – the numbers can really add up. And whilst we’re used to these everyday little luxuries, it can be worth taking time to re-evaluate what we really need, and understand how privileged we are to have this abundance of choice. In order to do so, we’re learning about Living below the Line, a challenge run by the Hunger Project UK.

The challenge aims to help us better understand the realities of living in extreme poverty. The premise is simple: survive on £1 per day, for five days. The reason for the £1 per day rule relates to what is known as the Extreme Poverty line. Created by the World Bank, this is the limit under which we define those who are living in “extreme poverty.” (In 2015, the World Bank actually changed the global line, from $1.25 to $1.90, to accommodate for inflation and rising living costs globally. This increased amount would convert to around £1.44, based on current conversion rates. However, charities running the Live below the Line challenge continue to use the pound-per-day rate as a guide.)

Despite the progress made, the distribution of development has been incredibly uneven

According to the World Bank’s most re-cent estimates, in 2013, the amount of the world’s population living under the new definition of extreme poverty was 10.7 per cent, compared to 12.4 pecent in 2012. The World Bank report states that there has been “marked progress” in reducing poverty over the past few decades. The first Millennium Development Goal target—to halve the 1990 global poverty rate by 2015— was reached in 2010, five years earlier than targeted. Despite the progress made, the distribution of development has been incredibly uneven.

In drought and war-stricken East Africa, progress has been slow. The Hunger Project UK reports that currently, almost half of the population of Senegal lives on less than 80 pence a day. Almost half of the population of Senegal is illiterate, and 22 per cent of all children aged 5-14 are working, rather than in education. Furthermore, Senegal’s economy is mainly based on agriculture, with 78 per cent of the population employed in the sector, but drought and other impacts of climate change threaten the harvest each year, making this a very unstable and unpredictable means of income.

The global Live below the Line campaign technically terminated two years ago, but several of its partner charities still continue to run the initiative individually. The Hunger Project UK is one of the charities that does so, raising funds for 18 000 communities across South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. In an effort to raise money for the charity, several students from the Inter-national Development Society have recently taken the challenge. While spending just £5 on all of their food and drinks during the five days, they will also be donating what they would normally have spent on food and drink –including coffee, alcohol and eating out – in the hope of raising awareness about global extreme poverty.

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Image: Flickr

In order to better understand why the society was motivated to take part in the challenge, I reached out to some of its members. Hannah Abban, Publicity Officer for the society, explained: “It was World Food Day on our launch of the challenge (the Give it a Go session, which took place on 16 October), so we felt it was appropriate to look at an issue that affects so many people today – lack of food.

As students, we do sometimes live in a bubble and it can be tempting to just push awareness of issues to one side to focus solely on our studies – this challenge will hopefully fight that mindset. As we all know, this issue hits pretty close to home too, since numbers using food banks in the UK have risen over recent years.”

And what did she hope to gain from doing the challenge? What kind of awareness did she hope to raise? “Western society has become deeply desensitised to many global issues that don’t severely affect them personally. This challenge is unique in the sense it forces you to confront these everyday realities and thus, to some extent also experience the emotional aspect of things first hand.”

It’s not just hunger that is the problem, it’s the type of food that you’re forced to eat every single day without any choice.

Living on a mere £1 a day, were the students able to stay healthy? Did they starve? Many of the students participating in the challenge bought a “bundle” of foods with their £5, surviving on only that, and no other products from their house, for the duration of the five days. For Kristin Nadarajah, this bundle consisted of: a large bag of potatoes, a packet of rice, several tins of various beans and chickpeas, a swede, two jars of curry sauce, butter, and a loaf of bread.

She said, “It started off well, and I was pleasantly surprised with how much food I was able to get for my £5. Then after two days I really started to struggle, as the food was not filling me up even though I had plenty of potatoes and rice. My energy levels started dropping and I just generally felt bad. The lack of variety and fresh food also made the food unappealing.”

For Kristin, it was not necessarily quantity, but quality and choice of food that was an issue during the challenge: “I certainly didn’t feel completely like myself. It also made me realise even more that it’s not just hunger that is the problem, it’s the type of food that you’re forced to eat every single day without any choice. When it’s the same rice, lentil or corn dish, this has implications for your quality of life.”

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Image: University of York International Development Society

I asked Tanya Nyatanga, the chair for the society, about her reasons for taking part in the challenge. She explained, “I wanted to start a conversation. World hunger is a huge problem, and it’s insane to think how likely you are to starve or be chronically undernourished – which often comes down to where you’re born. I wanted our society to have a role in encouraging more people to think about world hunger and the work that the Hunger Project and other charities out there are doing.”

So, I asked, how did she find taking part in the challenge? “Quite stressful, actually! It was harder than I expected, because all of my meals had to be carefully planned out in advance, there is no room for spontaneity, and you have to really limit yourself. Being hungrier meant it was harder to concentrate at work and during lectures and seminars. Having quite a fast paced schedule meant I found it harder to keep up.”

Although we’ve done this challenge, we know that we can go back to eating whatever we want next week. That changes things

I also spoke to Sophie Noonan, a representative from the Hunger Project UK, about the benefits of the challenge, and other initiatives run by the charity. She said, “It’s a great way for people to experience what it is to actually struggle to feed yourself; to identify and understand more. A Day in Her Food (an-other challenge run by the charity) is an initiative where we invite people to experience the typical daily meals of a woman in Senegal, Bangladesh or Peru. It’s really about getting closer to people living in poverty. If you do the challenge as a team you can support each other, you can get more people, and you can share resources.” So it’s clearly about building a stronger sense of community – both for those that take part in the challenge, and the communities it is helping abroad.

Richard Fleming and Nick Allardice, who originally set up the challenge in Australia with the Oaktree Foundation, said they wanted people to better “understand the emotional realities of poverty”. I asked students what they thought of this. Tanya Nyatanga was sceptical as to whether this can ever be achieved. “I’m not sure to what extent we can truly experience the emotional realities of extreme poverty. I think the hardest thing emotionally would be the lack of hope of ever experiencing another reality, for those who re-ally live in extreme poverty. For us, although we’ve done this challenge, we know that we can go back to eating whatever we want next week. That changes things.

By doing the challenge, I’ve felt stressed and tired constantly, and it has made me think about what it means to live below the poverty line. But it’s also highlighted how much we can never really understand, because the reality is so much worse, and more permanent. It foregrounds why it’s so essential that we help by supporting charities that effectively work to eradicate world hunger.”

While the £5 for five days challenge is extreme, and not conducive to optimum health, these students have proved that it’s certainly doable in the short term and might lead us to rethink how we spend our weekly budgets. Foods such as rice, beans, lentils, pulses, potatoes, are some of the cheapest to buy yet still contain a range of vital nutrients like complex carbohydrates and protein. However, many important micronutrients like iron, iodine and vitamins are lacking with such a simple diet, which is why many students re-ported feeling “tired” and having “low energy levels.”

Furthermore, the Living below the Line challenge does only consider food and drink costs. If those taking the challenge were to account for all other daily costs – heating their houses, taking hot showers, and other luxuries that we take for granted in the western world – their daily expenditure would far exceed the definition of the world poverty line. It simply would not be possible to take the challenge literally, without drastically altering everything that we consider to be basic human rights. Which, of course, speaks volumes about the enormity of the gap between a Western idea of hardship, and the real experiences of it for those in the poorest parts of the world.

As students, we do sometimes live in a bubble and it can be tempting to just push awareness of issues to one side to focus solely on our studies

The challenge has also made me think about the environmental impact of our eat-ing habits. Since we know that drought in sub-Saharan Africa is worsened by climate change, there appears a clear inequality: between those countries that contribute most to climate change, and those that suffer most from its effects.

In the Western world, our ‘consume-and-dispose’ society is geared towards convenience, speed, and a mind-boggling abundance of choice, meaning that we often end up making choices that are detrimental to the environment. Plastic upon plastic wrappers coat pre-packed sandwiches in supermarkets, single-use straws and plastic cups fill the bars and clubs. As consumers, most of us give little afterthought to this cycle, whereby these disposable products ultimately see the majority of their lives piled up in landfill sites and floating in our oceans.

And on top of that, the ability to eat what-ever we want, whenever we want, can be a big issue for food waste – rather than using up last night’s leftovers, we might be tempted to get a takeaway, or eat out. For Sophie Noonan, food waste is an issue that is absolutely pertinent. “It’s not so much a question of choice – it’s good that we can experience food from other places. It’s more that we have to be really careful regarding the waste, whether that’s more waste in terms of packaging or waste in terms of food by making sure we only buy what we need. Shopping with a budget, making a menu, you have to be careful in what you’re eating and the quantity you’re eating… you realise how lucky you are to have a lot of choice and a varied diet.”

I asked the students for some final reflections on the challenge. Were they likely to change their eating habits in any way? Had the challenge changed their perspective? Kristen muses, “I think that my eating habits were already quite decent before the challenge, I’m just more thankful for the amount of choice and fresh food I have available to me.” Tanya is unconvinced that she will change her eating habits day-to-day. “Honestly, I don’t think so. We live in a country where we do have so many choices, and we’re all just so used to taking ad-vantage of that.” But, she reflects, “It is such a privilege to have so much choice, and having that choice suddenly taken away made me truly appreciate the huge difference between our lives, and the lives of those who don’t have the options and choices that we do.” M

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