Undergraduate student leaders from the Birmingham UK ASAP chapter gained invaluable insight into the lives of the global poor in taking the poverty-line challenge. They pledged to spend no more than £1 per day on food for five consecutive days. That limit is approximately equivalent to the World Bank’s global poverty line, or the level below which a person is said to be living in extreme poverty. The challenge has been promoted by the Global Poverty Project. The Birmingham ASAP chapter adapted it as a fundraiser for the Deshkal Society, an Indian NGO working on behalf of lower-caste persons.
Here, two ASAP Students members and their staff (faculty) adviser share their experiences of taking the challenge:
A New Appreciation for Simple Things
In June 2012, for 1 week, I pledged, along with my ASAP colleagues, to live on £1 a day to symbolise the 1.4 billion people that live in severe poverty — people who, through no fault of their own, are suffering from a complete lack of the most basic of human needs. Meanwhile, those lucky enough to be born in a land of plenty continue to live our lives comfortably.
We decided undertake the challenge to raise funds and awareness of extreme poverty which affects so many across the world. Of course a week-long challenge is nothing compared to the experiences of the countless men, women and children who, day in, day out, live through the harsh reality of poverty.
I learnt so much from the challenge (though I did cheat slightly by taking a day off and making it up later due to a family celebration), and also had a lot of support from family and friends, raising around £100 for the Deshkal Society in India.
I began by collecting my £5 for the week and making a trip to the local supermarket. I quickly found that certain products such as cheese were just too expensive to include, as were fruit and fresh vegetables. I began to realise that whilst so called ‘developed nations’ have increasingly become so health conscious, this is a luxury. I couldn’t afford to have a balanced diet – only enough to satisfy my appetite – though I did manage to sneak in a pack of donuts that had been reduced to 20p. I left the supermarket having bought bread, rice, sauce in a jar, eggs, beans, and not forgetting the donuts.
The response from friends was interesting. I went out with some friends half way during the week. Whilst they ate lunch and snacked on chocolate, and urged me somewhat worriedly just to take a bite of what they were eating, I ate my stick of bread, which I found very fulfilling. I saw that my level of appreciation for the simple things in life was so much higher. When you’re hungry, you don’t mind if your bread is a little dry and crumbly. You appreciate what you have. A friend who had completed the challenge before me said something so profound – “Eat for need, not for greed.”
Our society has become enveloped in a culture of eating. We eat as a hobby, not as a necessity – and with the great diversity in colours, tastes and textures that we are lucky enough to experience, we become picky and unappreciative. The challenge above all taught me the importance of gratitude, of humility and of the strength of human will and determination.
We can make ethical choices in life, and whilst we may sometimes have to give up some luxury in order to do this, ultimately that’s the road that people are increasingly inclined to take. Why should a man or woman in the developing world have to go without the basics in order grow mangoes and papayas to satisfy our exotic diets?
We have to challenge the injustices of the system we have helped to create. Buying cheap chocolate for example only fuels the unjust cocoa trade which relies heavily on child labour. Let’s each pledge to join the movement for change.
Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice.”
— Nelson Mandela
‘One Illness Away’ Lesson Brought Home
I began the challenge of living off £1 a day powered by the belief that such a task would be hard but possible. I soon realised that, in reality, being surrounded by expensive branded food in the shop I worked at, and becoming sick at the start of the challenge, the task both broke my spirit and was impossible once I became physically weak. It also made me realize that the things I consider normal in my daily life are mostly luxuries that many never get.
I spent my £5 budget for the week on mostly carbohydrates, firstly because they were the only things I could afford in this country (Britain), and secondly because I hoped they would fill my stomach for long enough. Even then I did cheat. I stole food from my house-mates’ fridge when I became hungry, and my craving for caffeine led me make two guilty cups of tea.
Working at my store proved both a luxury and a curse. People would approach me at the till with chocolate boxes that cost my entire food budget for that week! I really began to watch how much everything people bought even in a convenience store was actually a luxury. Chocolate bars, crisps, pieces of fruit, coffee all being bought simply because it was what someone ‘felt’ like having, whilst I served them hungry and wanting that chocolate bar that I couldn’t have.
The only positive side of my work was that I could eat food that would be thrown in the bin. It was considered ‘too old’ to be sold to customers but was still perfectly edible. Thus at the end of every day, I came home with a bag filled with expired treats I could never afford on my £1 per day. This got me thinking of how much I actually waste in my day to day life, and how wasting something is really a luxury that many wouldn’t dream of.
My final thought on this challenge was that for those who have no choice but to live off £1 a day, being sick or weak is simply not an option. Only one day into my challenge, I became ill, however I had the privilege of stopping until I became healthy and strong enough to start again. Many don’t have that choice, just proving that you can’t get sick if you live in poverty as the consequences are often dire.
Savory Food a Luxury Too Far on £1 Per Day
Luis Cabrera (ASAP Students Birmingham Adviser)
I’ll add just a bit to the compelling accounts offered by Shabaana and Heather. I was very pleased at first to find that by sticking to the ‘Basics’ line at ubiquitous British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s, I was able to buy sufficient calories for the week, with vegetarian protein and green veg as well. What I couldn’t buy was variety.
For my £5, I brought home a large bag of rice, several cans of kidney beans and, at 10 pence the can, a number of portions of that favourite British vegetable serving, mushy peas (far better than they sound). I also bought a cheap bag of popcorn for my treat food.
The first thing I realized was that I couldn’t afford anything to season my dishes. Nor did I have any oil for the popcorn. Most importantly, I hadn’t been able to afford any caffeine to support my pot-a-day coffee habit! The latter proved to be the most difficult part of the challenge, as I spent the first day absolutely listless, barely able to move from the couch at home.
So, I started to cheat. I took coffee from the cabinet, at home and at work. Then I took salt for the first batch of rice, beans and mushies. By the third batch, I had snuck some pepper, then paprika, then, shamelessly, a packet of that Puerto Rican spice-mix staple, Sazon Goya. At night, I snuck oil for the popcorn. I managed not to cheat with the free buffet food available at various campus events, but I can’t honestly say I ate on £1 per day. It just proved a bit too challenging to eat the same rather plain meal three times per day without any seasoning. And, shamefully, I only lasted four days of the five-day challenge.
What did I learn, besides affirming my rather low willpower threshold where savory food and caffeine are concerned? It was brought home to me just what a struggle it would be to try to feed oneself on such a small income, never mind trying to feed a family, and trying to keep them in adequate shelter, clothing, medicine, etc. I do recommend the challenge as a way to develop greater empathy and insight. It doesn’t put one directly in the shoes of an extremely poor person, of course, but it gives an invaluable glimpse into the barriers the global poor face in securing even the most basic necessities for themselves and their families.