Extreme Poverty and the Heart of the Live Below the Line Challenge

Cleaning out my fridge today taught me two key lessons.

1) I am not nearly as clean as I think, because holy crap that thing was dirty. To be fair, I ended up taking out all the shelves and bins, scrubbing nooks and crannies that probably hadn’t seen light in years. But still, I am disgusted at the environment in which I keep my food. That I eat. That my husband and daughter eat.

2) I waste food. A lot of it. I waste food in spite of the fact that I take pride in trying to be thoughtful about what I buy and how I use it. Today I threw out the last few pieces of a stale loaf of bread, a shriveled apple at the bottom of a bin, a serving or so of leftover stew, four or five Greek yogurts that were waaaay past their best-by date, and about a fourth of a bag of liquefied spinach. Some of this waste stems from a disorganized fridge, with items dying a slow obscure death at the back of the shelf.  The yogurt, though. That’s all on me. I found a brand I preferred better (Fage instead of Chobani), started buying that, and thus let the old stuff go bad. I told myself I’d get around to eating it, heck, that I’d let the wee one eat it, which is why it stayed in the fridge so long. In the end, no one ate it, and so I threw it out. In fact, I almost threw out an entire container of homemade roasted red pepper hummus that I’d just made, all because the texture ended up too watery. The ingredients are cheap, so I considered just starting over. Guilt alone kept me from taking that route.

So, with this experience of food waste fresh in my mind, I came across a link for the Live Below the Line campaign (via @twhiddleson’s Twitter feed), which challenges people to eat as if they lived below the extreme poverty line for five consecutive days. The hope is to motivate change by “bringing to life the direct experiences of the 1.4 billion people currently living in extreme poverty.” In the US, that limit is a measly $1.50 per day. For a five-day stretch, one person should eat no more than $7.50 worth of food. The LBtL website provides some handy guidelines for developing a shopping list and such.

The challenge obviously made me feel wasteful and indulgent, but it also intrigued me.  I mean, how much food does $1.50 a day actually buy?  Can a person live on that much in the US? The almost game-like quality of the LBtL campaign sets it apart from other similar initiatives, drawing participants into a test of savvy calculation and resourcefulness. I immediately started going through grocery receipts in my head but had a hard time coming up with products that would be cheap enough, let alone nutritious enough, to include. Based on my previous grocery runs, I know that staple foods would include frozen veggies, fruits and veggies on special for that week, and rice. Meat is pretty much out, as is coffee and beer. (Sad, sad day) Here is a rundown of what I paid for some of these items during a few recent trips to the store:

The following are items that, when broken into portion size, would make up staples of a $1.50 per day diet. An asterisk denotes sale items or those on special:

Chick Peas/Garbonzo Beans (Qty – 1 can)    $0.89

Black Beans (Qty – 1 can)                                  $0.89

Olives (Qty – 1 can)                                           $1.00

Yellow Onion  (Qty – 1)                                     $0.61

Avocados (Qty – 1)                                            $1.00*

Bulk Garlic (Qty – 1 head)                                $0.79

Baby Bella Mushrooms (Qty – large box)     $4.29

Bananas (Qty – bushel of 3)                            $0.52

Celery (Qty – 1 bunch)                                     $1.79

Carrots (Qty – bulk pack)                               $1.69

Green Beans (Qty – .49 lb)                              $0.98*

Fage Yogurt (Qty – 1 container)                    $1.00*

Frozen Peas (Qty – one bag)                          $0.88

Canned Diced Tomatoes (Qty – 1 can)         $1.08

Nectarines (Qty – 1.18 lb)                              $1.76

Bread (Qty – 1 loaf)                                        $2.89

Apple Sauce (Qty – med. Container)            $2.59

Here are items that would not have made the cut:

Whole Milk (Qty – 1 gallon)                          $3.19

Frosted Mini-Wheats (Qty – 1 box)              $3.00*

Chicken Breasts (Qty – 3 pack)                     $7.41

New Belgium Dig Pale Ale (Qty – 6 pack)    $8.99

I could obviously include lots more items here—these are just the few I bought recently. This list also excludes all luxury or extraneous items, representing instead the daily staples important to maintaining a healthy diet. (Okay, the beer is a bit of a stretch, but I argue it’s necessary for my mental health.)

Right off, I notice a troubling lack of protein, either meat or dairy. As with vegetarian or vegan diets, legumes and soy products fill that nutritional gap. I worry, though, that my eighteenth-month-old daughter would suffer, given the amount of milk she goes through each week. If I lived in a poverty-stricken country, would I still be breastfeeding? As for meat, I suppose I could spread out what I buy, using itty-bity portions every now and then. Seems more likely, though, that it would go bad before I used it.

More problematic, though, is the issue of availability. I could probably compile a decently healthy and tasty diet on $1.50 a day when shopping at a major US grocery store. I could do even better if I combined items with my mom and sister, who both live within walking distance of my house. Luckily for us, LBTL also provides a cookbook, which includes meal recipes that meet the project’s monetary limit.

How would my options change, though, were I living in a more remote area without access to a diverse range of affordable fruits and vegetables?  Clearly, the whims of craving and preference would go out the window. I’d eat a lot of what was available, which might not be much, or might not provide the range of nutrients necessary for a healthy diet. My father, who grew up in rural Iowa with seven other siblings, often recollects how Ketchup became their staple condiment. They’d put it on everything from eggs to grilled cheese. They didn’t necessarily love Ketchup; rather, it was cheap and readily available. Compared to poverty-stricken areas around the world, rural Iowa of the 1950s and 60s is downright luxurious.

I characterized the LBtL challenge as game-like for participants, but for those people actually living in poverty, it’s a matter of life and death. For LBtL participants, the short-term challenge of living on such a meager sum will ideally lead them (and those people watching them) to a better understanding of living in poverty, of what hunger feels like, and thus motivate their attempts to ameliorate such conditions. Am I hopeful that this and other initiatives will be successful? I don’t know. Poverty and hunger cannot be considered in isolation. They are the results of far more complex and wide-reaching global issues. War, political maneuvering, economic instability, and ecological devastation represent just a few factors causing inadequate access to food. Until we deal with these causes, how are we to alleviate their results?

LBtL gives a nod to such complexities, but, if people are like me, they might just throw up their hands in frustration at the severity and breadth of the crisis. I have a hard time staying positive as I attempt to trace the origins of poverty within the quagmire that is our global society. Despite my own attempts at self-enlightenment, I feel ignorant about poverty’s varied causes and am overwhelmed, absolutely cowed, by its scale and complexity. In short, I have grown weary of going down this rabbit hole and struggling to surface again with anything akin to insight.

Yet, futility and apathy are unacceptable responses to something that threatens the lives of 1.4 billion people. I should be ashamed to sit by—with my clean refrigerator filled with an abundance of food—and tacitly accept the starvation and suffering of others. I am deeply concerned about the state of the world, and I truly want to help improve the lives of others. I have no inherent right to the luxury in which I was born. I am no more deserving of its bounty than anyone else. I want to help end poverty, but I don’t know where to start.

The Live Below the Line campaign—with its clearly defined goals and helpful online resources—serves as an intriguing touch point for drawing attention to extreme poverty,  and it provides a well-defined route for getting involved in providing aid. Ultimately, its message is so powerful, so potent, because it hits participants quite literally in the gut. The hunger pangs brought about by a limited diet might provide a visceral lesson in what so many people deal with every single day. These pangs won’t in themselves resolve the issue of extreme poverty, but they do, in a sense, bring into focus suffering filtered out by easy living and cultural and geographical separation. They make manifest some of the theoretical conditions of poverty. The implicit rationale behind the Live Below the Line campaign is that experiencing and witnessing bodily discomfort might evoke that of our conscience and heart, and that this might engender more robust efforts to end extreme poverty better than any academic, theoretical contemplation. As the saying goes, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Perhaps the way to raise awareness of poverty and perhaps end hunger takes a similar route.

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