For the second year in a row, my interest in philanthropy led me to partake in the annual Live Below the Line Challenge, during which I freely choose to eat and drink on a budget of $1.50 per day in order to live in solidarity with the 1.2 billion people across the globe who live below the extreme poverty line. Last year, over 30,000 people took the challenge, each sponsoring a charity that works to combat global poverty. This year, my efforts went toward raising money for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
The following is a day-by-day account of my experience. To learn more about the specifics of the challenge, please visit the official Live Below the Line website.
Waking up on Monday morning, I was surprised to find myself not only in an upbeat mood, but feeling totally and 100% ready to take on the day, seeing the five days that lay ahead as a welcome challenge, rather than a daunting endeavor.
Breakfast was simple, but by no means unsatisfactory. One egg ($0.21), fried on the stovetop in a matter of two minutes, two pieces of wheat toast ($0.10 total), and a glass of water. Basic protein, carbohydrates, and something to keep me hydrated, hopefully until lunchtime. I left for school feeling confident, yet braced for the inevitable wall that I would hit around third or fourth bell without the help of any sort of healthy mid-morning snack.
The grumbling in my stomach started during third bell, as predicted, right in the middle of my AP Euro test. It certainly wasn’t unbearable, by any means, but still noticeable – something that got really annoying really fast, especially knowing that I still had to make it through another class before lunchtime.
After a morning full of long classes, a lunch of brown rice ($0.16 for a cup) and a banana ($0.20) didn’t sound like much of a reward, but I was nonetheless thankful just to have something to quell the hunger pangs. Was such a meal filling? To a point. But it left something to be desired – something chocolate, to be frank – and as I found myself surrounded by friends enjoying cafeteria cookies and saran-wrapped brownies, I was envious.
Even with food in my stomach and less than half a day to get through until I could eat again, a brutal headache hit toward the end of 6th bell, and stayed with me through 8th bell English, when I found myself thinking less about the upcoming AP exam and more about the prospect of an afterschool snack.
And let me tell you – a cup of Apple Jacks ($0.14) never tasted so good. For a while, it even put the headache to bay until close to dinnertime, when, after nearly falling asleep while reading (something that is very rare for me), I indulged in two cups of brown rice ($0.32) and a fried egg ($0.21). In hindsight, I’m not really sure why I didn’t just throw the two together to make a nice Benihana-style bowl of egg fried rice, but between the terrible pit in my stomach and partly due to my own laziness in not wanting to clean up an extra skillet, the thought must have escaped me.
With another cup of cereal ($0.14) later that night, I was off to bed feeling… meh. Sluggish. Lethargic.
Hungry – to get to the center of it. And the week was just getting started.
I woke up Tuesday morning with that second-day-of-the-school-year feeling.
You know the one?
I mean, the first day of school – you’re ready. You’ve started going to bed earlier as summer vacation creeps to a lazy end, ready to wake up bright and early on Monday morning, and everything goes as planned, besides the fact that you don’t know where your classes are and you left your lunch sitting on the counter. But the second day. Ugh. It’s a crushing reminder that you didn’t just sign up for one day – you’re in this for good.
That’s exactly how I felt when I dragged myself out of bed on Tuesday, which was especially dreadful considering the fact that I wake up at 5 a.m. sharp every weekday morning (even though I’m the worst morning person you’ve ever met). I was fine at first – excited to start the day for like five seconds until I realized that I couldn’t have Coco Puffs and fruit for breakfast and from that point on I pretty much just wanted to crawl back into bed and not come out for a week.
Nonetheless, I ate my handful of sugary cereal ($0.14) and a single slice of toast ($0.10), chased it down with a glass of tap water, and trudged out the door feeling tired and irritable (more so than normal) for at least the first half of the day.
Lunch was a slight pick-me-up given the fact that I decided to get creative with my limited options. On the menu: 1/2 cup of cereal ($0.07) and a peanut-butter-cucumber sandwich ($0.29). You heard that right.
And it’s delicious. (Also it reminded me of those posh little cucumber sandwiches they supposedly serve at tea parties although I’ve never actually seen them served at any tea party I’ve ever attended which is slightly disappointing.)
Of course, I received a couple of interesting comments during lunch about my… eccentric choice of sandwich topping, but fortunately, I was able to use such points as an impetus for a greater conversation. We began chatting about the reason I was eating what I was eating, which in turn led to the kind of inquisitive discussion I was aiming to start. What would it be like to live like this every day? What if I didn’t have the choice?
Dinner was bland and repetitive – another helping of rice ($0.32) and fried egg ($0.21) that I was simply too tired to combine into anything interesting. Follow that up with yet another ½ cup of cereal ($0.07) around midnight and I was left feeling grumpy and burnt out, bogged down and not particularly looking forward to what was to come.
First thought. Wednesday morning: What I wouldn’t give for a bowl of strawberries.
I’m a bit of a fruitophile. (Is that a real word? Probably not.) I’m half convinced that I could live the rest of my life entirely off a diet of berries, bananas, and oranges. The fact is, however, that if I was to go to Whole Foods for a pint of strawberries, I’d be out about ¾ of my original budget for the entire week. I ambled down the stairs that morning with my mind stuck on the interrelationships between the cost of healthy food, the American obesity epidemic, and poverty rates in the nation. More specifically, I was thinking about the fact that I was able to buy a box of Apple Jacks for $1.79 (on sale) whereas I was only able to afford two bananas for the entire week. Having participated in the challenge for a second year running, I’ve realized that in grocery shopping, it’s much easier to stock up on cheap, processed food than it is to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.
Last summer, I participated in the St. Vincent de Paul Rooted in the Vine retreat, during which a classmate and I were given a challenge that was eerily similar to Live Below the Line – we were given a meager $5 to cook a healthy, filling meal to feed a family of four. As an added challenge, we were only permitted to shop at the Vine Street Kroger in Over the Rhine, which serves the downtown Cincinnati area as the only grocery store for miles around. Serving primarily the low-income families that inhabit OTR’s growing community, the Vine Street Kroger is the lone oasis in the middle of the Cincinnati “Food Desert,” where local communities have extremely limited access to fresh, healthy food.
Compared to the Anderson Township Kroger that so many locals are accustomed to, the Vine Street Kroger is almost a shocking negative; whereas suburban supermarkets (like the Anderson Township Kroger) boast robust departments of fresh and exotic food, the fresh food in the Vine Street Kroger is in the back of the store, largely overshadowed by aisles of plastic-wrapped snack cakes and packets of ramen noodles. Is it really any wonder that those living in poverty so often find themselves with chronic medical conditions?
Anyway. Back to breakfast. Toast ($0.10) and cereal ($0.14). How exciting.
Throughout the day, it was exceedingly difficult to shake the thought of healthy food (and even unhealthy food – the chocolate craving crept up on me on the way home from school). For lunch, I finally opted to put forth the effort to make a bowl of egg fried rice ($0.38) that I’d slaved over the stove for the night before, and a ½ cup of cereal provided me with a little bit of extra energy to get through the rest of the school day.
As soon as I got home, I went straight for the pantry, bypassing the ever-so-tempting box of Oreos for the lonely loaf of bread in the corner. Two pieces of peanut butter toast ($0.35) later and I had the strength to finish a bit of homework before going all out for dinner and feasting on a fried egg ($0.21), another piece of peanut butter toast ($0.13), and four slices of cucumber ($0.02).
Before calling it quits for the night, and seriously wanting nothing more than just a square of chocolate, I used the remainder of my daily budget to account for another ¾ cup of cereal (which, along with toast, was getting really old really fast), falling asleep to the oh-so-melodic sound of a growling stomach, not quite sure that I could make it another day. Was it too early to throw in the towel?
There’s no argument here – Thursday was the most difficult day of the week.
With the end-of-the-fourth-quarter homework load hitting me at full force, I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the constant feeling of gnawing hunger, especially when it came to eating my meals with family, who, though they commended me for my philanthropic efforts, declined to take part in the challenge (primarily for medical reasons, I might add. I doubt that five days of hunger would bode well for two type-one diabetics, though let’s face it – there are plenty of diabetics who live below the poverty line in America and around the world).
In an early-morning whim, I splurged on breakfast, opting for two pieces of peanut butter toast and a ½ cup of cereal for a grand total of $0.47, immediately regretting my decision when I realized the impact that would have on the rest of my meals throughout the day. I had officially run out of rice with Wednesday’s lunch, and my precious supply of sale-priced Apple Jacks was beginning to dwindle, leaving me with few options that provided much substance.
While making up tests during lunch, I ate my peanut-butter-and-cucumber sandwich ($0.28) in the tiniest possible bites, having consumed the entirety of my ½ cup allowance of cereal ($0.07) within the time it took me to walk from 3rd to 4th bell.
By the time I arrived home, I was nearing my breaking point. I was exhausted. I was weak. It felt as if my body was slowly giving up on my mind, falling further and further behind, no matter how much I tried to remind myself that there was only one day left. Paying attention in class had become increasingly difficult that day, and looking down at the growing list of assignments for the night, I wanted nothing more than to give up.
Which got me thinking – is it any wonder that young students who live below the poverty line often fall behind in school?
In 2013, Tennessee State Senator Stacey Campfield proposed a piece of legislation that would cut welfare and food stamps for the parents of children whose grades suffered in the classroom, claiming that the intimidation factor would ultimately inspire children to “break the cycle of poverty.”
This is the same state where a single mother with two children only receives $185 per month in food stamps to feed her entire family. Take a minute to put yourself in that kind of situation.
In spending my week below the line, I began to notice a definite correlation between the availability/quality of food and academic performance. The less I had to eat, the more difficult it was to pay attention during class – the less motivation I had to work on homework at the end of the day. In a country where one in three children live below the poverty line, it’s no wonder that kids from low-income families often fall behind in school. Think of all the missed opportunities to learn; the strokes of brilliance that might have been if every child had proper access to a nutritious diet year-round.
As I sat down to my dinner of fried egg ($0.21), green beans ($0.18), and peanut butter toast ($0.12), my mind was occupied by thoughts of the children who must go without. I thought about the “What if’s,” the “What could have been’s” and the “What could be’s,” and headed off to bed hungry that night, feeling both great sadness and the unexplainable grace of solidarity.
As the sun crept over the horizon on Friday morning, my heart filled with triumph, anticipation, and a feeling of far-off gratification that came with the knowledge that in less than 24 hours, everything would be back to normal.
My bread supply was nearly down to the nasty heel-pieces that nobody actually eats, so I skipped the morning toast and opted instead for a carefully-measured cup of cereal ($0.14) that I could be seen devouring in the McNick parking lot at 6:50 in the morning. It was Academic Signing Day – the most hectic day of the year for a Milestone editor. Our team of four editors was going to be hard at work compressing 30 interviews and ten pristine academic records into one beautiful press release – all by the end of the day. From my perch at the temporary Journalism HQ on the library stage, I’ll admit that I spent a large chunk of my time gazing longingly at the bagels that were piled high upon the buffet table rather than taking notes. This was the one day I needed to be on my A-game as a student-journalist, and was taking every ounce of self-control just to keep away from the refreshment table.
Somehow, I was able to resist the magnetic pull of the breakfast buffet and focus on my work, powering through lunch’s disappointing peanut-butter-cucumber-sandwich ($0.28 though it was getting difficult to stomach at this point), and finishing my contribution to the press as I downed my last cup of cereal as an afternoon snack ($0.14).
My final meal of the week was simple – the last two eggs ($0.42), fried to perfection, and 1/5 pound of green beans ($0.18), all of which was consumed quickly and unceremoniously as I rushed out the door to make it to a friend’s music show.
From that point on, it was a countdown until midnight, which, in my case, just happened to land in the middle of a late-night screening of the Avengers sequel that I was attending with friends. Having purchased the largest possible popcorn before the show began, I was checking my phone every five minutes, until finally, the clock struck midnight, and I dove in, feeling all of my efforts come to buttery fruition as I happily ate my way through the entire bucket. It was a sight to see.
Not quite satisfied, however, I found myself wandering the empty aisles of Meijer at 1:30 in the morning, emerging victoriously with only two items: a box of Hostess cupcakes and a week’s supply of chocolate-chip Poptarts – the top two items that I’d been craving all week, despite the fact that I rarely, if ever, purchase either processed delight.
But as I sat at the kitchen table at 2 a.m., polishing off the contents of a silvery-wrapped pair of Poptarts, I felt surprisingly unfulfilled. Full, yes; quite honestly, I was on the verge of feeling sick. I had convinced myself that as soon as I was able to resume my normal diet (though Poptarts and Hostess cupcakes aren’t typically a part of my normal diet), everything would go “back to normal.”
Then why was I feeling so guilty?
As I lay awake thinking about it, I began to realize that just because the challenge had ended for me, it didn’t mean that the struggle was over for the 1.2 billion people living under the extreme poverty line. While I was able to purchase whatever I wanted as soon as the clock struck midnight, countless children were, and still are going to bed hungry. So was it all worth it?
I’ll leave you to judge.
Within the very first day of returning to my normal routine, I fell horribly ill, seeming to have contracted a stomach virus, severe cold, and sinus infection all at the same time. Though the topic of the LBTL Challenge never came up in conversation with my doctor, I can only infer that the sudden and drastic change in diet and lifestyle wreaked havoc on my immune system, and played a rather large role in my missing nearly a week of school.
My donation page remains open, and at the moment, is suffering from an extreme lack of participation. To contribute to the cause (UNICEF), please visit my profile and explore donation options; whether it’s $5 or $100, every little bit counts to children in need.