Whew. What a long and challenging week it has been. I think it’s safe to say that Live Below the Line is one of the more difficult – and worthwhile – things I’ve done. I could not be happier to be sitting in the sunshine, devouring a lemon sorbetto at my favorite little espresso bar (Olea Cafe. I swear I came for a cappuccino. I just got sidetracked by the gelato case). Following my 5 days of living below the line at the global poverty rate of $1.50 a day, my weekend has been blissfully indulgent. Can you say fig-walnut jam, arugula-almond pizza, shrimp salsa, avocado-orange spinach salad, roasted chicken and spring panzanella?! Not to mention coconut-chocolate chip cookies! Don’t you worry. Those four or five pounds I lost this week will be back in no time.
In all seriousness though, this week has been an experience like no other. In the same way that classroom rhetoric cannot compare to hands-on practice, even my time spent in Guatemalan orphanages, an “AIDS village” in rural Uganda, and working directly with the homeless in DC simply could not prepare me for the sensation of hunger: the deprivation, the physical and psychological consequences, the daily struggle. It was a truly humbling, eye-opening experience, something I won’t soon forget.
Just as much as raising money for the life-saving work of heroic organizations like UNICEF, the Global Poverty Project, and CARE, the point of Live Below the Line is to change the way people think about extreme poverty. Indeed, poverty is something I’ve spent much of my life thinking about, both in academic and “real world” settings. In particular, hunger and food justice has become the focus of my career. I felt called to take this challenge because of my passion for food justice and my work on hunger, rooted in the conviction that it is among the gravest and most urgent issues of our time. It’s quite the humbling experience to subject oneself to even such a mild simulation of poverty. I’ve truly learned a lot this week and my perspective has been remolded in simple but profound ways.
I think above all else, living “below the line” has deepened and enhanced my sense of gratitude: for the comfortable and healthy life I lead, for the securities I take for granted, for the opportunities I have, and for the people in my life who have helped along the way. (Major thanks to my mom Suzanne and friends Tasha, Candice, Jenny, Allison, Georgia and Kristy who donated a collective $245!)
Truly, there is nothing like lack to inspire gratitude, and I don’t only mean gratitude for the food I normally get to eat, or the privileges I enjoy daily. Even while undergoing the deprivation of this intense challenge, I was so grateful for my humble rice and beans, every sweet banana, my single egg a day. It’s a hard feeling to describe, but it reminded me of the warmth and compassion of the people I’ve met in developing countries, who have so little in terms of food, shelter and healthcare, but are so prosperous in their gratitude, so generous with their kindness. Of course I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like to live that kind of life, but to catch the briefest glimpse of it is inspiring.
Hunger – beyond “it’s lunchtime and my stomach is grumbling” – is an almost indescribable sensation. There is the physical emptiness and discomfort, the insatiable growl. Then comes the fatigue and weakness, which only worsen with time. Along with the physical exhaustion comes the mental burnout. Concentration consumes a lot more energy than you might think – without sufficient calories, the body has to divert its energy to physical demands, like keeping itself warm. No fuel = no focus. I was cold most of the time, I felt faint and shaky, I was in a constant state of discomfort and weariness. I became grumpy as my patience dwindled and my emotional resilience lowered. Every element of my daily life was affected. The boredom was not such a big deal, but the lack of choice was demoralizing. What I can’t know is the feeling of actually not knowing where my next meal comes from. Despite my constant state of deprivation, I knew I had just enough rice and beans to make it through the week, and of course that the week would end. I knew if I got to feeling truly awful, I could do what I needed to take care of myself. For the 1.4 billion people living on $1.50 a day, there is no such comfort or security.
When you’re among the well-fed, well-educated crowd who discusses issues around food politics, hunger, obesity, and the wide range of problems inherent in the food system, it is all too easy to point fingers and make assumptions. While I try my best to reserve judgment about other people’s choices, it is often frustrating to watch people actively damage their health (not to mention the environment) with poor food choices. However, it’s too easy to forget that poverty means a lack of opportunity; that oppression is the lack of choice. This truth became incredibly clear to me when I realized that yes, I had made healthy choices for my week’s food, which was satisfying in its own right – but I was hungry all the time. I could have chosen much more calorie-dense foods, or might have been able to afford a larger quantity of food for the same price, and might have been a lot less hungry. It was one thing to do this for five days, but if I knew I’d be hungry around the clock every day, I might choose something else, even if it was unhealthy. At a certain point in the week, I started craving very heavy foods (stuff I rarely touch like red meat and cake) and knew that my body was trying to tell me something. This highlights the unfortunate choice that many people are faced with: hunger vs. health. It should not be a dichotomy, and in some ways it’s a false one – but facing these obstacles head-on is a lot different than discussing the rhetoric over lattes with other privileged people.
Again, I have to say that my biggest take-away from this experience is gratitude. I am grateful that I took the challenge, for the contributions to UNICEF, for the lessons I learned, and for a return to my regular life. I am grateful above all for my privileges, and my renewed commitment to use those privileges to help those who aren’t so fortunate. And of course, I am grateful the week is over! However, you can keep donating to UNICEF on my fundraising page through the end of May.