COMMENTARY: Living below the line

I am by no means rich. And where I understand that actually, on a global scale I am rolling in it, on a day-to-day basis the local market will always prevail over the highbrow food court. I am more Tesco (forgive me) than Waitrose and I am not above the odd splurge at Poundland (for that I am not sorry).  I try to be careful with my money and if you’d have spoken to me before Live Below the Line,  I’d have told you with sincerity that I by no means take money for granted.

Live Below the Line is a new and challenging campaign that aims to raise awareness of the estimated 1.4 billion people who are trapped in the cycle of extreme poverty. The challenge is to live on £1 a day for five days, the same amount that someone living in abject poverty in the UK would have to survive on. The idea is to put yourself directly in the place of those living in extreme poverty in the UK so that it becomes something you can’t switch off and push aside at will, but a living reality.

In honesty, I thought it would be easy – by nature I’m a bargain hunter and I had a few planned get-out clauses up my sleeve; gentle theft (what’s milk between flatmates?!) and freeloading were  my initial intended means of survival. But after actually thinking about the point of Live Below the Line and reading the rules, the realisation that I’d have to do this properly hit me hard.

Half a day into the five day challenge and I had pretty much come to the conclusion that this was the worst thing I could possibly do to myself. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love food; I’m the girl that talks about dinner over lunch and who can hold a debate over the finer qualities of a sandwich.  My options were suddenly restricted to baked beans and 18p pasta- No colourful debates to be had there.

Living on a pound a day budget was like seeing the light for the first time after pulling open the blinds. My perspective on everyday objects changed at light speed.  The price of everyday objects I absentmindedly pick up suddenly became unattainable to me. Buying everyday things such as chewing gum or a bag of crisps could potentially wipe half my budget. Also, far from the commonplace event it usually is, going to the supermarket suddenly made me feel nervous. Would the self- checkout machine give me all the change I needed, had I calculated my budget correctly and what if I hadn’t? Was it normal to leave my things and flee pre-transaction? And why were my hands so clammy all of a sudden, why?!

My relationship with food changed. It stopped becoming something of pleasure because all the things that make food pleasurable; the variety and spice, quickly became limited to me. Food turned into something purely functional and as the hunger set in I began to crave anything substantial that would line my stomach and enable me to operate. The prospect of maintaining the joy of eating during the five days suddenly looked as dull and dubious as I had to make do with suspect watery cans of chopped tomatoes for both lunch and dinner.  Money, or lack of, wasn’t the only thing that had changed. I also found myself scheduling to do my more brain intensive work in the small window of time I felt full, knowing that for the rest of the day the nagging feeling of hunger and low levels of energy would make me twice as slow.

Despite all of this, the most telling thing about doing the Live Below the Line challenge was my inability to really feel hard done by. My inclination to whine and shout of my hunger from the roof tops was overshadowed by the realisation that this is the reality for so many. And in this fast food, grab-a-sandwich-to-go culture we’ve become accustomed to, over a billion people in the UK are simultaneously left behind on the fringes of society, struggling to survive on the same amount that many spend daily on a chocolate bar.  We walk side by side with these people and yet we are blind.

This realisation also gave words to my unease surrounding the hype of the royal wedding. Beyond the pomp and the Republican debates surrounding the event, there was something else about the royal wedding that gave fuel to my disdain. The sheer decadence of such an occasion costing 20 million pounds in a time where people are living on a pound a day and where the government is withdrawing funding for vital services made it too much of a bitter pill that not even my hunger could swallow.

Live below the line left its marks on me. The full on food splurge I envisioned having after the five day challenge suddenly felt inappropriate when the challenge was over as I was haunted by how so many don’t have this choice and how their food choices still remain limited. However the food type that was and still is available in abundance? Humble pie- irony much?

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