Friday, 16 May 2014

Here's what you can learn by living on £1 a day

Rowan Williams in The Independent

When Christian Aid asked me to take up the Live Below the Line challenge by living on just £1 a day for five days, I readily accepted. Well, fairly readily. But I felt it was something I had to step up to – a unique chance to learn and to enlarge my horizons.
There’s the thing about testing yourself: what do I actually need, what can I genuinely do without? 
But more simply, there’s learning a little bit about the experience of around 1.2 billion people around the world, not completely unlike you and me, who every day face the challenge of living on the tightest of budgets, and will still probably go hungry.   
On the face of it, it’s simple – spend no more than £1 a day on all your food and drink, in solidarity with those who live on less in the developing world.
As a Christian, I’d got a bit of experience of fasting in Lent and so on. The lack of treats, or giving up my favourite muesli in the morning didn’t seem so terrible.
The first thing that hit me, and it hit me quite hard, was just how expensive fresh fruit and vegetables are if you’re starting from £1 a day. The five-a-day goal (let alone more recent recommendations of seven or ten) was more or less impossible.
This really brought home what so many people in the UK, as well as overseas, struggle with on a daily basis - the basic issue not just of satisfying hunger but about proper nutrition.
I’d been vaguely aware of this in theory, but the reality is that it isn’t just a matter of eating cheaply and cheerfully. I hadn’t appreciated how difficult it would be to plan and put together meals that were nutritionally balanced. How on earth do you manage a balanced diet on such a limited budget?
In prosperous bits of Britain we live in a fast-paced, consumer-friendly world where planning an evening meal involves a quick stop at the local supermarket to pick up something tasty and often already prepared.
But that is not how it works when you’re on £1 day. You have to put aside time to prepare, time to think about your options and to work out how you can make this small sum stretch to something resembling three meals a day.
If you’re doing this challenge, you’re forced to think about what it’s like relying all the time on cheap staples. It is not just about giving up luxuries; having the freedom to choose nutritionally sensible food, whatever the price, is not to be taken for granted.
And then there is the monotony. Relying on cheap food probably means a lack of variation and flavour. Quite simply, eating becomes far less of a pleasure, not so much an experience to savour but something just to keep you going.
One of the items I bought was a very cheap can of tomato soup so that I could decant a spoonful or two into my otherwise plain meals. The tedium can be tough, and you will likely feel tired or headachy as a result.
Still, learning that you can live without certain things is a positive experience. With the treats we have to get us through the day you think to yourself, "I don’t actually depend on that, I can think again about whether I need to buy this or that in future".
Fasting or giving up some of your luxuries can be liberating - which is one of the reasons it is common across many faiths. But it doesn’t take much to forget that while you have a choice about this, most don’t. 
Liberation for them is having the possibility of security about their food and some guarantees of nutritional quality.
I found it difficult to do this challenge alone. Watching your family tuck in to a tasty-looking feast while you’re eating your routine dish of rice and vegetables is not a great deal of fun. 
But at the same time, you know that for once you’re sharing a little of the challenge faced by millions around the world who live in this way all or most of the time.
Every moment during the five days I was acutely aware that I could walk away and pack it in whenever I wanted. I chose to take up the challenge and I only had to live through it for a finite period. 
For me, it was much more of a spiritual exercise rather than something imposed. But most people who have to live on £1 or less every day can’t walk away.
Doing this may bring a sense of unity that’s spiritually positive; just remember that it’s not so spiritually positive if you haven’t chosen it.
Practical advice for anyone taking up the challenge? Keep reasonably busy. If, like me, you have a rather sedentary job there’s more of a temptation to think about food, to get frustrated and to listen to your stomach rumbling. 
If you deliberately walk around and vary your position, it’s easier to keep going. And if you close your eyes, a cup of boiled water can go some way to convincing you that you’re having a nice cup of tea! 
It can be done; and you’ll learn what nothing else can teach you – about yourself and the world you live in.
Live Below the Line is a fundraising initiative which challenges the public to live on just £1 a day for five days. Participants can take on the challenge until 30 June 2014, and all money raised will support the work of 33 charities including Christian Aid and Global Poverty Project.

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