In theory:

Live Below the Line is/was an Australian charity event that took place last week (2nd to 6th August 2010). According to their website, it was "a new awareness and fundraising campaign designed to help Australians understand the challenges faced by those currently living in extreme poverty." People signed up to spend $2 or less each day on food, for five days, to have a taste of how approximately 1.4 billion people survive today. They were given a website through which people could make donations, and they could choose for the money to go to Cambodian schools or a group of people who travel to Australian schools to educate children about extreme poverty. As of this moment (August 11th, 4.40pm), their website says that they have raised $423,336.91. This all seems like a pretty good thing to me.

In practice:

A few weeks ago someone I know asked me if I'd be interested, he said that a few other people we knew would be doing it, so I said yes. I didn't really have any strong feelings about it one way or another, but it sounded like a decent thing to do, and I'll do pretty much anything if you ask me on the spot. I signed up, got a little website of my own, and was set to go. I figured that I could eat fairly well if I was smart with what I bought, so I went to Aldi and bought the following:

  • $2.99 - 2kg long grain rice
  • $1.98 - 1kg spiral pasta
  • $1.59 - 500g jar generic tomato-based pasta sauce
  • $1.19 - 1kg carrots
Total: $7.75 (no GST1!), with $2.25 left over for a cup of tea each day and a Tim Tam on Tuesday night.

So as you can see, my big ideas about smart purchases translated to some very stupid ones. I bought foods that were high in energy and carbohydrates, but contained almost nothing else. According to the nutritional tables on the packets and Self Nutrition Data, I got about 800% of my RDI of vitamin A (from the carrots), 350% for energy, 90% for protein, 315% for carbohydrates, and that's about it (aside from a few obscure minerals like Manganese). If I were to eat this for more than a few weeks I would have some serious vitamin deficiencies. Most notably, I would be getting less than 15% of my RDI of vitamin C. I don't know if that's a small enough amount to cause Scurvy, but I think I can consider myself lucky just to know what vitamin C is. The fact that these things aren't taught in school really worries me.

I know that these were bad choices, but I was severely restricted by my lack of a good kitchen. I live in college, so the only kitchen available to me contains a sink, kettle, microwave, toaster, and a refrigerator/freezer. This means no stove, mixing bowls, saucepans, knives or chopping boards, so I really couldn't cook much from scratch. If I were at home, I would have bought ingredients to bake bread and make vegetable soup, but here it seemed like my best bet was rice and pasta, which I could cook in my one bowl in the microwave. I know that with a little research I would have found many recipes for cheap meals that could be cooked in a microwave, but that thought only occurred to me in the aisles of the supermarket. I later discovered that the refrigerator was broken, so I had to freeze my jar of pasta sauce and thaw it each evening. Is this all some kind of symbol for national infrastructure and its effects on standards of living? Who knows.

Apart from my very limited and unbalanced diet, the week went just fine. I was extremely hungry on Monday, but by Tuesday afternoon I was pretty much used to it. I did notice a terrible lack of energy in the mornings, since I'm not able or willing to wake up early enough to cook rice for breakfast, but that was about all. The biggest problem for me wasn't a hunger for food, but hunger for flavour; eating tasty food is one of my greatest pleasures in life, and without decent food I really find it difficult to be content.

On Friday afternoon I made a little list of the week's pros and cons in my notebook:


  • Cheap
  • Raising money for charity
  • Fewer difficult choices when planning meals
  • Fewer trips to the toilet
  • Near-odourless farts
  • ...


  • Hungry
  • No breakfast
  • Food is boring
  • Loss of will to live late at night (unrelated?)
  • Scurvy later
  • Toilet is unsatisfying

In perspective:

I started thinking, what does $2 really mean? First I thought that $2 a day is a really tiny amount of money, when we can barely spend less than $20 on a decent restaurant meal. Then I thought that perhaps $2 will buy a lot more in a third world country than it will here, so it's less for me than for them. Then I thought that perhaps it was calculated using Purchasing Power Parity. Then I started thinking about all the things other than food that it would have to buy: rent, clothing, transport, and so on. Then I thought about all the things that I use every day that are worth more than $2 to me: electricity, telephones, roads, police, my education, and so on. Then I wondered how much rent would cost in central Africa. Then I thought that I should really stop thinking and just be glad to have central heating and a pair of good shoes.

The Debutante pointed me towards a project by the photographer Peter Menzel (his site here), who traveled around the world to take pictures of many families with a week's worth of their food. It's not very exhaustive, but I found it very poignant. The purpose of this project seems to be very similar to that of Live Below the Line: to give us as clear a description as possible of what poverty means in reality, in terms that everyone understands. Everyone understands hunger. Or perhaps not, perhaps Jarvis Cocker of Pulp (also recommended by The Debutante) was right when he said, "you'll never live like common people, you'll never do what common people do, you'll never fail like common people, you'll never watch your life slide out of view." Perhaps most of us are just too comfortable to really get it.

In conclusion:

So, as a whole, my week of living below the line was a failure. I ate empty foods for five days and raised no money. I didn't feel comfortable soliciting donations, so I got none2. The same thing happened in high school when I did the 40 Hour Famine. Ah well. At least I learned something: I can never again complain about institutional food with a clear conscience. I suppose that's something.

1 - GST, or Goods & Services Tax, is a 10% tax on almost everything in Australia. It does not apply to a few things, though, one of which is fresh food and cooking ingredients. Some strange people like me feel that it's a great achievement to see "GST - $0.00" on their shopping docket.

2 - I just got a donation of $20, only an hour after I posted this writeup. So it wasn't all for nothing.