Meg lives below the line


Meg Watkins

Somehow, at the end of our week of office-wide Live Below the Line challenge, it did not seem unreasonable to order a bacon cheeseburger and macaroni and cheese for the same meal.

A few days previous, the Global Poverty Project New York team began our Live Below the Line odyssey at Trader Joe's in Union Square, where we purchased groceries for the oncoming week. Armed with mediocre math skills and superhuman ability to stand in lines, which are substantial in Manhattan, we navigated the aisles. The first goal? Starches. We bought 3 three-pound bags of brown rice, four bags of dry pasta, and a few potatoes. Thanks to iPhones, we discovered that a two-pound bag of dried beans would become five pounds of cooked beans, meaning that the 89 cent cans were a better option in terms of portion sizes.

Our next stop was the produce and protein aisles. Half the team trolled amongst the fruits and veggies, looking longingly at the broccoli and spinach, while the other half checked prices in the meat section. On $1.50 a day, however, greens were not an option and neither was meat. Although we had assumed that these items would not be affordable, the hard truth of eating rice and beans for each meal for a week began to become a reality.

We did manage two important splurges: a can of parmesan cheese and a box of teabags. We had all tried to wean ourselves off caffeine, with limited success, in the previous week or so, terrified by the prospect of a stimulant-free week. This meant that when we discovered an extra $1.50 in the budget, I scampered gleefully to the tea aisle and snagged a box of black teabags. Although it wasn’t the gourmet coffee we had grown accustomed as New York residents, it kept us sane during the hectic work week.

Having recently returned from Malawi as a Peace Corps volunteer, I thought that Live Below the Line would be relatively easy. After all, I'd spent the past two years eating rice and beans, regularly bemoaning the lack of soy sauce. But Live Below the Line was an unexpected challenge. For one thing, it was isolating. I went with friends to the bar, and sat with a glass of tap water while they downed cold craft beer. I smelled my landlord's butternut squash soup simmering on the stove and gazed pathetically at my Tupperware of plain pasta.

This all sounds very self-indulgent, and to some extent, it is. I didn't feed anybody else by doing Live Below the Line. But the experience was revelatory – by the end of the week, we were all zombies staring at our computers, unable to focus on anything other than our growling stomachs. And, of course, we have desk jobs. I can't imagine facing hours of hard labor on the same amount of calories.

Live Below the Line is not about playing poor. We knew, the whole week long, that we had the choice at any moment to buy a slice of pizza or a sandwich, and of course we still had access to health care, clean tap water, and the comforts of our apartments. Rather, LBL is about showing solidarity with the extreme poor; acknowledging that the differences between people in our world are profound, but that it is possible to feel real empathy for another; recognizing the enormous and undeserved gift we have been given by being born in our nation and time.

Friday night, we broke our fast with cheap greasy nachos and margaritas. (A note for future participants: your stomach will not thank you for following a week of plain starches with tequila and jalapenos). It was a fun night, made more so by our renewed commitment to serve the people who have no choice but to live on $1.50 per day. And by the knowledge that the next morning, we'd eat bagels.

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