New Internationalist

Limiting beyond belief: the cost of living below the line

Illustration of meals [Related Image]
Illustrator Lottie Stoddart kept a visual record of the meals she ate during her week living below the line. © Lottie Stoddart

Friday was my last day ‘living below the line’ – a challenge to live for five days on just £1 ($1.70) a day, to raise awareness of the 1.2 billion people around the world who live in extreme poverty. I started the challenge on Monday, so by the end of the week I was looking forward to no longer having to suffer inordinate amounts of starch, peppered with watery, frozen vegetables and limp, tasteless – almost certainly unethical – fillets of ‘value’ white fish (I’m sorry, I couldn’t keep to sustainability principles when hunger reigned).  

For nearly a million people in Britain, however, such poor sustenance is seemingly perpetual. And for far more across the world, such a shopping list would be welcomed with open arms.

Walking around supermarkets with just 5 pounds to spend for 5 days’ worth of food was more than a test of my culinary prowess. It was a test of character, a discipline that had to be learned to ensure I didn’t keel over.

Unlike some, I look forward to shopping – so much so that I do it nearly every day, at least to top up on bits and pieces. I enjoy looking out for asparagus, which is arriving on shelves just now; picking out some juicy-looking plums, then scampering off to the cereal aisle to get some oats after deciding they would go superbly in a crumble.

Having just a fiver is limiting beyond belief. There might be an allowance for oats, but plums are entirely off limits. A substantial amount of fresh, seasonal vegetables would likely take up around half that sum.

Here is what I bought: 6 value fish fillets, £1.62; 1 kilogram frozen vegetables, 75p; basics white rice, 40p; 6 eggs, £1.00; 500g savers pasta, 29p; 3 tins of savers kidney beans, 69p; and 2 dodgy apples, 24p.

It all came to £4.99 – a worrying basket of white plastic and beige.

This financial restriction and resourcefulness is what a growing number of people have to face here every day. The figure for many living in communities in sub-Saharan Africa meanwhile, would be an empowering lifeline.  

We cannot begin to fathom such ongoing hunger and suffering – certainly not by imposing a self-inflicted period of 23p cans of kidney beans. But Live Below the Line at least helps to amplify awareness of poverty and maybe give the privileged a pea-sized taste of the difficulties. Above all, it raises vital funds.  

This week I’ve felt depression, fatigue and a lack of nutrition – no nourishment of any kind. I craved a glass of wine, fresh fruit, and a handful of almonds. Something with actual flavour.  

Lottie Stoddart, who wonderfully illustrated her week, felt the same. She told me: ‘It was not just a hungry week, but one completely lacking in choice or flavour. I’d never realized how much of an effect it would have on my mood, which grew dramatically worse through the week, affecting my drive and my drawing.

‘The challenge certainly gave me a small insight into what it means to be below the poverty line.’

But as 12am on Saturday morning hit, I found myself in a cocktail bar, sipping a Hemingway Daiquirí before munching something quite ridiculous bought from a kebab van. Since then, I’ve gone back to making sure my fish is ethically sourced. I’ve had more than my fair share of assorted nuts. I’m thankful I have a choice. Millions don’t.


A lot of people came up with ways to try to get some semblance of taste and substance to their dishes this week. I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

I had rice for breakfast, pasta and kidney beans for lunch, and more rice for dinner, with some frozen vegetables and either eggs or fish. And on two of the days I had a small, bruised apple. I wished I had bought the own-brand 15p rice pudding. I needed pudding.

I’m supporting the wonderful Action Against Hunger – you can still donate here

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  1. #1 Madeleine 07 May 14

    Well, you are still lucky... I found myself in a supermarket today, with only a fiver (euros) in my pocket, and an empty fridge waiting at home. So I thought, what is the best, quality food, you could buy for less, (for supper mind you, not the whole week). Answer: eggs! you can have them for breakfast on toast, you can have them for supper as a nice omelette! So eggs it was! And that knocked of 2,78 euros off my fiver... Plus 1.70 for a lt of milk, I still had 52cents to spend! (even though I couldn't even get a packet of gums for 50c, still it gave me a sense of wealth!). All this in Greece, Europe, with a lower wage at 500euros, pensions at 300 euros, and 60% unemployment for the under 25. Being poor is different in different parts of the world (although equally demoralising). Being poor in Sub-Saharan Africa is worse than being poor in Greece, which in turn, is worse than being poor in the UK. It is good and absolutely positive that initiatives like 'Live below the line' exist! Just keep in mind that things might be even worse.

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