Stuck in a moral limbo living below the line

Student Life

If your news feed has, like mine, been absolutely rammed with instagrammed photos of grinning girls holding miserly looking plates of yam then you probably already knew about Live-Below-The-Line. For those that didn’t, it’s a charity campaign where participants live off a pound a day for one week to raise sponsorship and awareness. The issue is extreme food poverty, which sees 1.2 billion people subsisting on $1.25 per day, adjusted for purchasing power parity. This year a solid number of Oxford students, particularly among evangelical Christians, have got involved and exchanged hall food for non-fairtrade bananas and basics pasta. Just like all charity campaigns, Live Below The Line has provoked warm enthusiasm, sharp criticism and utter indifference in varying degrees.

The first thing worth mentioning is that the challenge is genuinely difficult. Making a fiver last an entire week requires a surprising amount of prior planning. There’s no nipping out to Ben’s cookies once you feel a bit leer in the RadCam and you can kiss variety goodbye (although it is possible to have a different bumper pack of value biscuits every couple of days). A morning of a single piece of toast, and some chapati and an apple for lunch, precipitates an experience singularly remote to most us – genuine hunger. One girl I know almost cried post-rowing because she’d already eaten her banana.

Detractors of the campaign have levelled some well-considered complaints. It doesn’t offer an accurate experience of poverty. Those taking part eat their humble meals in well-built, heated rooms in our peaceful town, free from warlords and Malaria.

What’s more, each communal meal can become a bit of a jolly, with provisions shared and selfies taken, which real poverty isn’t. More importantly, the effort to budget effectively drives participants to cut costs on ethically sourced food, making for a strangely myopic attempt to highlight food suffering from the consumer side while ignoring problems of supply. Some would question what the starving farmer from the third-world thinks when rich Oxonians spurn fairtrade food that isn’t produced by child labourers so that they can pretend to be like him. The point is to raise awareness and attract money for a myriad of different charities through sponsorship. I can’t be alone in finding sponsorship a really weird idea:

“Bert, would you like to donate £100 to charity?”

“No.”

“How about if I go running/starve myself/self immolate first?”

“Yeah go on then.”

There’s also the worry that things like this, with the attendant blogs and video diaries and incessant Facebook posts have a tendency to make one’s charity into a bit of an exhibition. For all the Christians taking part, it isn’t very Matthew 6:16.

Some of these criticisms are fair, but for all the cantankerous naysaying I do like Live Below the Line as a discipline. Yes, it’s a little bit ludicrous; no it doesn’t accurately recreate the experience of living hand to mouth in the depths of South Sudan; yes it might discourage people from spending that little bit extra on fairtrade, dolphin-friendly ravioli.

At its heart though, the exercise of having to think about what one spends is a very good one, and not one that I ever really undertake. Today I had venison meatballs for lunch, scrambled eggs and kippers for breakfast and some lovely duck paté as an afternoon snack. Even now I feel abstemious because I haven’t spent any money on wine.

Whether it fulsomely reflects poverty or not, thinking about what we eat and denying ourselves can only be helpful, and make take us some distance closer to being thankful for what we have and mindful of those that don’t.