A 10-day challenge of living on $2 a day, the national poverty line.
Words by Jamie Brian. Photos by Jacqueline Wammes.
Junior Jamie Brian pays special attention to the food she buys. She only has $20 to last her 10 days.
The challenge: stocking up
I have a crinkled $20 bill in my pocket, and I’m standing in the first aisle of the Kent Save-A-Lot trying to make the paper a little bit thicker so it can last for the next 10 days.
It’s not the first time I’ve been here, but I can’t stop bouncing from one foot to another with anxiety. I have to make my purchases count because when they’re gone, I can’t restock. I’m not on a diet. I’m trying to slip into the shoes of the 1.5 million households living in $2-a-day poverty, according to the 2015 study “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America.”
Shuffling from produce to canned goods, I begin plugging numbers into my borrowed calculator. The money seems to slip through my fingers; faster than I can process, it’s gone. I pick things off of a shelf just to gingerly put them back when I realize they’re out of my price range. I’ve discovered $20 gets you half a basket of groceries and requires a game of choice. If you want granola bars, you’ll have to cut them in half because there aren’t enough of them to last the week. If you get the chicken, you’ll have to put the apples and cheese back because you’re over budget. This or that. You can’t always get what you want.
At the register, I forget grocery bags cost extra, and I didn’t bring any of my own. I had to put the jar of jelly back if I want to make it home with my food intact. I had planned on having peanut butter and jelly throughout the week, but I’ll have to do without it. I take stock of my purchases and hope it’s enough to get me through the next 10 days: nine oranges, one bag of carrots, a loaf of wheat bread, two boxes of mac and cheese, one jar of peanut butter, six granola bars, a box of cereal, a gallon of milk and six pudding cups.
I weigh the bags in my hand and realize this is the first time I’ve had to carry a calculator with me to go grocery shopping. I’d leaned on the plastic card in my wallet to be my fairy godmother. When I was hungry, I just gave it a swipe.
Living below the poverty line means being disciplined and planning ahead where every dollar you earn will go. Somewhere along the way, the credit card and the wishes were declined.
The challenge: making it last
I try to ration my groceries for the week. Every day, I can have two slices of bread with peanut butter, one orange, a handful of carrots and a bowl of cereal with milk. I must rotate between the granola bars and pudding cups because there are fewer of them, and they’ll be the first to run out. The mac and cheese will have to be a special treat.
When shopping for groceries, Brian chooses stores that allow her to buy the most food for $20.
In addition to having a notebook for my daily schedule, I have to plan when and what I can eat. I feel a little less human relying on a sheet of paper to determine the course of my day.
On Monday, I wake up early and go for a run. I don’t think about replenishing later on. I’m a long-distance runner, so it’s not unusual for me to run nine or 10 miles in one session. Running a lot goes hand-in-hand with eating a lot, and this is a side effect I didn’t consider.
I toss my rumpled T-shirt into the laundry bin and realize how hungry I am. If I eat the bread, I’ll be even hungrier later in the day. I opt for an orange and a bowl of cereal, but they aren’t enough to feel full. I hear a microwave in the room next to me ding, and I imagine warm oatmeal with cinnamon. Looking back at my own microwave, I realize there’s no use for it.
By noon, I’m craving the mac and cheese. I need to save it because I only have two boxes. I can have a pudding cup and carrots. I’ll save the bread for dinner. During class, all I can think about is the jar of peanut butter I’ve stored in the top left corner of the fridge and the sandwich I can create with it. I feel like a contestant on a survival show, stranded in the desert, walking toward that uncertain drop of water.
I’m a little ashamed of myself for feeling so desperate this early on. I decide I’ll have to give up my daily run if I want to get through the week. I total my daily calorie intake, and I’m only living on about 800 calories per day, significantly less than the recommended 2,000-calorie diet. I’ll miss the freedom of waking up to dew on my sneakers and train whistles, but I’d rather be able to focus instead of feeling hungry.
Tuesday seems to go a little smoother. I’ve tried to fine-tune my plan for the week, and I feel more energized without using up all of my calories on a morning run. I’m OK with waking up to a granola bar and half of an orange. It’s enough to get me through my early classes. At noon, I trudge back to my dorm and look forward to opening the gallon of milk to go with cereal. I must have started to feel too
confident, because I take the cap off and end up spilling some of it on the floor. My first thought isn’t that I need to clean up the carpet; it’s how much I’m going to miss those few cold mouthfuls of milk.
The next few days involve giving up things I’ve taken for granted. Working out expends too much energy. On Wednesday, my friends ask me if I’d like to get lunch or coffee, but I decline. I never realized how much friendship revolves around food, but friendship is not in my price range right now. If I were to go to McDonald’s, the cheapest thing I could get is a McChicken or a BBQ Ranch Burger from the dollar menu, but neither of those would last me all day. On my way to class, I watch the groups huddled together on a picnic bench with iced cappuccinos in hand, and I can’t help but feel jealous. Back at my dorm, I bitterly slather peanut butter on a slice of bread. When that’s not enough, I eat more out of the jar with a spoon. For dinner, I try and think of ways to make my meager meal more interesting. I plate my carrots into a spiral. Carrots are one of my favorite foods, but they aren’t quite enough to make me feel full. I try dunking them in chocolate pudding. It’s a combination I probably wouldn’t try under different circumstances, but I like it enough to decide I’ll have it again tomorrow.
My nights are usually spent reading or learning French, but I don’t have the drive to do extra work. It never seemed like work before; it was something to look forward to after my classes. It seems hunger has affected more than just my appetite. I go to bed earlier, pulling the covers around me as if they can help fill the emptiness in my stomach.
By day six, I’m craving pizza. I’m the kind of person who passes up the free pizza at a party, but now I keep imagining the crunch of a stuffed-crust pizza between my teeth. In Eastway Café at the check-out counter, I find myself with a slice of pizza I wouldn’t be able to afford if this was my life. But it’s not my life. Living in poverty means you can’t just decide to stop. It’s not as simple as just throwing your hands up and saying you’re tired of being hungry. Hunger starts to own you, so much so you spend all of your time planning where your next meal will come from instead of planning a future. And hunger is a very real problem in our own community, even if we don’t see it.
According to the 2014 UNICEF report “Children of the Recession: The impact of the economic crisis on child well-being in rich countries,” child poverty increased in 34 states between 2006 and 2011. Ohio ranked 25th on the list for state poverty rates. I put the pizza back. If there are people living like this every day, I can handle it for a few more days.
On day nine, I tear off the top of the box of mac and cheese like it’s a present I’d been told to wait for Christmas Eve to open. I’d wanted to save this until I really needed it, and I guess I’ve finally reached that point. I was never particularly fond of the packets of powdered cheese before, but when I pour it over my pasta it seems oddly beautiful. I end up breaking open the other box, forcing myself to save some leftovers for the last day.
I suppose I should feel satisfied at making it this long on so little food, but I feel more dispirited than anything. Food insecurity isn’t a game or a challenge; it’s a real problem deserving of real answers. Anne Marie Noble, director of emergency outreach services at the Portage County Hunger Task Force, says 15.6 percent of Portage County’s population, or 25,530 individuals, are food insecure. Additionally, 24.4 percent of children, or 8,030 individuals, don’t know where their next meal will come from.
We might think we are invincible and will never become one of these statistics, but it is not a distant situation.
“Most of us could be a paycheck or an illness away from being food insecure,” says Campus Kitchen adviser Ann Gosky. “We have stereotypes about people who go to food pantries, but it can really happen to anyone at anytime.”
The Portage County Hunger Task Force is a collection of 14 food pantries in the area, ranging from Aurora to Brimfield and everywhere in between. They work together to create meals for the community on a regular basis. The Y-Bridge program in Akron alone serves 350 people each week, about 17,000 per year. These 14 pantries don’t include churches, which also provide weekly meals.
On Saturday, I volunteer at the Loaves and Fishes food pantry at the First United Methodist Church in Ravenna. They’ve been serving a meal every Saturday for the past 11 years, including holidays. It’s a simple, white-walled room with long folding tables and mismatched chairs, but it has a greater purpose. Chicken enchilada soup sits in a crockpot on the counter along with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and warm thermoses of coffee and tea. Bags filled with personal hygiene products like toilet paper and toothpaste line a shelf for pantry visitors to take home. Ten minutes until lunch is served, and the tables are already filled.
The kitchen is alive with the slam of pots and pans. I wash dishes and look out at the people in line for a hot meal. They are not stereotypes or mistakes. They are the people I walk past every day, and I’m just now beginning to understand what it’s like to stand with them. When the pantry organizer announces that the meal is ready, everyone is alert with anticipation. I hang my dish cloth on the sink and step in the back of the line with the other volunteers. I grab a tray, gently placing a sandwich, soup and salad on it like they’re something precious. They are precious.
I sit down with the first real hot meal I’ve had in days, eating it much faster than I’d like to admit. The woman next to me brings her two elementary-school-aged grandchildren to eat. The youngest can barely see over the table. The eldest child is wearing a Troy Polamalu jersey. I talk with another volunteer and she says every time the little boy comes to the food pantry, he’s wearing a different football jersey.
“Is football your favorite sport?” I ask him.
“I don’t play. I just watch,” he says, making a cracker island in the middle of his soup.
When I ask him why he doesn’t want to play, he just shrugs and adds another cracker to the pile. I can’t help but want to picture him somewhere else than this room. I want to pick him up and transport him to the safe place of my imagination.
I hope one day he has the courage to venture onto the field. I hope he never has to worry about being hungry and not having anything in his refrigerator. I hope that one day he can leave his hunger on the sidelines.