The Month of the Two Dollar Challenge now comes to a close. I lived on two dollars a day for an entire month. The challenge caused me to change my lifestyle over the month, take on new perspectives about poverty, and witness my hyperactive metabolism at work. All of it made for an interesting physical and mental adventure.
What It Was Like
Just like any long-term challenge, you’re new set of rules constricts what you will and will not do. You come to expect things. I came to expect small calculations throughout the day to matter down the line, because when I accidentally wound up with less than I planned, it meant a couple spoonfuls of measly scraps for dinner. I came to expect food fantasies triggered by the aphrodisiac fumes of every bakery in the city. And I came to expect a barrage of thoughts and questions regarding poverty that occupied my mind late into the night.
Given all that, the flip side of a challenge like this is the newborn tactics that emerge to help you cope with the lifestyle change. I learned the tricks of the marketplace, like the butter-zone fifteen minutes right before six o’clock, when old lady vendors only want two things: to get rid of you and to get rid of the extra stock before it goes bad. Great deals. Store loyalty goes a long way, as it does between peers. I learned a deeper meaning of the word ‘gratitude’ when accepting invitations to potluck meals at a friend’s apartment (to which I owe you, June & Freja, an enormous amount of thanks). And I learned how to better approach people on the streets or the doorways of adobe homes and talk to them about how things were.
Hunger itself was relatively easy to avoid after a while, but I also came to expect a deficiency in any kind of good quality food. This surprised me actually, because it taught me something that the weeklong Two Dollar A Day Challenge never did: I’ve always balked at the decision to eat fast food simply because it’s cheaper, since it is always better to spend what little resources you have on healthier foods, isn’t it? Buy an apple and leave the fries, right? As it turns out even healthy cheap food is nonetheless somewhat bunk, in that you can tell you’re still putting away low cost produce.
At least McDonalds is at first masked by the taste before you realize you’re eating cruddy food. After thirty days I grew tired of simplistic, bottom shelf items like salty cheese and ended up craving something with more flavor even if it meant flabby burgers from the food stand down the street. (Not to excuse those who depend on such consumption, but the Month of TDC successfully gave a reason for it that I hadn’t thought of before.) Mealtime became more of a box to check, which is really a shame because I honestly love eating. That being said I did learn to get better at cooking since every time I stepped into the kitchen it was like trying to solve a riddle that always started the same: what can I make with these few ingredients?
The Physical Effects
After the three day fast at the beginning of the month, I had a sense of what sort of physical effects might be coming. There was a ghostly sense of exhaustion that haunted me at all hours of the day, coming and going as it pleased. I could tell I wasn’t getting enough sustenance on a week-to-week basis: In the states I hover around 164 pounds (75kg) when I’m fit and well fed. After three months of traveling in South America – where the rare workout consisted of a brief visit to the rock gym – my muscle and fat reserves had diminished to roughly 154 pounds (70kg), which was more or less expected and gave me a benchmark going into April. But when I stepped onto the scale, a little over halfway into the challenge, I had dropped to an alarming 150 pounds (68kg). That gave me pause.
In response I began a small workout routine on my apartment floor, and tried to balance my six-sol budget to capture all of the food groups. This was difficult, as it seems two dollars was just enough to get three of the four important nutrients in one day. Not to mention volunteering at 12,795 feet (3,900mts) and pulling ten-hour shifts at the clinic demanded a lot more than an inconsistent diet. I found myself staggering fruits and vegetables on a schedule. The weight loss eventually leveled out, but I unfortunately hit rock bottom on April 28th coming in at 148.5 pounds (67.5kg). I can feel my family cringing as I write this.
The more noticeable effects came from the rollercoaster my body experienced when I attempted to make the challenge more entertaining for myself. I tried switching up my imaginary income so I could have anywhere from $0 to $3 at random. I went on hikes and long walks with only one kind of food to see how long it took until I came to hate the taste. I branched out with edibles and tried buying things like unfamiliar plants, grains, traditional herbs, and goat and sheep organs. Heart’s my favorite. I even went three days eating exclusively food cooked on the street, which did things to my digestive track that I have never seen before and will probably never speak of again.
Cheating, Learning, Concluding
When breaking the rules of TDC, it simply asks you remember that those who live on two dollars a day for real don’t have the choice in the first place. I found myself sparing a cup of coffee or the occasional pastry two or three times a week, and there was always a sense of guilt sitting on my shoulder and squawking into my ear like a parrot. Walking the blurry line between keeping myself sane and maintaining the purity of the challenge was an uncertain experience. The world’s poor truly don’t have the option of a luxurious life with extra food, yet most of them probably haven’t experienced such habits with enough frequency to miss them when they’re gone. It didn’t feel right anywhere I turned.
Despite the moral conundrums of imitating poverty, I believe the challenge has done what it was designed to do: I spent the entire month of April investigating and engendering myself with an onslaught of empathetically emotional experiences that have changed the way I see poverty in the world. The contrast I found with my daily life was a stark one and helped me realize just what kind of things genuinely poor people go through that I may never have to. There is no way for me to really know what that life is like, but such an undertaking has left me with a healthier respect for the things I don’t know. I hope that next time I approach someone receiving aid that I never feign to understand the complexities of their day-to-day life, nor the exact reasoning for helping them.
You’re right… this was hard for your mom to read on many many levels and only some of them have to do with you. I can’t thank you enough for sharing this experience through your very thoughtful lens. I have a ton of questions… which I’d love to see future blogs on when you have fully “digested” (ha!) this experience, like:
-if you could construct a similar experience to give people a chance to learn some of your lessons in the states without jeopardizing their health and still holding down their jobs, what would that look like?
-what are the top 3 things you hope an experience like this would teach others? Personally? About their giving? About their public policy stance? (there’s a bunch of blogs right there!)
-What did you learn about eating over the poverty line?
-based on the experiments you ran, and the conversations you had, can you give us insights into other people’s experiences and how they made choices different than you did? what can we learn from that?
-how are you going to look at your food budget next year differently at college int he states? what about our family choices this summer? what can we learn from your experience and apply when you get home?
-how has this informed your thoughts and choices about your future career?
-what have you learned about the different kinds of student study experiences between this semester and your semester in spain that other students can learn from?
We love you, kid, and everyone reading your blog (including the ones that talk to me and don’t leave comments) and have really enjoyed and found your insights very special this last month. We all hope you keep writing and sharing your insights with the world. You’re a piece of work, you are.
When you return to the States and folks ask you why you did it and what you learned, you should definitely refer them to this. Most remarkable to me – if I were that hungry, there’s no way I could be that eloquent….
You have done a remarkable thing. Having nourished the soul, please now nourish the body a bit.
Hey Jeff, I just want to say, you have certainly grown up to be a thoughtful, interesting, and inspirational human being. Thanks for sharing this with the world.
Jeff, once again, all I can say is well done. Now, I’ll get you a Cuban from Caribbean grill in exchange for some stories whenever you’re home.