Live Below The Poverty Line

Four USF students took on a worldwide challenge to subsist on $1.50 a day for five days to experience the struggles of those living in extreme poverty.


Video: Dani Barta | USF News

By Daylina Miller

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (April 16, 2012) – When Robyn Sagal spent a semester abroad studying at the University of Tasmania in Australia, she never imagined that what she learned there would lead to her spending five days putting herself in the shoes of those in extreme poverty.


Sagal, a sociology student at the University of South Florida, brought the “Live Below the Poverty Line” challenge to USF via her Honors College thesis.


Sagal put up a Facebook page, visited classes, and posted fliers to enlist students in her journey to spend only $1.50 a day on food.


“Many people thought it was impossible to live off of such a little amount per day,” Sagal said. “Others thought I was crazy for trying to get people to join in, since it would be so difficult.”


Three other students participated in the challenge, which required participants to live off $1.50 a day, the current equivalent of the accepted global figure used to define extreme poverty and set by the World Bank as US$1.25 per day in 2005. The $1.50 figure represents the amount someone living in extreme poverty in the U.S. would have to live on.


For those living in such poverty, that $1.50 has to cover health, housing, food, transportation, and education. For USF students, it’s not uncommon to spend $10 just for a single meal while dining out.


Some of the food students ate, which they either bought individually or pooled their money together to purchase, was rice, oyster crackers, eggs, cheap bread, and Ramen noodles.


“I learned how much a lack of food can really impact every aspect of your life,” Sagal said. “I was also constantly thinking about food. It was extremely difficult to concentrate on anything and focus because all I could think about was what I had left for the day and when I can eat next.”


For Vanessa Maytag, a speech pathology student, the challenge brought to light how important nutritious food is to one’s health. After becoming sick during the challenge, Maytag was ordered by her doctor to resume a normal diet.


“I had gotten sick with an illness completely unrelated to the project but not eating was seriously making it harder,” Maytag said. “It's truly amazing to think about someone without the means to have food getting sick and not having a way to even nourish their body so they can recuperate.”


The students fought heavy eyelids and grumbling bellies as they struggled to focus in their classes. When it came time to study or do classwork, it took everything they had to focus their attention on the task at hand and not on when they’d eat their next meal.


Studio Art student Tyler Staggs fought fatigue. He struggled to stay up at night to paint but slept restlessly when he got to bed.  


“I was surprised at how hard it was to stay focused, and awake,” said Staggs. “My body just wanted to sleep. I often found my mind wandering and thinking about food while trying to focus on my artwork. Based on psychology, hunger is one of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and if it is not satisfied, all other things in life are unattainable. I felt this first hand with my studies as I couldn't focus or retain information during those five days.”


While students on health kicks are studying nutrition information on packaging to control the number of calories they eat, student athlete and environmental science major Stephanie Martell, was trying to find the highest number of calories to get more bang for her buck.


You are no longer eating for fun or based on what tastes good, you are eating for survival,” Martell said. “You ask yourself, ‘what food items can get me the most calories for the money?’”


Sagal and her friends looked forward to the end of the week when they could eat whatever they wanted, whenever, and not have to count every penny of the cost.


At midnight on the last day, Sagal devoured her roommate’s delicious poppyseed chicken, savoring her first carnivorous meal after five days of not eating meat because it’s costly.


 “I got through this week knowing that it was temporary,” Sagal said. “I knew that at the end of the week I would be able to eat anything I wanted. I have come to appreciate what I have so much more. I have also become more aware of the difficulties that people living in extreme poverty face every day. I do not believe anyone should have to live like that and I am even more passionate about this cause than I was before I started it.”


Daylina Miller can be reached at 813-500-8754.