Sunday, May 12, 2013

Conspicuous consumption

My hero Peter Singer just wrote a nice little piece about conspicuous consumption called Why Pay More.

I often blog about conspicuous consumption, but rarely name it. To me, it is perhaps the most disgusting and most damaging way of being selfish. In a nut shell, conspicuous consumption is "keeping up with the Jones's" - spending resources on unnecessary or luxury items as a way of signaling status. Examples of conspicuous consumption include purchases of designer clothing/accessories/furniture, oversized living spaces/cars, pedigree companion animals, weddings, lavish vacations, and any purchase you'd want to brag about or that would impress your peer group. Think about purchases or experiences you post on Facebook. Think about your boards on Pinterest. Can you see conspicuous consumption at work in your own life?

The reason that I believe conspicuous consumption is worse than private indulgence is conspicuous consumption places social pressure on others to spend as you spend. Not only do you use your own resources selfishly, but you encourage others to do the same. Even worse, there's a "one-upping" that's expected - you spent 5 days in London, but I spent 5 days in London AND 3 days in Rome. And all that unnecessary spending could have saved lives.

Extremely large, public gifts to charity are also considered conspicuous consumption, as they raise the status of those making the gift. This is the one form of conspicuous consumption I support and applaud, for exactly the reason I stated above: it encourages others to do the same. The charitable gifts made by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet have made way for other billionaires to follow suit.

Conspicuous consumption is deeply embedded in American culture, self-identity, and group-identity. It is extremely important to recognize the way in which conspicuous consumption directs our spending habits, and thus "ties up" money that we should be free to give away.

To change our culture, to value compassion over selfishness and altruistic actions over "stuff", we must celebrate and elevate those who defy conspicuous consumption, like Uruguay's 'poor' president Jose Mujica. And we should feel disgusted and outraged by public displays of luxury and indulgence, not envious.

-Selfish Blogger

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

I lived below the line without harming animals

Global Poverty Project, the organization that runs the Live Below the Line challenge, gives lots of advice and support to help people figure out how to live on $1.50 a day in the US, £1 a day in the UK, and $2 in Australia. They connect you with other folks taking the challenge, suggest shopping lists and recipes, and share tips on fundraising.

One piece of advice that I certainly didn't use was their recommendation to eat eggs for a cheap source of protein during the Live Below the Line challenge. While eggs might be a cheap source of food for you and me, the cost to the chickens who lay them is more than anyone should be willing to pay.

After dairy, eggs are the most confusing item on the "do not eat" list of my vegan lifestyle. I think the confusion comes from most people picturing happy, fat, egg laying hens running around green fields with their brood in the sunshine, laying eggs in a soft nest of grass and hay, which friendly farmers gently collect and then sell. The reality couldn't be farther from the truth.

Chickens forced to lay eggs for human consumption live in dark, cramped cages. Most never see the sun or feel grass beneath their feet. They stand or lay on wire cages 24 hours a day, hurting their feet. They don't have perches to roost in, no nests to snuggle into at night. They don't even have the space to stretch out their wings. Their cages are cramped so close together that the chickens are covered in feces and urine. The smell is overwhelming. A portion of the chickens' beaks are cut or seared off, without pain killers, so the chickens won't peck their neighbors. It is animal cruelty. It is torture.

And if you think you're doing chickens a favor by paying extra for cage free or free range eggs: think again. In cage free egg production, chickens are not condemned to a life in wire cages, but are instead crammed into huge barns where they are forced to stand in their own waste, causing terrible sores on their feet. The ammonia fumes burn their delicate bird respiratory system, and cause painful lesions on their lungs. Some will die from respiratory failure caused by the inhumane conditions they are forced to live in. The overcrowding of the chickens is so extreme, many cannot navigate their way to food and water. They starve, and their dead bodies are left among their living sisters.

When you buy eggs, that's what you are paying for. You are paying someone to continue the torture of these smart, social, sentient birds.

It is easy for me to empathize with chickens: I grew up with them. My family cared for chickens in our big back yard - years before we adopted a dog, before my little sister was born. They were my first friends.

Happy chickens run around in the sunshine eating weeds and bugs. They pile into the dirt with their sister and take "dust baths" to keep away mites. They chase each other. They talk to each other constantly (they have a LOT to say). They wait to get pets on their backs from their human friends. They follow their human and dog friends around the yard. They help each other. One of the chickens we care for now was born with a deformed beak. She can't close her mouth as a result, and it is difficult for her to eat and drink. She spills water down her front, and food cakes on her feather. We were sure this hook-billed chicken (her name is Hooky) wouldn't live very long. But Hooky's sister watched out for her. They let her dive into the food pile first so she can get her fill. They gently peck the caked-on food off of her feathers to keep her front clean. Today, Hooky has outlived half her clan. She is eight years old - quite an old lady for a hen! To think of Hooky living in an egg production facility breaks my heart.

It is one thing to live below the global poverty line. It's something else to live below the line of common decency - that's a line I refuse to live below. And that's why I didn't buy eggs this week. That's why I never eat eggs.

-Selfish Blogger

Tuesday, April 30, 2013


I'm feeling very grateful right now.

The carrot I snacked on just before lunch was so pleasant and crisp. As I chewed, I became mindful of just how much I was enjoying it. I'm eating my lentils for lunch right now, and they really aren't that bad. I have something to eat. That is a gift.

Three more donations came in through my page - two from friends and family who have already given. I'm feeling supported and loved. And I'm feeling hopeful that there are many people in the world who care about fairness; who care about ending injustice; and who are willing to do something to make the world "more right." $385 to go to reach my goal of raising $1,000 for CARE.

I'm feeling relieved that I'm almost done with the challenge. It is exhausting to count every bite of food; to restrain yourself from eating more now, because you know you need to save something for tomorrow. And it is demoralizing to eat the same thing day in and day out. I have felt a lot of bitterness during the past few days, but having support from my friends and family has really carried me through. This challenge takes an emotional toll. Poverty takes an emotional toll.

Here's my food break down for the day so far:

Breakfast (a poor girl's version of tofu scramble) totaled $0.48
4 oz tofu = $.025
1/8 onion = $.06
1/16 cabbage = $0.6
1 Tbs oil = $0.10
salt to taste = $0.01

Snack (1 carrot) totaled $0.10

Lunch (1 cup lentils) totaled $0.27

$0.85 gone. $0.65 for the late afternoon and dinner.

I can't wait for my first meal tomorrow...

I hope you'll give if you haven't already:

-Selfish Blogger

Day five below the line

It's the final count down! I took survey of what I've got left.

8 oz tofu = $0.49
2 cups cooked lentils = $0.54
1/4 onion = $0.13
1/8 head of cabbage = $0.12
1 carrot = $0.10

For a grand total of $1.38. That leaves some space change for a bit of oil and salt. The problem is that, with the exception of the carrot perhaps, I don't want to eat any of it. I'm trying to think of ways to make my final day of food palatable, but without access of herbs and spices and some additional ingredients, there's very little I can do to hide the fact that I'm eating the same food that I've eaten for the last four days. Time to buck up and power through. That's what people in extreme poverty have to do every day.

Here we go!

I've got $475 left to raise to help people who live on less every single day of the year (ugh, I can't even imagine!). Will you chip in $50?

-Selfish Blogger

Monday, April 29, 2013

End of day four

Today was fairly uneventful. My lentil soup carried me through the day. I ate some every couple of hours, and by the end of the work day I had finished the whole thing. I left work to finish cleaning out my old place. Spent about two hours there, then drove home. It was time to eat dinner, but I started to feel sick of lentils the same way I started to feel sick of peas. I pulled some lentils out of the fridge (portion three of five). I tried to think of an ingenious way to make them into something else. Nothing I could dream up would fit into the rest of my budget for the day. I ate them cold, leaving 1/4 cup behind.

My total at the end of the day was $1.20.

I hope you'll contribute if you haven't already!

-Selfish Blogger

Day four below the line

Soup for the day
Skipping breakfast again. I cooked up a big batch of soup to carry me through the full day at work.

1 cup peas (the last of 'em) = $0.38
1 cup lentils = $0.27
1/8 head of cabbage = $0.12
1/4 onion = $0.12
2 Tbs oil = $0.10

$0.99 total. It's my final day as Executive Director of the arts nonprofit I've been running for eight years. I need to be on my game to train the new person.

I only have two days left in the challenge, but I'm only half way to my fundraising goal! Will you help?

-Selfish Blogger

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Bonus lentils!

Tonight's dinner. All my meals are starting to look the same...
I've cooked up my lentils for dinner tonight and other meals tomorrow  (please don't make me eat more peas!). I paid $1.33 for 2 cups of dried lentils. I expected them to cook up to 4 cups. But lucky me: they cooked up into 5 cups! Instead of paying $0.33 per serving, I paid $0.27 per serving. That extra $0.06 will go far.

I don't have a kitchen scale, so I've been tracking my costs and volume of what I eat by portioning, and sometimes storing each portion in a separate container. For dried goods (lentils and peas in my case) I cooked the entire batch, then measured them out into cup-sized portions into individual containers. I cut my tofu into eight equal segments of approximately 2 oz. each. I quartered my cabbage and my onion. Oil, salt and sugar live in big containers, and I measure out the amount I need for a particular purpose.

Portioned lentils for the next two days
It looks like more work than it is. I'm surprised at how easy this part of the challenge has been.

For dinner, I'm frying up my lentils with salt, oil, crumbled tofu, and onion. I really want to fat from the oil. The cost is as follows:

1 cup cooked lentils = $0.27
2 oz tofu = $0.12
1/4 onion (less 3 Tbs from my snack) = $0.10
2 Tbs oil = $0.10
Salt to taste = $0.01

Dinner tonight will cost $0.60, which means I'll have $0.30 left over!!! Watch out $0.33 cookie - I will eat most of you.

The one thing that would make me happier than a cookie is reaching my $1,000 fundraising goal to help people living in extreme poverty. Donate here:

-Selfish Blogger

Day three snack

Fresh cabbage snack
I took a nap this afternoon. I never take naps.

I woke up ready for a snack. I shredded 1/4 of my half cabbage (so that's 1/8 of a head of cabbage, about 1 cup chopped). I wanted to toss the cabbage with some seasoned rice vinegar, but did the calculation and found that 1 Tbs would cost me $0.15. I don't think so! I could get a carrot or another portion of cabbage for less.

Instead, I mixed up a $0.03 dressing of 1Tbs white vinegar, a pinch of salt and 1/4 tsp of sugar. Boom! My very own seasoned "rice" vinegar. Oh man did it feel good to eat something fresh and crunchy. Even though I ate a raw carrot yesterday, I feel like I haven't eaten fresh food for a week.

My snack cost a total of $0.14, and it was bright and satisfying. At first anyway.

A few bites in and that cabbage started to feel pretty hard on my stomach. I thought about eating something else, but I'd still have to eat the cabbage later, or go without. I stared at the cabbage. I waited. I ate a few more bites. My stomach hurt more. I walked away and washed dishes. My stomach settled. I came back. I stared at the cabbage again. I ate some more. Two bites in and my stomach was upset. I did this three more times over the next few hours.

Cooked down with some onions, much better
Finally, I cooked the cabbage with 1/4 of a 1/4 of my onion (about 1 Tbs) and 1 Tbs of oil. That was the solution. My stomach was able to handle the cabbage and I finished off my snack around 5:30pm. The Tbs of onion cost $0.03, the oil $0.05. Bringing my snack to a grand total of $0.22. Add that to my peas earlier and I've spent $0.60. $0.90 left for the day.

Hoping to reach my fundraising goal of $1,000 soon. Will you help me get there?

-Selfish Blogger

Day three below the line

Look how many boxes I unpacked in two hours,
and on an empty stomach! I'm proud of me :)
My strategy of skipping breakfast yesterday worked well, so I used it again today. Even though I was a little hungry when I woke up, I spent two hours unpacking before I ate. Around 10:30am I heated another 1 cup portion of peas (#3 out of 4, in case you are keeping track ) with 1 cup of water to make soup. I ate about 2/3s of it and saved the rest for later in the day. The peas that were unbelievably delicious just yesterday have lost their appeal. I didn't have to remind myself to save some of them for later - this time I just stopped eating and was surprised to see so much left in the bowl.

Yesterday I ate peas for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and second dinner. I'm sick of peas. But I don't have much choice, and there's only 1/3 of a cup left in my bowl...

I summoned my will power and told my stomach to STFU and ate the rest of the peas around 1:45pm. They were getting hard to swallow. I cannot imagine eating my last portion of peas for dinner tonight. The thought makes me feel sick. I'll save my fourth and final cup of peas for the last day of the challenge. I'll cook up lentils tonight.

Breakfast and lunch - no more peas please
So I've learned I can't make it two days on the same food. I have new found empathy for those who may have enough to eat, but not enough variety to eat. I did my best to "mix things up" with my peas (see my previous post), but apparently that wasn't enough to fool my stomach. Eating the same thing meal after meal sucks. It's not even that you get tired of the flavor. It's just… nauseating, like my best friend told me on the first night of the challenge.

If you haven't had a chance to donate, I'd really appreciate your support:

-Selfish Blogger

Saturday, April 27, 2013

End of day two below the line

A filling dinner, this is bowl 1 of 2

I made it to the end of the day with $1.02 left to spend. So I made myself a nice big dinner. I fried up 1/4 of my onion in 2 Tbs of oil, added 4 oz. of tofu, 1/4 of my half-head of cabbage, 1 cup of my delicious cooked peas, and a cup of water to make a hearty soup. It was very tasty, and wow did it hit the spot . The salt from the peas was enough to season the whole dish, so I didn't have to add any additional salt. I ate half my soup around 5:30pm and the second half around 8:00pm. It reminded me of colcannon. I definitely had enough to eat. I think it's safe to say that I was full.

Here's the break down of costs:

1 portion cooked peas = $0.38 (see Day two: Moving day)
4 oz. tofu = $0.25
1 portion cabbage (about 1 cup) = $0.11
1/4 onion = $0.13
2 Tbs oil = $0.10

For a total cost of $0.97

Without question, day two went much better than day one. My tricks were to skip breakfast and spread out my eating. I'll use these tricks again tomorrow.

I do miss tea. And sweets. I ended the day with $0.05 to spare and I thought I might be able to eat 1/4 of a cookie. But I did the math and the cookies in our pantry cost $0.33 each. 1/4 of a cookie would cost more than $0.08. I just couldn't afford it today. Maybe when I start eating lentils instead of peas ($0.06 cheaper per cup) I'll have enough left over for a bite of a cookie? Here's hoping.

If you'd like to help poor people get their hands on 1/4 of a cookie, give to CARE and support my journey:

-Selfish Blogger

P.S. For those of you concerned for my kitty cat, you'll be pleased to know that she LOVES the new place. She's done lots of exploring, has found an opportunity to sit in every window (her favorite activity), and chowed down on her food like no one's business. She's snuggled up on the couch with us watching TV now.

What the world eats

Check out these images of a weeks worth of groceries for families in various countries. Fascinating. I assume that when the image shows a family of four, the groceries are for four people. And when the image shows a family of eight, the groceries are for eight people. Not sure if that's the case or not, but interesting to see anyway. Pay attention to the food available for the African countries. Easy to guess who is living below the global poverty line.

-Selfish Blogger


One carrot for a snack, un-peeled

 On day one, I made the terrible mistake of portioning my food budget into three meals, with no snacks. Today, I'm spreading out my food so I can graze throughout the day. That's how I typically eat. Oh how I miss grabbing a handful of almonds in the mid-morning! Almonds are much too expensive for my budget.

So it's 2:30pm and I'm eating a carrot. An un-peeled carrot. Because seriously, I am not throwing away those carrot peels. Yes, they are bitter. But they are calories. They are vitamins. No way are those carrot peels going in the trash. They are going in my belly where they belong. Carrot skin is food my friends!!!

We waste so much food in this country. There's the big wasting - the over-buying that lets food spoil in the fridge, the huge portions that cause half your meal to end up in the trash, the over-eating that makes us to shit out more food than we need. But I'm reminded that we waste in little ways too. Carrot, potato, and apple peels are thrown out, but they are food. Cooking quickly is chosen over careful preparation, so large edible parts of veggies end up in the trash with their roots or tough ends. I don't advocate for anyone to eat dead animals - but for goodness sake, boil your bones meat-eaters! All those bones you think of as trash boil down into a nutrient rich broth. We can thrown these things away because we live in abundance. But if you're living in extreme poverty, that food you throw out as "trash" could make all the difference.

We use so much more than we need, and leave not enough for others. It's unfair. It's selfish.

Anywho, add $0.10 for my carrot snack, and I have $1.02 left for food for the rest of the day. I will be grateful for every tiny bit of it.

I am also grateful for any support you can give to women living in extreme poverty. Give today, and give generously:

-Selfish Blogger

Day two: Moving day

The most delicious peas in the world
Two movers arrived almost 20 minutes early. There was no time for breakfast, but I woke up without hunger and didn't want to make the same mistake I had made on day one by jump-starting my metabolism with a few bites of food.

I corralled my angry, angry cat into her harness and carrier. I pulled all my carefully measured "challenge food" together. We packed up odds and ends, directed the movers, and helped load things up. I don't think I could have done it on my own. My brain was too foggy and I was distracted by the cries of my cat. Even though I wasn't hungry, I was noticeably weak. Boxes I had packed myself and carted from room to room a few days prior were too heavy for me to lift. My boyfriend was invaluable. He jumped in and took charge. An hour later we were on the road. Saturday morning traffic in Los Angeles was very kind, and I made it to my new place in only 35 minutes, with my cat howling and crying the entire car ride. Eating so little has brought my emotions very close to the surface. Listening to my cat cry made me cry, twice. Hunger started to kick in at the end of the car ride.

Another hour and a half, and our stuff was in the new place. At 10:45am I sat on the floor of my new bedroom, with my (now quiet) cat hiding under the bed, and I ate: one portion of peas cooked with salt and oil. The portion is 1 cup and costs $0.38. I planned to eat the whole thing, but felt sated halfway through. I saved the second half and ate it a few hours later. This is clearly the hunger talking, but these are the most delicious peas I have ever eaten! I planned to heat them up with carrot, onion, and water for a soup, but I was so hungry and tired, that I ate them cold on their own. And they were DELICIOUS! Someone try this recipe and tell me if I'm crazy:

2 C dried green split peas
1 Tbs salt
1 Tbs canola oil
water for cooking

Cook until peas are tender but not mushy, about 2 hours.

Because I've only eaten one portion of peas for $0.38, I've got $1.12 available for the rest of the day. I think my stomach shrunk, because I'm handling today much better than yesterday.

No internet at my new place though, so I'll have to post when I can!

I hope the next time I log in, I find I've reach my goal of raising $1,000 to help lift women out of extreme poverty. If you haven't already, I hope you'll help my get there by forking over some cash:

-Selfish Blogger

End of day one

Here's I how I ended my first day of the Live Below the Line challenge:

I finished the second half of my lunch (brown rice and tofu vegetable soup) around 6:30pm. I felt energized, ready to take on the world. Though not full, I wasn't hungry, and It was a glorious feeling. But I knew it wouldn't last. The last of my food for the day was gone, and I had a Dodger game and night of packing ahead of me.

When we got to the stadium, my boyfriend suggested we take the escalator instead of the stairs so I could conserve my energy. I agreed. Once we met up with our friends and found our seats, I declined offers of food and used the opportunity to talk about the challenge - many of them had already read my blog. My best friend took the challenge earlier this month. The hardest thing for her was the monotony - eating the same food over and over. It made her feel nauseous, and at some meals she chose to eat more-expensive variety and experience hunger, rather than eat the same beans again. We talked about the comfort of knowing that the lack of proper nutrition will only last for five days, and how unfair that is. What if you had no end date?
Dodger tickets are $5, but this meal cost $17.50

My boyfriend bought a veggie dog, pretzel, and bottle of water for the totally reasonable price of $17.50. I would have loved to indulge with him, but I refrained.

$17.50. 35 meals.

Midway through the game I started to feel hunger creep back in. By 10:30pm my stomach was growling and I was feeling weak. Once we got home, it was time to pack. By the time we went to bed after 1:00am, I was passed hunger - in that place where I had been so hungry for so long that the physical feeling of wanting to eat wasn't there. The movers would arrive first thing in the morning. A day of hard work and hunger ahead…

I think the only thing that kept me going today was my sponsors. Friends and family have all chipped in to move me toward my fundraising goal - and almost half the money I've raised so far came in today - on day one of the challenge. I couldn't have imagined how much inner strength I'd need to get through this, and the support of friends and family has made the difference.

Thank you for supporting me. Thank you for helping end extreme poverty in our generation. And thank you to everyone who will join us:

-Selfish Blogger

Friday, April 26, 2013

Lunch Fail!

Lunch and dinner from my fav Thai place
Well, my plans were foiled when my lovely staff decided to buy me lunch for our last day in the office all together. I would have used it as an outreach opportunity, by refusing the lunch and explaining why I'm "living below the line", then asking for financial contributions instead of a lunch out. But one of my staff had an extreme, violent tragedy in her family 36 hours ago, and this just didn't feel like the best time to discuss "the less fortunate."

So I graciously accepted lunch, but said I felt like a light meal. I ordered a cup of tofu vegetable soup and side of brown rice to stay as true to the challenge as possible. I decided to eat half and save the second half for dinner. This would absorb the remaining $1.15 budget for the day. The actual meal cost almost $7.

By 12:30pm when we ate, I was so so hungry. Breakfast didn't fill me up, and I drank lots of water in the hours leading up to lunch to stave off hunger as much as I could. I probably could have finished my entire lunch, but I ate until my hunger was sated and set the second half aside.

By 4:00pm when I left work, I was experiencing all the terrible-ness that comes with hunger: stomach pains, light-headedness, lack of focus, weakness, and a less-than-chipper attitude toward the world. I told myself I could eat when I got home. I left work two hours early.  Driving home I kept thinking "I'm doing this wrong. I shouldn't be hungry. I'm doing this wrong." But then another voice in my head said "No, you're doing this right. This is what it feels like to go without."

It is easy to forget how painful hunger can be when you never experience it yourself, and my closest experience to real hunger is through fiction. Katniss Everdeen talks about "hollow days" in The Hunger Games - days when, no matter how much you eat, you can never get full. Harry, Hermione, and Ron quickly learn that a good meal means good spirits, and hunger means bickering and worse in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I have fasted before, but during time off when I would rest and read and take long baths and enjoy the garden - not in the middle of moving and changing jobs! I need all the energy I can muster.

Even in this challenge, I'll never know true hunger. I'm nibbling on the second half of my lunch/dinner as I type (it's how I'm managing to spit our mostly-coherent sentences). Tomorrow, I will have more to eat. One day of being sort of hungry and I'm falling apart. Pathetic. To people who live on less every single day of their lives, I am a spoiled, pampered girl who has never faced hardship.

Help those who do face hardship, every day of their lives:

-Selfish Blogger

Second breakfast

Bonus tofu, you were surprisingly tasty
That 1/8 cup of oatmeal didn't come close to filling me up. I was actively hungry after finishing my meager breakfast. So rather than head to work hungry, I fried up some tofu - about 2 oz - with a tablespoon of oil and a pinch of salt. The tofu, oil and salt cost $0.18. Add to that my $0.17 oatmeal, and breakfast cost $0.35. I wouldn't call myself full, but I'm not as hungry. $1.15 left for snacks and meals the rest of the day.

I understand now why so many people in extreme poverty go without breakfast. I wasn't terribly hungry before I ate my oatmeal. I probably could have made it through a few hours without needing to eat. But once I ate that little bit of grain, my stomach started working and it wanted much more than I had to feed it. I suck at being poor. Being poor sucks.

Help end extreme poverty. Donate:

-Selfish Blogger

Meal one below the line

Breakfast for 17 cents: 1/8 C dry steal cut oats, cooked.
Breakfast is 1/8 cup dry steel cut oats and a sprinkling of sugar. Well, the plan was to add sugar. I left out the sugar because I'm worried I'll need those few pennies to buy extra food. The steel cut oats cook up to about 1/4 cup of grain. My goodness that looks like a small amount of food! What if I didn't set aside enough food for the challenge? For ten meals, I only planned on four cups dried lentils/peas, a pound of tofu, and a few veggies. Is that enough? I have no idea!

My colleague asked "Is there a way to do this challenge without going hungry?" I thought there was - I still think there is - but my first breakfast is making me worry that I wasn't smart enough to make sure I have adequate food.

In the months leading up to Live Below the Line I was careful to track my food spending, but I never paid attention to how much I actually eat! I guess we'll see how the first day goes. I left a little wiggle room in my daily budget: $0.11. I was hoping to spend it on half a piece of fruit. I might need to spend it on something a little heartier...

Remember: Live Below the Line is a fundraiser to end extreme poverty. Do your part and contribute today.

-Selfish Blogger

Thursday, April 25, 2013

How to live on $1.50 a day

Most of my food for the next 5 days
The Live Below the Line Challenge takes lots of planning. The challenge is designed to raise funds and awareness toward ending global poverty, by asking folks to feed themselves below the extreme global poverty line of $1.50 a day.

One rule of the challenge is you cannot accept donated food. This is the reason I'm starting the challenge a few days earlier than everyone else - I'm in process of changing jobs, and my coworkers have planned goodbye lunches and parties for me. So I've scheduled my 5 days of modest eating between celebrations full of food.

The most common response I heard when asking friends to join me in living below the line was "let me check my schedule". Cooking everything from scratch and carefully checking prices to stay within budget takes a lot of time. What luxury we live in, that we can choose whether or not to live frugally. Adjusting my schedule to fully participate in my goodbye celebrations means I'll be eating on $1.50 while I move from my house to an apartment on the other side of Los Angeles. I'm going to be hungry and tired. Who wants to cook on moving day?! I can already feel my empathy growing for those people working hard labor jobs while eating very little.

So, what will I be eating for the next 5 days? Here's my grocery list:

1 Onion - $.50
15 oz tofu - $0.98
1/2 head of cabbage from the soon-to-expire shelf - $0.45
2 carrots - $0.20
2 cups dried split peas - $1.46
2 cups lentils - $1.33

That comes to $4.92, or almost $1 a day. That leaves me with $0.50 per day for seasonings, a little oatmeal or rice for breakfast, and maybe half a piece of fruit as a snack. I've set aside the following for a little added flavor:

10 Tbs Canola oil (2 Tbs per day) - $.50
5 Tbs salt (1 Tbs per day) - $0.15
5 Tbs sugar (1 Tbs per day) - $0.50

That will put me at $1.22 per day. I can squeeze in 1/8 cup steel cut oats for breakfast ($0.17) with $0.11 to spare. Maybe I can indulge in 1/2 a banana.

I'm going to start cooking so I have pea soup ready to eat tomorrow. Stay tuned!

-Selfish Blogger

Friday, March 29, 2013

Preparing to Live Below the Line

Next month, I'll be taking the Live Below the Line challenge (which I blogged about earlier this month). It means feeding myself on the global poverty line of $1.50 per day for 5 days.

To prepare, I've been tracking my food spending for the last month or two. The last time I tracked my food spending closely was in 2005 and 2006, when I was fresh out of college and making about $18,000 a year. Back then I was spending about $25 a week on food. There was hardly a packaged item in my house. The freezer was empty, except for portions of soup that I'd make from scratch in large batches. Meals were based around lentils, beans, dried peas, potatoes, rices, and pastas. The fresh vegetables I could afford were primarily cabbage, carrots, and onions.

Today, I'm spending two or three times as much on food: $50-75 a week. I admit, I was a little surprised my spending was that high. But it is easy to look around my kitchen and see why. My freezer is stocked full of cheese-less pizza, Gardein chickin' fingers, veggie potstickers, and coconut ice-cream. My pantry contains not just modest dried goods that cost $0.99/lb, but fancy french lentils, heirloom beans, and a rare Italian grain called farro that sell for $4.50/lb at Whole Foods. Raw nuts and dried fruits at $7-10/lb are in stock, and at least three different kinds of non-dairy milk. I see a few avocados, which cost $0.50 each on a good day, but up to $2 a piece if you aren't paying attention.  I see chips and crackers and chocolate bars. Those were $2-4 a package. Add in a $10 restaurant lunch during the work week... yup $50-75 makes sense. But how unnecessary.

I don't remember feeling deprived when I was eating on $25 a week. I'm not exactly sure why I drifted from that life-style, except that I was living without cable or internet back then, and I hadn't established a group of friends in the area. All that free time meant I was happy to prep lots of food from scratch - it's not like I had anything better to do. If I avoided Hulu and Facebook, I bet I could pull it off again. But I'm lazy and I have the extra cash. So I've been making the selfish choice to spend far more on food than I need.

But even at $25 a week, I was still way above the global poverty line. The money I use to spend on food for the day will need to stretch to cover 10 meals during the challenge.

I've got some planning to do...

-Selfish Blogger

P.S. You can donate through my Live Below the Line page here.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Preach it Francis!

Pope Francis will be officially inaugurated Pope in the coming hours and, if he has anything to say about it, his fellow Argentinians won't be there. He has encouraged them to watch the happenings from home, save the money that would have been spent on travel, and make a contribution to the poor instead.

Just one more good thing in a long line of good things Pope Francis has said/done to bring attention to the plight of the poor, and our responsibility to help those in need. OMG Pope Francis is the BEST.*

-Selfish Blogger

*excludes gay rights, women's rights, access to contraception...

Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Pope for the poor

I couldn't be more delighted. The new Pope says he wants "a poor Church, for the poor", the BBC report today.

Sarah Silverman (and others) have done a great job articulating why the Vatican's wealth-hoarding ways should end.

His roots as a Jesuit from Latin America made me hopeful that he would understand the problems of extreme poverty. And when he took his new name (the name of my favorite Saint), Pope Francis I had already signaled his commitment to helping the poor and living a life of poverty. He declined to wear the gilded cross and other symbols of wealth associated with the Papacy.

And now he is speaking forthrightly about the concept of a poor Church early into his reign.

I am hopeful. It's difficult to know how much wealth the Vatican controls, but the physical manifestations of that wealth are on display. A shift in priorities of Vatican spending, the sale of some assets, even the example of the Pope living modestly could have huge implications for impoverished people world wide.

Keep up the good work Pope Francis I. I hope you can prioritize the poor in the Church's spending.

-Selfish Blogger

Friday, March 15, 2013

What happens when you see the problem?

I've taken the Live Below the Line challenge, which has given me a great opportunity to speak about extreme poverty to friends and colleagues. These conversations have not gone the way I anticipated: most of the people I've spoken to don't see the problem. And they push back when I start talking about the reality facing 1/3 of the world's population living off $1.25 a day. Here are some of the ways the people I've spoken to imagine extreme poverty:

- Not being able to afford organic food.

- Buying large quantities of rice in bulk, which is "much cheaper than those little bags you get at Trader Joe's" and eating small portions of vegetables and meat.

- Delighting in fresh fruits straight from the forest, the luxury of which we could imagine here.

- Hunting wild game on the Savannah.

- Living in tribal societies without the distractions of technology.

They don't see the problem. In fact, some sound almost envious of the simple, pollution free life these "impoverished" societies enjoy. Of course, the situations they are imagining are not extreme poverty, but they seem unable to imagine something much, much worse.

Here is how those living in extreme poverty have described what it means to them (from

- You are short of food for all or part of the year, often eating only one meal per day, sometimes having to choose between stilling your child’s hunger or your own, and sometimes being able to do neither.

- You can’t save money. If a family member falls ill and you need money to see a doctor, or if the crop fails and you have nothing to eat, you have to borrow from a local moneylender and he will charge you so much interest that the debt continues to mount and you may never be free of it.

- You can’t afford to send your children to school, or if they do start school, you have to take them out again if the harvest is poor.

- You live in an unstable house, made with mud or thatch that you need to rebuild every two or three years, or after severe weather.

- You have no close source of safe drinking water. You have to carry it a long way, and even then, it can make you ill unless you boil it.

Really think about what these words mean. Imagine how hungry you would feel after a full day of work, with no lunch, and how unsatisfied you would feel with a small bowl of grain at days end. Think of the physical weakness, the mood swings, the lack of concentration that comes from being really hungry, and imagine feeling that way every day. Think of the last big storm you sat through, safely in your home. Now imagine that you weren't safe in your home, because your home was falling apart around you. How terribly frightening! What would happen to your things? Imagine the emotional trauma of having your house destroyed, and imagine using what little money you have to rebuild a weak house that you know will be destroyed again.


Today, I had a long phone conversation with one of my board members who just returned from vacation in Africa. He has been changed. The need he saw was so great, and so heart-wrenching, that he was sickened by the excess of his own life. He wants to go back. He wants to help. He wants to leave his job and commit his life to helping the people he met in the villages where he stayed. The experience was so far removed from the suffering he has witnessed to this point, that he was at a loss for words to even describe it. He doesn't know what to do, and he doesn't know who to talk to, because how could anyone who hasn't seem what he's seen understand it?

-Selfish Blogger

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Live Below the Line

Chances are, most people reading this blog have no idea what it means to be poor. I know I don't. That's one of the reasons I'm going to Live Below the Line in May.

Live Below the Line is a challenge that gives people in the first world a 5 day taste of what it truly means to go without. For 5 days, people taking the Live Below the Line challenge must feed themselves on no more than $1.50 per day - the equivalent of what 1.4 billion people the world over have to live on. That $1.50 figure is the purchasing power parity rate. That $1.50 does not buy more in the third world than it does in the US. 

I've been looking forward to the challenge, and I've been paying close attention to food prices to try and figure out what I'll eat - I'll have exactly $7.50 to cover 15 meals plus snacks. Rice and beans look like my staple. Nothing canned. Nothing from a box. A $0.50 apple is out of the question. I'm hoping to afford a $0.19 banana. If I can make it to the farmer's market, there is a vendor that sells huge bunches of kale for only $2 - enough kale to last me the full 5 days, and leave me with $1.10 per day for rice and beans. It's going to be tough.

Live Below the Line is also a fundraiser, and I'm asking for sponsors to help me raiser $1,000 for CARE (don't be put off by the dramatic music in the video, it's a great cause).

I hope you will consider supporting me and CARE by giving through my Live Below the Line page or by joining my team and taking the challenge.

--Selfish Blogger

Monday, March 4, 2013

Mind the wealth gap

I've been having conversations with people on opposite ends of the political spectrum about wealth inequality and extreme poverty. And I can't help but feel that liberals and conservatives are looking at the problem through very different lenses. It results in a feeling of "talking past" one another. No one feels heard. No one feels understood. And while these conversations can be terribly frustrating, I think I have finally spotted why communication breaks down.

Liberals tend to see extreme poverty as a systemic problem - one in which most poor individuals face insurmountable obstacles to improving their circumstances. Conservatives tend to see extreme poverty as an individual problem - one in which most poor individuals make bad choices or lack the character traits necessary for financial success. These two different views seem pretty obvious now that I've written it on the page, but they've been invisible to me in all but my most recent conversations.

Take a look at how the videos below frame the conversation.

Coming from a liberal perspective, I think the first video is fantastic. The second video, to me, is downright insulting.

The next time you find yourself discussing wealth inequality and extreme poverty, pay attention to the way each person is framing the issue. You just might be able to make that conversation productive, instead of talking past one another.

--Selfish Blogger

Friday, February 15, 2013

Do your little bit of good

I spent yesterday at the Annenberg Beach House in Santa Monica at a luncheon for The Halo Awards: a project from the Carl & Roberta Deutsch Foundation that recognizes outstanding volunteers and the nonprofits they serve. I'm proud to say that a stellar volunteer from the nonprofit I run was selected as one of six awardees.

Hearing from each of the volunteers was incredibly moving. None knew that they had been nominated by the nonprofits they serve, until being notified of the award in December. And all expressed a similar outlook around their volunteer work that went something like this: I saw a small way that I could help, so I helped. Hearing about what each volunteer had accomplished was incredibly inspiring, and made me want to spend more time (not just money) helping others. As I listened, I realized that none of the volunteers did anything super-human. The work they did was humble - grant writing, running Wii bowling at a senior center, recycling clay for art classes - but the end results were so meaningful to the people around them. Simple acts of kindness had grown into so much more...

One volunteer, in her acceptance speech, summed up her work and motivation with this wonderful quote from Desmond Tutu.

Do your little bit of good where you are; its those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.

Words to live by.

- Selfish Blogger

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The true cost of travel

I am in the midst of a career change, and that means I've sought the advice of many people in the last year. My most trusted mentor recommended I spend some time abroad volunteering for aid organizations. Clearly this is where my passion lies. By spending time on the ground, I could learn about how aid works in poor countries, and what type of aid is truly effective. I could advocate from a place of experience, even expertise. It sounds like an important and worthwhile use of my time.

And then I think about the cost.

Plane tickets, appropriate clothing, medicines and inoculations, ground transport, food, housing - thousands of dollars for my travel and basic needs. Then there are my lost wages. A meaningful trip would last at least 30 days, probably longer. Thousands of dollars.

And then I think about the true cost. The opportunity cost.

The opportunity cost of my travel - the thousands spent and the thousands given up in lost wages - the opportunity cost is lives saved. I know enough to know that poor countries do not need free, unskilled labor. I would be there for my own knowledge, nothing more. There is little work I could do on the ground to save and improve lives. What they need is money. And rather than spend my money to gain first-hand knowledge of the problem, I could spend my money to solve the problem. I could trust the published research of experts in the field and direct my resources to those groups doing the best possible work.

Leila de Bruyne, founder of Flying Kites, blogged about "Voluntourism" in the Huffington Post. She reflects on her summer as a volunteer in a Kenyan orphanage:

"I spent a lot of time that year wondering if I had unintentionally exploited the children I'd traveled so far to meet. Did I help the little ones learn the days of the week and the older kids practice their written composition? Yes. Had my trip contributed in any significant way to a more just, safe life for them? No. I was a 19-year-old, providing unskilled labor, to deeply traumatized children, for a very short of amount of time. The price of my plane ticket would have been better spent on the salary of Kenyan teacher, a source of continuity for children who deserve it the most."

I recommend reading her blog in it's entirety. Flying Kites offers a different kind of volunteer experience for people interested in helping orphaned children in Kenya - and it involves a lot of fundraising.

-Selfish Blogger

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The United States of Charitable Giving

This handy little infographic from shows which states' residents give the highest percentage of their income to charity. Remember that giving to religious institutions counts, whether or not that money is used to help those in need. It is interesting to note that libertarian leaning states give very little. I'd love to dig down into these numbers to see what giving looks like without gifts to religious institutions. I wonder if libertarian-leaning states, like New Hampshire, appear to give less because they are not tithing, or if they actually give less to need-based causes than the rest of the country.

-Selfish Blogger

Friday, January 4, 2013

Accident of birth

We have no control over where we are born, but it makes all the difference to our chances in life. Explore what it means to be born poor in the USA, Sierra Leone, and Cambodia in Welcome to the World by Why Poverty?. This one hour video, and others by Why Poverty? are available free on their website and on PBS.

-Selfish Blogger

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Progress check

Studies have shown that the way people spend their money is influenced by peers; any good article on peer influence will cite the tendency to tip an already-full tip jar, and withhold from the jar that's empty. This influence holds true for giving to charity as well. I had two main goals in starting this blog: first, to give more of my own money and, second, get others to give more of their money. I can't measure how much money others have given as a result of this blog, but I can measure changes in my own giving. So in the spirit of peer pressure, here's my giving record in 2011 and 2012.


My pre-tax income was: $46,400
I gave in total: $1,540.50

Here's the breakdown:
$974 to improve lives in the developing world
$265 Animal rights/protection
$176.50 to my friend's causes or local causes I care about
$125 to health care and reproductive rights in the US


My pre-tax income was: $50,000
I gave in total: $5,382

Here's the breakdown:
$3,135 to my friend's causes or local causes I care about
$1,422 to improve lives in the developing world
$675 to animal rights/protection
$150 to health care and reproductive rights in the US

I increased my giving to people in great need by about 1/3 and more than doubled my giving to animals in need in 2012. But the bulk of my giving ($3,100) went to the nonprofit I run. As an Executive Director, I spend most of my time asking people to give money to my nonprofit, so it's only fair that I give as well. But my nonprofit does not directly save lives - it makes an affluent community that much nicer to live in (affluent relative to the rest of the world, poor by Los Angeles standards). It's strange to write this, when I spend so much time stating why people should give to my nonprofit, but there are more meaningful places I could have given my money this year. 2013 calls for a little shifting in my giving.

I am proud that I contributed over 10% of my income, and that I was able to give my raise away - something I wasn't sure I would have the self-discipline to do. I lived very comfortably in 2011. I wanted for nothing. The same was true in 2012. I have been able to put away $5,000 each year for retirement. Perhaps I will be able to continue living on about $45,000 per year for the foreseeable future, and give away what I earn on top of that...

How did your giving go?

Here's to another year of simple living, simple eating, and never shopping out of boredom. Here's to 2013!

-Selfish Blogger