As a medical student with growing student debt who needed to move out of his parent’s Auckland home for a placement in Waikato, I realised I would become a part of the demographic that we studied regularly at medical school – the materially poor who performed worse on nearly all health outcomes.
As an avid promoter of healthy lifestyles, I thought I’d try an experiment to show it’s not all about the money.
So, for the last 200 days, I’ve eaten on a budget of $3.30 a day, eating the exact same food, every day, every week.
Breakfast (when I had time for it) consisted of two Weet-Bix and milk (about 30 cents a day).
That is also my typical breakfast except I have three weetbix normally.
Lunch consisted of ham and toast purchased for the week (about $1 per day). Occasionally I’d treat myself by adding lettuce and even cheese if I really wanted to splurge, which averaged about 30 cents extra.
Finally, the dinner special: pasta, mince, pasta sauce and onion, together costing about $2 a day. There’s a lot to like about this meal besides its price. It took 20-30 minutes to cook the entire week’s dinners (a bonus for a busy medical student), it tasted good enough for me to eat every day for 200 days (Monday to Friday) and had a good range of protein and carbohydrates. Add a bit of vegetables into the mix and it may have ticked all the nutritional boxes – something I will keep in mind for my next 200 days.
This was my diet for 200 weekdays straight, with weekends being my cheat days to rejuvenate, whether it was bacon and eggs, fast food or occasionally continuing the $3 a day tradition anyway out of routine. I also maintained 20 minutes of vigorous exercise each day, which cost me nothing and helped me keep a balanced lifestyle.
So he did this for around nine months.
Most importantly, this experiment illustrates the reality of poverty in New Zealand with a rather controversial opinion: it’s not just poverty of material wealth, but also a poverty of culture.
Here I was, living on $3.30 a day for food, living at one point in a house with nine other students squeezed into a four-bedroom home, and living in what many refer to as a “high-risk” neighbourhood filled with takeaway stores, fast food and crime.
I would be tempted every day on my walk to the hospital with two giant signs advertising a tempting $2 pie combo, and admittedly I gave in about twice during the 200 days.
According to everything I had been taught at medical school, this environment should have sent me on a path towards poor health and a failure to achieve. Yet, in this environment I became the healthiest, most productive and most successful I had ever been.
Living on $3.30 a day and in a 10 person house. He is officially in poverty!
At the same time, I witnessed firsthand the health struggles of those in poverty during my medical community visits throughout the year. I noticed that while material poverty was present in the majority, there were usually other more challenging social circumstances such as abusive relationships, solo parenting, drug abuse or other criminal involvement.
The reality for many, if not most. This is why simply tax more and hand out more in welfare is not the solution.
While I don’t suggest that poverty isn’t a factor in health, social and cultural issues – such as family violence, binge drinking and fast food – may play a larger role than material poverty.
Poverty is a factor, but not the only factor or even the most important factor.
However, targeting material poverty with food-in-schools campaigns sounds a lot more attractive, and often gets much more public support in funding.
It treats the symptoms, but not the cause.