If you’re not,
there are plenty who are, including
many New Zealand children sadly.
Spending years with my head buried in requisite textbooks wasn’t that easy for me. I’m not really an academic person, it was simply a means to an end. I came out at the end with a degree in Sociology and Social Work, yet still I was frustrated by it all. I wanted to know how all this academia applied to real people, in real society. Over the years, before and after that time as a student, I worked in a number of jobs where I was continually confronted by the realities of poverty in New Zealand.
Yes, poverty is very real in New Zealand. You won’t see it on the tourist brochures, and I suspect if you are so inclined, you could just ignore it and just blame the people who are stuck in that trap. But it’s there, and we have a particularly big problem in the area of child poverty. One of the issues that has been in the news lately has been the disturbingly high numbers of children at school with no lunch (in this country children bring their own lunch to school), and many have also had no breakfast.
I don’t have a lot to do with children at the moment, apart from my lovely nieces and nephews, but I know that children are our future. What happens to children now, defines what happens to our world in the future. It makes me realise it’s necessary to talk about it, and even more so, do my bit towards seeing that poverty end.
Last week, New Zealand participants took part in the Live Below The Line campaign, which has already been seen in other countries including the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States.
The challenge put to participants was to spend 5 days feeding yourself with NZ$2.25 a day – the New Zealand equivalent of the extreme poverty line. As a means of comparison, this compares with Aus$2.00 or US$1.25 per day. That’s not much, is it? The idea behind it is to get people thinking about how it is to live in the situation of extreme poverty, something faced by 1.4 billion people in our world today.
I was fascinated to read an account of one woman’s experience of being on the Challenge:
“By day two, my coordination was down, I lunged onto someone in a group fitness class, and I only managed half of my usual Wednesday workout before declaring myself too tired! On average I needed an extra two hours sleep a night throughout the challenge, my energy levels were so zapped, and I lost 2kg in 5 days, which didn’t strike me as the healthiest of crash diets. Its (sic) clear that to live like this everyday would be detrimental to your health.
But I think what got me the most during the challenge, was the effect that being hungry has on your brain. I found myself making basic errors, simple spelling mistakes and needing people to repeat themselves on the phone – my concentration was shot to pieces, and one day I wore a top inside out for an hour before I noticed…
For me it adds huge weight to the current debate about food in schools, having witnessed first hand how useless I was when my brain hadn’t been fed, I can’t see how a hungry child is supposed to learn or retain information at school, and that’s looking at life in a modern, developed country – let alone in countries where people are trying to survive on under $2.25 a day.” (1.)
This comment really hit home hard to me for a reason, that actually I wasn’t expecting. I’ve never had to live in extreme poverty thankfully, although my parents were far from wealthy when I was growing up. I have gone hungry though, although for me it was entirely self-inflicted, via the illness Anorexia Nervosa, which I struggled with for many years. What hit me is how familiar all this is, although I totally accept that mine was borne out of mental illness and not an issue of a shortage of money and access to services.
Interestingly, after years of starving myself, I learnt not to feel hunger and even though I am recovered today, I still find that I don’t feel hungry, even though I may need nutrition. For those on the 5 day Challenge though, I’m sure they all felt hunger.
I’m wondering whether my training my body out of feeling hungry is the same for the children who do not have access to regular meals? Do they somehow learn to not feel the hunger pains? I suspect they probably do, but actually that is far from good. We need to have accurate messages from our bodies in order to be able to meet the needs our bodies have. But when you’re in extreme poverty, you can’t meet those needs.
I don’t claim to be any sort of expert on nutrition, or on the effects of malnutrition, but this quote below, describes very clearly the effects to the author of malnutrition caused by Anorexia, very similar to my own experience:
“Physically, things were less than princess-like. For a start, my hair was falling out. My teeth were turning yellow and felt loose, like my gums had shrunk. My pulse was slow. I was hypoglycemic. I hadn’t had a period in four months. I was dehydrated. Constipated. I was suffering from severe malnutrition and freezing all the time. My hands, lips and feet were blue. My eyes were dead. My body chemistry was all over the place.” (2.)
Not for one moment am I suggesting that eating disorders have some connection to malnutrition caused by extreme poverty. But it’s clear that malnutrition, of any cause, has a major impact on the body and it’s ability to function adequately. As well as the matters highlighted above, my body has taken a lasting hit in terms of loss of bone density, reproductive ability and no doubt other matters of which I have yet to learn.
I was an adult when I inflicted this on my body and mind, but imagine what the malnutrition (regardless of the cause) must do to a child and their ability to function. I found it extremely difficult to concentrate and focus on standard every day activities. Simply my brain wasn’t working adequately to cope. How then, can a child learn and grow when they are constantly under-nourished?
One more thing to consider. We know that childhood experience has a huge impact on mental health in future years. My own mental illnesses were in some ways (but not all) a result of things that happened in my childhood. What concerns me is that if a child is unable to function and grow, what is that doing to their mental health? Both now and for the future. I believe that the hunger faced by children in New Zealand, and many other developed countries, is going to have a detrimental impact on the health (including mental health) of our populations of the future.
New Zealand doesn’t look like a country that would have a child hunger problem. It’s always been said that it is a great place to raise children, and in that respect I know I had a good childhood. But you don’t have to scratch the surface very deep, to see that children (and adults)are regularly going without food, and that there is a constant battle for some people of whether to pay the rent or buy food for their families. There’s simply not enough to cover both. What that tells me, is that those people need practical help now and if they don’t get it, from you and me, the future for us all doesn’t look good.
“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
― Franklin D. Roosevelt
2. Robinson, Sancia (1996). Mary Jane – Living through anorexia and bulimia nervosa. Sydney: Random House, Australia.