Monday, April 8, 2013

Living With Less

Live Below the Line is a campaign that challenges people to live on $1.50 a day for 5 days – from April 29th to May 3rd. That means people who accept the challenge can only spend a total of $7.50 for all their food and drinks for those five days – including factoring in the costs of any food collected from the garden or sea. Why $1.50? Because that is the global figure (calculated by the World Bank) used to define extreme poverty. Sounds pretty tough, but an estimated 1.4 billion people live in extreme poverty throughout the world.

When I read about the challenge, I thought about Margo Morris from Sprout Creek Farm in LaGrange, New York. Sprout Creek Farm is a year round farm where kids from 4 to 18 learn to be self-sufficient. Margo teaches them how to collect branches to make baskets; milk sheep to make cheese; and harvest berries to make preserves. She also teaches them to appreciate life and realize how close they can be to losing all their comforts. With the lessons learn at Sprout Creek Farm, the kids have the tools to survive in a simpler, more humble way.

It began as a pilot program and has since evolved into a year round educational farm. Margo explains how it started and the impact it has created:

“I was observing in the 1970’s how things were changing. I was alarmed at what I saw. I saw the family deteriorating. The extended families were pretty much gone. So, kids were a little more isolated. A little more constantly dependent on their peer groupings, as opposed to a multi-generational approach and all of the richness that goes along with that. Fast food was already well underway. That was part of the destruction of the family time together – when they might eat together and exchange stories of what happened during the day. That was disappearing.

“There was also a technological advancement. It was in the form of a media explosion. They suddenly had much more information about the world. It was coming in faster and it had an impact on the normal natural idealism that is part of an adolescent’s life. They started to look and act out. They were either getting more aggressive or depressive. Kids were becoming programmed to activities.

“We though what kind of environment could we create? What would really make an impact that would go so deep? That would make a difference in their lives more than the week or two they were participating? On the school’s property there had been a farm. We kept looking at that thing, thinking farms require everything of one. You have to think, you have to work, you have to imagine, you have to take what you can get. You have to suffer not having and find a way to be okay with that. You have to make things instead of buy them. It is always requiring something. Farms are always being built and falling apart at the same time.

“Eventually, we piloted the program with high school students from some of our sister schools. They lived very primitively. It was all tents and hoses and charcoal grills. It was a three-week program at that point. We developed the program around doing everything with your hands. The animals had to be fed and milked. If we were making a basket, it wouldn’t be with anything purchased. We would go find a willow tree or grape vines and use those. While they were making these things, they were learning some very basic skills. It gave them an appreciation for some of the indigenous peoples of the world who make the most extraordinary hand made baskets. They were like, how do they do this and why are we only paying $2 for it? They were starting to make those kinds of connections.

“Then we would take them to a soup kitchen at least three times a week. They had to sit down and eat with the people, not just serve them. They had to listen to their stories. And find out, oh my goodness, there but for the grace of god go I, I could be that person or this person. If a couple of wrong circumstances led me in another direction, it really wouldn’t take much and then I wouldn’t be able to get out of it. They began to understand the economics and the politics of poverty. Not only that, but the emotional toll that it takes on people.

“We didn’t say any of this.  We offered them a safe place to discuss what had happened, what they were observing and help them put it in perspective. It gave them an avenue to realize that sometime in their lives they could be a help - more than just serving food. But, to really change that dynamic. All the while, everything was hands on. They were milking the cow. They were making yogurt. They were making soap. They were weaving baskets. They were making jams, jellies, salsas, tomato sauce. They were cooking food. They were part of the environment. 100%.

“Nobody was hanging back. They were excited because they were necessary. It built community, which was another thing that was disappearing, especially with suburbia becoming more of a dead zone. It was frightening to look at this. They didn’t know who their next-door neighbor was. This was all in an effort to say, don’t be afraid to reach out. Do things with each other.

“That is how it all started.  I think there could be thousands of these things. It would be wonderful. That is what I would really like to see somehow, in another lifetime.”

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