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My time below the line

Food-wise, it's always Christmas at my gaff. We delight in big slabs of meat from the farm shop, the organic fairy leaves fruit and veg in the front garden each week and a bloke delivers a case of wine more often than he should.

We are by no means well off - my doddery hatchback, complete with cassette player, is a testament to that. But we are privileged, and grateful for the combination of hard graft and luck that has brought us to the point where luxurious food is something we can indulge in. It wasn't always so.

My current lifestyle is the antithesis of that of a number of my students. The word poverty conjures up Dickensian images of hollow-faced children in drab rags, or of skeletal, saucer-eyed babies in developing countries. Despite the increasing levels of poverty in the UK, it still seems distant, almost fictional.

But most FE lecturers are in daily contact with people who live in poverty, some in extreme poverty. It was with this in mind that I approached the #UKFEchat community to gather a group to take the Live Below the Line challenge.

The challenge is to spend no more than pound;1 a day on food and drink for five days to raise awareness and funds for a good cause (in our case Save the Children).

I considered whether this was poverty tourism, whether choosing hunger gave as much experience of extreme poverty as Marie Antoinette's play farm added to her razor-sharp grasp of her people's plight. But it was tricky to argue with the empathy that a growling stomach and a watering mouth offered when I accidentally loitered outside a Greggs on day 3.

Being a food obsessive and a fat bird, I have attempted every diet (the more extreme and ridiculous, the better) so I wasn't too perturbed by the idea of short-term hunger. It was the pre-challenge shop that hit me hard. The thrill of discovering 23p kidney beans was soon quashed when I spent an entire day's funds on the world's most awful "coffee powder". My intense deliberation over shopping choices left me in awe of the people for whom living below the line is a daily reality.

Some students are under constant threat of homelessness; some are from such turbulent backgrounds that survival is their sole priority. If you are 17 and have only the funds for either a mobile phone or a sandwich, there are going to be a lot of hungry days. I don't know many sector colleagues who haven't slipped a couple of quid for lunch to a shaky, starving student, suspecting that the student would pass out in the time it would take to go through the appropriate college support channels.

The students who live in dire financial circumstances yet still turn up to college are the ones who have made it. There are millions who didn't get that far.

Living below the line was an adventure, but one that I don't plan to repeat. My #UKFEchat colleagues supported each other through it, sharing the experience with humour and warmth while gaining a new level of understanding and respect for what some of our students experience.

Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands. @MrsSarahSimons

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