Humanosphere is on hiatus. Many thanks to our web design, development and hosting partner Culture Foundry for keeping the site active while we plan our next move. Culture Foundry builds, evolves and supports next-level websites and applications for clients you know, and you couldn’t ask for a better partner to help you thrive in digital. If you’re considering an ambitious website design or development project, we encourage you to make them your very first call.

850 calories-a-day and my failed experiment

Active screening for malnutrition in a health post of the Senegalese Red Cross in Mbacké. Senegal, 2012. ©Croix-Rouge sénégalaise et française/Guillaume Bassinet

Angered by the lack of awareness that 800,000 refugees in sub-Saharan Africa saw their food rations cut, I tried to call attention to the issue with this piece and by consuming only 850 calories-a-day for a week. So, what happened?

I didn’t eat much for a week. It made me a bit weak at times, but it was not nearly as hard as I expected. That may be because I choose to eat well balanced meals with plenty of vegetables to fill me up and deliver some important nutrients. The average refugee does not get the same choice. Refugees in Chad get the following each day:

  • 3/4ths of a cup of grain sorghum or millet (depending on what’s available locally)
  • Two tablespoons of mature seeed lentils,
  • Just under two tablespoons of cooking oil
  • One teaspoon sugar
  • One teaspoon salt

There are some useful things in the lentils and sorghum, but only getting a little of all does not make for a healthy diet. Just ask Francisco Toro. The journalist and brains behind the 850 Calories Campaign limited himself to 50 grams of millet, 10 grams of lentils, 8 grams of cooking oil, and 1.5 grams of salt. He set out the goal for three days and had to quit after 46 hours.

“I really felt myself about to faint there as I tried to eat dinner,” wrote Toro in a blog post explaining why he stopped. “My vision started to blur and my balance wobbled and I pretty soon I found myself face down on the floor with my 9 month old clambering over my head.”

He now recommends that people taking the challenge limit themselves to one day. The stark differences between our experiences illustrates a few things. First, it shows just how important nutrients are for our bodies. Even with restricted calories for days in a row, I was able to get by without too much trouble. Hunger was there, but it was never completely overwhelming nor harmful to my health or ability to work. There were likely negative benefits that I did not notice and it would be different if I kept going. Second, what refugees get is simply not enough. If a healthy guy like Toro struggles to go more than two days, imagine what such a diet does for a refugee living in Chad.

My other goal was to raise awareness. I’d say I failed in that regard. My original article garnered a fair amount of traffic. Probably thanks to Tom Paulson’s more provocative headline than anything else. Some people interacted with me, but I failed to keep up my end of the bargain. I let work and other things get in the way of spreading the word about what I was doing. In part, I ran into the problem that I do not like talking about myself. I gladly share my experiences, but talking about what I am doing is not so easy.

For years, friends joked that they did not know what I do. Some still don’t. That is largely because I don’t like to promote myself or broadcast the things that matter most to me. My hope was that this challenge would nudge me to do that a bit more. It didn’t.

I confirmed what I already knew: advocacy is hard and I am not a natural.

What little I did do led to a good challenge to my premise. Economist Daniel Altman, who teaches at NYU and writes at Foreign Policy, aired his skepticism about what I was doing. I admitted that I too was skeptical of my own actions and what they could achieve. Altman than suggested that I would probably have more impact donating the money I saved from eating less over a week to go towards the UN’s $186 million funding gap. He might be right, so I am going to calculate my savings and will donate that difference.

Meanwhile, I will try to keep doing my part by reporting here at Humanosphere. What drives me to do this is both to bring continued attention to neglected stories and to hold the global poverty industry to account. I think both are important and a valuable part to achieving the larger goal of seeing poverty and all the ills that come with it a problem of the past.

While the major news will continue to focus on the conflict in Gaza (a story that deserves plenty of reporting), we at Humanosphere will keep an eye on stories like food ration cuts, the potential for 1 million acutely food insecure people in Somalia by the end of the year, and the 20 million people who are food insecure across the Sahel. I will look to you for story tips, take feedback on my reporting and find out what are the stories you want to hear.

I might of failed at the 850 calorie challenge, but I hope to succeed in other ways, including supporting Toro and his campaign against the injustice faced by 800,000 refugees because the money that it costs to make a terrible blockbuster film cannot be raised.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]