Tag Archives: Do the Math

Hope

The Do the Math town hall meeting on Tuesday night was exciting. It was interesting to hear the other participants talk about their experience (remarkably similar to our own) but, for me, the really thrilling part was afterward when Nick asked the 300-strong crowd to divide up into breakout groups and come up with suggestions about how to move forward on this issue.

Frankly, I was skeptical that it would work—I thought that after an hour of talk most people would run for the hills—but three quarters or more of the crowd stuck around and spent 15 minutes talking in groups of 10 about how to change the world. Or at least how to bring attention to the inadequacies of social assistance in Ontario.

There were passionate retirees and articulate young people, people on social assistance and middle class types from the neighbourhood. They offered up ideas from creating community action groups to bringing social assistance recipients into classrooms to break down prejudice and preconceived notions about welfare to spreading the Do the Math campaign across the province. (There will be another, more hand’s-on meeting in 2 weeks to develop the ideas further—check the Do the Math site for details.)

The level of engagement and passion people brought to the issue was inspiring and made me feel very hopeful that change is possible.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating, food connects us all. It is an incredible tool to bring people together and, when used for this purpose, to break down inequalities.

Congratulations to the organizers for putting together such an excellent, well-thought-out campaign, and for creating such a hospitable space to engage with this important issue.

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The big cave

Day 5: Do the Math

KD in a snack bowl: our final lunch

With no milk, no eggs, no vegetables and a can of soup left, we caved on Saturday night and gave up on our welfare diet experiment. We went back and forth on it, wondering if we were throwing in the towel too early—we could have had a small bowl of soup for dinner, after all, and there were enough corn flake peanut butter balls for breakfast….

But after two days at the provincial basketball finals (Nick as coach, our eldest son playing and the rest of us cheering—loudly) we were headachey and hungry and too exhausted to discuss any more. I felt a bit ashamed—until, that is, I began to gorge on crackers and cheese. I was desperate to fill my maw as quickly as possible—to eat and eat and eat. Just because I could. I have craved flavour, savouriness, real, chewy taste, and the delicious cheese, crunchy crackers, savoury baba ghanoush and hummus really hit the spot.

I had to force myself to stop, worried about feeling sick after eating little this week.

But though I’m no longer hungry (and the headaches have subsided), I continue to feel ashamed. Being able to quit the experiment so easily is a startling reminder of the great privilege we have compared to those we are attempting to show solidarity with, and, as a result, a reminder of the terrible inequities in our society. People on social assistance can’t just pack it in because they’re tired and bored of the same old soup or had a really tough weekend. They have no choice.

And choice is the thing I keep coming back to. Losing the ability to make choices about how I live and eat, how I socialize, where and how I go where I go was by turns depressing, disheartening and isolating.

I don’t really mean the ability to make choices as a consumer (although that, of course, is the first thing lost by someone living in poverty), instead, this lack of choice goes much deeper. Partly, it’s because food isn’t like other consumer goods—you don’t absolutely need a TV or nail polish, whereas food is essential, a basic need, and not being able to have any say in what/how much you eat feels like being striped of something equally essential. It feels like losing freedom, it feels like losing yourself. It made me feel enervated, sad and trapped.

I’ve been careful all week when I talk to people not to overdramatize my experience Doing the Math. I know it’s an experiment and a stunt and it’s not some magic wand that gives me deep insight into what it’s like to live on social assistance week after week, month after month. But I do feel like I have a more emotional understanding of some of the challenges.

I also have an even greater respect and admiration for people on social assistance—like many of those in The Stop’s inspiring Bread and Bricks advocacy group—who manage to find deep reserves of strength and dignity, speaking up and fighting back, despite living in extremely difficult circumstances.

Finally, this experience has left me feeling even more profoundly (and, I think, constructively) angry about our inadequate response to poverty and hunger in this province. Over and over this week I found myself trying to explain to people that the food bank hamper isn’t just a supplement to an already stocked fridge, it is the only thing many people have to eat after paying rent—and despite the best efforts of non-governmental organizations like The Stop, it’s inadequate to boot.

It is not just wrong that social assistance fails to meet basic needs and leaves people hungry, isolated, depressed and unhealthy, it is immoral.

I hope this project and the ongoing work of the Do the Math team will also inspire others to reassess what they think they know about social assistance and to challenge our society and our government to provide adequate supports (based on real life costs) to those in need.

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Tuna from heaven

Day 4: Do the Math

We ran out of milk this morning. We’re both regretting that glass of it we enjoyed on the first day. I guess it’s water from here on in. Instead of our usual cereal, my husband is thinking of making peanut butter balls and rolling them in Corn Flakes for breakfast tomorrow. We’ll call it brunch.

I did think enough to save my can of tuna. I had it for lunch today on unleavened bread with the last of the vegetables, which I roasted in the oven last night. It was quite tasty:

Lunch: day 4

In fact, I’ve been so desperate for protein (something I usually get from beans and other non-meat sources), I savoured the canned tuna like some rare delicacy. I felt as if I could feel my muscles building and repairing themselves as I swallowed.

We hear all the time about how eating well is about so much more than consuming the right number of calories and how we also need the correct variety of nutrients and vitamins. It’s exhausting trying to keep up with all the research and rumour about what is necessary (vitamin A,B, C, D, omega 3, antioxidants, etc. etc.).

The big Stop garden at Earlscourt Park and the new greenhouse and sheltered garden at The Green Barn (producing about 5,000 lbs of fresh produce every year), plus purchases from local farmers, means that during the growing season Stop participants have access to lots of produce packed with the good stuff . But if you have to rely on chicken weiners and canned pasta the rest of the time, well, being undernourished is a distinct possibility.

Researching What’s for Lunch?, I found that the kinds of vitamin/mineral/nutrient deficiencies that improverished children around the world face boggles the mind. In India, there is something called the “midday meal scheme” at public schools, and kids up to age 14 get a free meal. And yet 70% of young Indian children still have iron deficiency, making it hard to concentrate or do much of anything because they’re so tired and weak.

As for us, the tuna/protein made such a difference to my mood and general well-being, we used the last of our eggs at dinner tonight:

Potato/tomato frittata

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Slowing down

Day 3 of Do the Math

I thought this was going to be easier. After all, I come from a long line of frugal cooks. My paternal grandmother studied “home economics” in the 1920s, and was known to not only save small sandwich bags (the precursor to the ziploc, which she washed and hung on the line to dry), but pretty much everything else. Once, when she was looking after my brother and me while my parents were away, I  found a bowl of soggy milk-covered granola in the fridge that one of us had failed to finish—she was saving it for later. My own mother is also a master of making something out of nothing in the kitchen— I grew up on powdered skim milk and creative combinations of whatever was in the fridge served with her inimitable style.

Attempting to plug into this ancestry this week, I’ve been trying to get creative with what we were offered in the hamper, but as the days go by, it’s getting more and more difficult. Not only is our food running out, leaving us with little to get creative with, it’s incredibly monotonous (some more potatoes with your potatoes? More KD? I thought you’d never ask!).

It turns out, this isn’t easy at all.

And it isn’t about being creative or frugal. (I can’t imagine even my mother could find a way to make what we have left in our hamper interesting, tasting or, frankly, nourishing. It’s just bits and pieces, leftovers, scraps. An onion, a can of Spagghetios, a bag of those infernal apple chips.)

Lunch: "enriched macaroni product" with HFCS, enzyme-modified cheddar cheese, and MORE! Ready in 2 minutes!

This is about inadequate social assistance rates that leave thousands of our fellow citizens hungry and undernourished. This is about the lack of dignity accorded to the poor in our society. This is about shortsightedness: when someone is forced to rely consistently on the kind of food we’ve been eating this week they are likely to have health problems associated with their diet, and we all pay for that at some point (in lost productivity, in health care costs, in social disintegration).

I’m sick of the food and the little niggling headache and the stomache pains I seem to develop everyday around 3 p.m.

My husband, on the other hand, enjoyed a delicious lunch today at The Stop‘s drop-in program (something all Do the Math participants are encouraged to do):

Cheese and potato Kugel; lentils with broccoli and cauliflower; salad greens from The Stop's Green Barn greenhouse; Ace Bakery bun.

I don’t even resent him his greens (and cheese, glorious cheese!) because seeing this food just makes it more clear to me how vital programs like this drop-in lunch are for people struggling with poverty and living on social assistance. These meals at The Stop, made with love, skill and passion by trained chefs and a dedicated volunteer crew, are like a waving flag of health and dignity. They are not just delicious and healthful, they are a signal to people who use The Stop that they matter, that their health matters, that they are more than their poverty, more than their circumstances. It’s a lot of freight for a lunch to carry but according to Nick, today at least, it did its considerable job—and more.

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Peanut butter days

Day 2 of the Do the Math experiment.

Went to sleep last night with a  headache from being hungry. I think hunger was also the reason behind a stupid argument my husband and I had before bed. (This isn’t the first time either of us have been unreasonable when we haven’t eaten…) A reminder of how much depends on having basic needs—like food—met.

There are so many health concerns related to an inadequate diet (diabetes, certain types of cancer, heart disease, etc. etc.) but I think mental health must also be affected in a big way. I keep trying to imagine how I’d feel if I were a child trying to concentrate in school (a third of Toronto food bank users are children, according to last year’s Daily Bread stats) or someone trying to look for a job living on this diet. It can’t be easy to focus or put your best foot forward when all you can think about is what you and your family are going to have for your next meal.

Speaking of meals, here’s my lunch from today:

Carrot, onion, potato, creamed corn soup with unleavened bread slathered with PB

I made the soup and bread last night. The fresh carrots, onions and potatoes in it are thanks to The Stop’s Healthy Food Fund. Donors contributing to the fund enable The Stop to buy healthy food to supplement the food bank hampers (which otherwise rely on donations and tend to be highly processed, packaged food). As part of the fund, the food bank  also offers a food of the month: apples in the fall, carrots or turnips in the winter, etc. It’s all part of an effort to make the experience of using The Stop’s services more dignified and healthful. I wasn’t sure about adding the canned creamed corn to my soup; the idea of it grosses me out—who needs to add cornstarch, sugar and salt when corn is delicious on its own?— but I rinsed it off in a colander and it tasted fine.

The unleavened bread, on the other hand, I made with only flour and water and it’s completely without a flicker of taste, but satisfies the need for something to transport the peanut butter. Ah, peanut butter. How I have missed thee. With two kids in a nut-free school, peanut butter hasn’t really been on the menu in our house for a long time, but I’m rediscovering a taste for the old standby.

Dinner was gulped down before we all fanned out for various things:

Egg fried rice with canned mixed veggies, apple chips for dessert

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Do the Math

This week, my family and I are involved in a campaign run by The Stop Community Food Centre (where my husband works) that aims to draw attention to the inadequacy of social assistance rates in Ontario, as well as the abysmal amount (think nothing) left over to buy healthy food.

Along with some well-known Torontonians (activist Naomi Klein and her broadcaster/filmmaker husband Avi Lewis, Medical Officer of Health for Toronto David McKeown, singer Damian Abraham and others) we’re attempting to live for as long as possible on food from one of The Stop’s food bank hampers.

These hampers are meant to last 3 days but many people have no choice but to survive 10 days or more on about $25 worth of food. The Stop is known for having particularly generous and healthy hampers (they consider it a priority) but the food is still mostly heavily processed, packaged stuff—especially this time of year when their large garden is not yet producing.

We picked the food up today:

Considering we usually spend at least $250/week on food for our family  (not including eating out)—and don’t generally eat processed stuff like chicken weiners or canned pork and bean with bacon— this is going to be a major challenge.

Of course, we don’t expect that after a week of this we’re going to understand what it’s like to try to live on social assistance—after all, we will go back to our regular diet next week—the hope instead is to raise awareness of the issue and show solidarity with those who survive this way every day.

Check out The Stop’s Do the Math site or read the editorial in The Star online for more background information. I’ll be posting pictures and updates as we go along.

Here’s DAY ONE:

Lunch

The green package is "crisp apple chips with cinnamon"


Dinner

Chicken noodle soup from a can, a carrot, another small snack bag of toasted apple chips

When my husband returned from basketball practice tonight, he was famished and ate 2 eggs, 1/2 a KitKat bar, a bag of microwave popcorn and a glass of milk—all from our hamper. (I’m thinking of hiding my half of the food.)

This campaign will culminate in a town hall meeting a week today to discuss the experience of the participants and to lay out strategies to put pressure on the government to increase social assistance rates and keep their promise to create a viable, dignified poverty reduction strategy.

Watch here for more about how we fare on the food bank hamper.

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