Four years ago, the Kingston Roundtable on Poverty Reduction invited five prominent Kingstonians—and me—to participate in a food bank diet challenge. When I agreed, I had no idea what a transformative event it would be. We were asked to try to live for at least three days on what a “typical” food bank hamper might provide. After years of studying hunger and food insecurity, my experience of trying to live on a food bank diet moved my academic knowledge into my belly, my bones and every cell in my body. Despite the artificiality and superficiality of the food bank diet challenge, it gave me an embodied knowledge that kindled a passion to become more engaged in social justice activism.
My experience led directly to the publication of a provocative and still debated op ed in the Globe & Mail, “It’s time to close Canada’s Food Banks.” This op ed prompted many conversations and several formal and informal responses—some that thought my argument was “dumb,” others that took seriously my invitation to think about the limitations of food banks. Despite considerable debate and many challenges to my line of thinking, I haven’t changed my mind. Food banks are a band-aid on a deep and serious problem of hunger. The evidence shows that food banks do nothing to address poverty, the underlying cause of hunger. I still believe that the disappearance of food banks would be the best marker of an effective poverty-reduction strategy.
The food bank diet challenge also contributed to my part in the founding of the Kingston Action Group for a Basic Income Guarantee. KAG-BIG is part of larger national campaign to institute a guaranteed annual income that would ensure all Canadians have enough for the basic necessities of life, including food, shelter, clothing, and transportation. There is growing evidence of support for this idea. Just last week, it was championed by Calgary’s mayor, Naheed Nenshi, who called for political courage and leadership to address poverty and income inequality.
During the food bank diet challenge, I blogged about my experiences and thoughts. That blog was available until last year when the website was retired. Unfortunately, even though some food banks are trying harder to provide more fresh food and healthier food to food bank clients, there is no evidence that experiences of living on a food bank diet would be much different now than it was four years ago. The fundamental problems and limitations are still there. So, I am republishing my blog entries from 2011 as they are still relevant at this moment of republishing the experience.
Today, I start with the first blog post, which recounts the initial invitation.
[Originally published 13 May 2011]
When Julia Bryan of the Kingston Community Roundtable on Poverty Reduction asked me if I would participate in the upcoming “Do the Math Challenge,” I immediately said “yes.” “Do the Math” is part of an ongoing provincial campaign to pressure the provincial government to immediately increase social assistance rates, and in the longer term to base the rates on actual living costs. The province’s own data, collected by Public Health Units across the province, show the impossibility of eating a healthy diet on social assistance, especially for a single “employable” person, who would receive $592/month. [This amount was in 2011. In 2015, a single employable person on social assistance in Ontario has a monthly income of $656. Disgraceful.]
It is disgraceful in a country as rich as ours that poverty rates remain so high and at least 12% of households worry about feeding themselves and their families, cut back on food or experience outright hunger. We can and must do so much better to look after each other.
I am also interested in participating in the Challenge because food is my professional interest. I am a sociologist of food, and my research examines people’s food-related experiences and the symbolic meaning of food and eating, especially in the context of poverty. I promised to blog about my experiences doing the Challenge, and as part of my blog, I will draw on what I know from the academic literature and from my own research.
I also teach a course at Queen’s about the social determinants of health. These are the large-scale forces that produce differences in health and longevity in groups of people. For example, one of the strongest relationships is between income and health and longevity. The evidence is very clear and very strong that there is a gradient in health and longevity according to income—i.e., the richest live the longest and have the healthiest lives, the poorest live the shortest and most unhealthy lives, and the rest of us fall into line according to income. This strong relationship is independent of so-called lifestyle factors, such as diet (though these too also show differences by income). The main message of my course is that when whole groups of people suffer a similar fate, we must look to explanations that are beyond the individual—instead we look to social, economic, political and historical explanations.
So, what is involved in the Challenge? We have been asked to live on the amount of food that would be provided in a typical food hamper from a food bank, which normally would provide food for 3 days, though people often have to make it stretch much longer.
The organizers provided a list for us. As I skim through the list, I try to imagine how to make meals out of this for at least 3 days. The organizers helpfully remind us that we can also go to community meal programs to make the food stretch.
A number of streams of thought tumble rapidly in my brain as I review the list of food in the typical food bank hamper and think about the assignment.
The first is that I would not expect my 4-yr old daughter to participate, that I would shelter her from the deprivation. How could I pack her school lunches from this list? I can’t send her to school with a can of soup! Yet this is exactly the sort of dilemmas that low-income parents face all the time. They do not have the option of sheltering their children from the household poverty. Sometimes they keep their kids home from school because there isn’t the right food to make a “proper” lunch. Somewhat reluctantly I decide that trying to manage to feed my child from the hamper would deepen my experience. There are certainly things on the list that she likes and will eat. She’ll love the juice boxes. She can have all of them.
The second line of thought is my food intolerance. I have trouble digesting wheat; it causes me to have nasty digestive problems in the short term, and over time, if I eat it regularly, I’m left with aches and pains, malaise and migraines. The food hamper guidelines do provide a substitution for the pasta and bread that are standard items: I get lots more rice. Not so easy to make a sandwich out of that. But again, these are the sorts of problems that food bank users face all the time. We know from the social determinants literature that people who live in poverty are higher rates of acute and chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and so on. Food banks may or may not be able to provide some of the recommended foods to manage these diseases.
The third thing is food preferences. Some of the foods on the list are things that we rarely eat, or we eat the type that probably the food bank doesn’t give out – like brown rice instead of instant white rice. I think about trying to “bargain” for alternatives with the imaginary food bank staff: “please could we have brown rice instead of white and slow-cooking oatmeal instead of instant?” Maybe some food banks have flexibility in what they give out, but the bottom line of most food banks is NO CHOICE. You take what you get and be thankful for it. One participant in a research study refused to go her local food bank (the only one in a small town) because they insisted on giving her canned beans and she hates canned beans. She asked for a food hamper without the beans, thinking someone else could use them instead, but the volunteer staff refused. So, she just stopped going to the food bank. For most of us in the middle class, that might seem like a bit of an overreaction, but this small indignity was the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back” in a life that was filled with indignities. Choice is a fundamental pillar of our consumer society. When we deny people choice, as most food banks do, we strip people of their dignity.
The lack of fresh fruit and vegetables is the biggest gap on the food bank diet list. Suddenly I am aware of how much fruit and how many vegetables we normally eat. Unusually for a 4-yr old, my daughter loves all sorts of uncooked vegetables including green vegetables like kale and green beans and broccoli. These vegetables and others are a stable in her lunches and dinners—and sometimes for breakfast too. Fortunately we can manage for a few days. But mothers on social assistance have told me how their kids gorge on fresh fruit at the beginning of the month when they buy a big grocery order because it has been so long since they had any. Then, after a few days, it is gone for another month. A community nutritionist once told me of eating an orange at a meeting when the woman beside her asked if she could have a segment because it had been 11 months since the last time she had eaten an orange.
I also checked my social calendar for dinners or lunches that have already been scheduled. There is one, a dinner with a friend who has a daughter about the same age as mine. I could ask her to have the dinner at her house. She is a good friend and will understand. I could bring some pasta to contribute to the meal. One of the strategies that mothers use when it is available is to send their kids to friends or relatives for meals when there is no food in the house. They also have a repertoire of other ways to ensure, to the best of their ability, that their kids don’t go hungry. As one of my colleagues says, if there is a hungry kid at school, there is a much hungrier mother at home. Mothers will always go hungry themselves rather than see their kids go hungry.
Finally I find myself wondering if I should “store up” for the big challenge. Could I lay away some stores of calories, vitamins and minerals in my body? If I knew that I’d be faced with a food bank hamper at by the end of every month, I think I would definitely be bingeing and treating myself when I could.