Day One of my Food Bank Diet Challenge — [Originally published Sunday 15 May 2011]
I went grocery shopping yesterday for the items on the Challenge diet that I didn’t already have in the house. It didn’t take very long and only filled two bags. I tried not to look at the produce section, but found myself drooling over the strawberries and packages of fresh chicken in the cart ahead of me at the check-out. In the soup aisle, I skipped the low-fat soups that a health professional might recommend—why would I pay the same price for fewer calories? When buying juice boxes, I thought about buying multi-fruit juice boxes, but I wasn’t sure if my daughter would like them. So I settled on what I usually buy, apple juice, which I know she likes. Low-income mothers often say that they don’t risk trying new things, because if the kids don’t like it and don’t eat it, they will be hungry and the food will go to waste. Better to stick to the tried and true.
I woke up hungry. Normally I would have a piece of fruit before my yoga practice to tide me over. Not today. I had a glass of water, and decided that I will feel—really feel—my hunger pangs, in solidarity with all those in Kingston and around the world who are hungry today.
I had white rice for breakfast, not the brown rice I would normally cook. I added a little oil to provide a few more calories, hoping it would also slow the digestion process so I wouldn’t be hungry again in a couple of hours. It was sunflower oil, not the expensive olive oil I would normally add. The rice cut my pangs of hunger but didn’t seem very satisfying. I had black coffee. Usually I would add milk or cream, but I decided I’m going to save the milk for my daughter. I also decided to have brewed coffee, not the instant coffee I imagine the food bank would have provided. I can’t bear the thought of instant coffee. I think of all the women living on low income who have one luxury that they refuse to give up, like a can of cola every day, carefully measured out cigarettes, or a store-bought coffee. While those living on low-incomes deprive themselves all time, many have one luxury purchase that gives them some sense of normality.
The case of cigarettes as an “affordable luxury” is an interesting one. Some of us in the middle and upper classes will point to the low-income people who smoke and use their habit as “proof” of their inability to manage their money or know what is good for them. It makes them less “deserving” in our judgmental eyes.
I’ve interviewed low-income women who smoke. They all know that cigarettes are not good for their own health or their kids’ health, and they are expensive to boot. Smoking a cigarette can be a relaxing break in the midst of a stressful, difficult life. The kids know to leave mom alone when she’s smoking; it’s like putting up a smoke screen of serenity for just a few minutes. One woman held up her cigarette and told me “This is my Freud,” meaning it gave her time to reflect on her life. Another woman, who had managed to give up smoking once she got the right medication for her debilitating depression, told me that she missed her cigarettes like she would miss a good friend, someone who was always there for her. And yet another low-income mother, who had a university degree, told me:
“Smoking is good for my kids! Without cigarettes, I might kill them.”
Even though I’ve never smoked, during one particularly stressful period in my life, I would dream of smoking and of sending my worries off into the sky with the cigarette smoke. It provided a great sense of relief. Of course, cigarettes are highly addictive, more so than illicit drugs. They also suppress the appetite, a handy benefit when you don’t have enough food.
I’ve given away any remaining fresh produce that won’t last the week, like the asparagus, tomatoes and spring mix salad greens. The red peppers, oranges, grapefruit, apples, and extra carrots go to the bottom drawer of the fridge, hidden away, until the end of the week. I take out the other items in the fridge, like the cheese, and sundried tomatoes, and just leave the food bank items: milk, juice boxes, eggs, one carrot. The fridge is so empty. A panicky feeling rises out of my stomach and into my throat. At least my daughter is with her Dad, at his house, for the weekend and won’t be back until Tuesday.
It must be this panicky feeling that drives people to the food bank. We know it is not simply hunger. On the only national survey that asked about it, we learned that only about 25% of those who can objectively be categorized as “food insecure” ever use the food bank. Many adults would rather go hungry. It is not a coincidence that nationally about 40% of food bank users are children. Food banks are one of many the strategies that parents use to make sure their kids don’t go hungry.
I’ve volunteered at food banks, and have also taken people there to get food. Many of the food banks I’ve visited are warehouse-like, dark and dreary, with no windows, and smells I can never quite categorize. At most foodbanks, one must apply to get food, with evidence of poverty (e.g, the stub of a welfare cheque), as well as evidence of the number and ages of kids (if applicable). To qualify to get food, there is an income cut-off point, which does not take into consideration other extraordinary costs one might have, for example, managing a disability. At the main food bank in Kingston, a household can only receive food once a month. Pick-up time is between 3 and 4 PM, which can be difficult for parents whose kids arrive home from school around that same time.
Despite the kindness of staff and volunteers, most people find it embarrassing to receive food bank food. When charity separates us into “us” and “them, with some who are “givers” and others who are “receivers,” it is stigmatizing and humiliating.