Susan Olding takes the Kingston Do the Math Challenge

Susan Olding participated in the Kingston “Do the Math Challenge”
that was organized by The Food Providers Networking Group and Kingston Community Roundtable on Poverty Reduction.  You can read her journal about how she tried (and failed) “to survive for a week on a food bank diet in support of the Put Food in the Budget Campaign to raise awareness of poverty and hunger in Kingston.”
The organizers describe how “participants accepted the Challenge in solidarity with people receiving social assistance and to draw attention to their inadequate incomes. They wanted to find out for themselves whether anyone anywhere in Ontario earning a total of $592 per month could possibly afford housing, food, transportation, and everything else. Food banks were never meant to be a permanent part of Ontario’s safety net, and those who volunteer and staff food banks agree that in spite of their best efforts the amount of food they make available to clients is inadequate.

You can follow Susan’s reflections in her blog journal account of the experience.
Here  is Entry 4 – “Awkward” 05/17/2011

A few days ago, a friend of mine in another province passed along the Challenge link and a video about it to a friend of hers who works in a food bank. Her friend was hurt and insulted. She felt blamed, as if the purpose of this project were to criticize food banks for “feeding garbage to the poor.” And she spoke about all the incredible initiatives at her workplace to improve the quality of food that people living on low incomes can obtain. A fresh produce store, grow-a-row programs, community kitchens.

All fantastic ideas.

Ideas that we’ve adopted here in Kingston, too, I told my friend. I trust and hope that they are going some way to improving the diets of people on low incomes. Even so, they can’t do away with the inequities inherent in the system that makes food banks necessary. And the fact remains: food banks were never intended to be more than an emergency stop-gap. Instead, they’ve become institutionalized.

Still, I can sympathize with this woman’s feelings. When you’re working really hard, volunteering your time and energy and effort to make a difference—especially while other people deny or ignore the problem, or worse, blame low income people themselves for the problem of hunger—it must be a bitter irony to get the message that food banks aren’t enough.

But the purpose of this project isn’t to blame food banks, their founders, or those who staff them. On the contrary!  These people are all doing hugely important work. The purpose is simply to draw attention to how difficult it is to afford and obtain a healthy diet in our society on a limited income, and to demonstrate how stressful and humiliating it is to exist on handouts. Nobody should have to.

Besides, even with recent initiatives to put more fresh produce in the grocery baskets of low-income people, it’s still more expensive to buy nutrient rich foods than it is to buy “junk” food.  Of course, in the past few years, grocery prices for all kinds of food have gone up. But they’ve gone up more for foods that offer quality nutrition. That means foods filled with vitamins and minerals, foods comprised of lean protein, foods that help build muscle and fight obesity, as opposed to foods loaded with additives and preservatives and sugar and fat and salt.

One study, by Adam Drewnowski and colleagues at the University of Washington, showed that prices for foods at the low end of the nutrient-density scale rose by 16 percent between the years 2004 and 2008, while prices for those at the high end of the nutrient-density scale rose by 29 percent. That’s a significant difference, and suggests why, even when they have some choice, people on lower incomes might tend to buy foods that are lower in nutrients.  It also suggests why income is tied to weight, with lower income people being more likely to be overweight.

True, inexpensive and nutritious whole foods aren’t impossible to find. Lentils, beans, and legumes, eggs, potatoes and other root vegetables, frozen vegetables, and milk are often a bargain.

But you have to have the kitchen equipment and the time to store and cook these items. And a freezer or decent pots or a slow cooker would be a major investment for someone on a low income. Not to mention the fact that without the extra pantry ingredients—like the bit of spice that I relied on yesterday—it can be difficult to make these foods into a tasty meal.

I discovered that today at lunch. Breakfast was toast and peanut butter again. Lunch for Maia was Kraft dinner again, and this time she ate the whole box, along with half of our single carrot. I used the other half of the carrot and some of the tuna and made a tuna sandwich. But afterwards, I was still hungry. So I took our remaining tinned vegetables (corn, green beans) and our remaining beans (chickpeas), and used some of them made a sort of bean salad.

It tasted, in a word, disgusting. Without spices or herbs, without fancy vinegar or even lemon juice—it was basically cold tinned vegetables. Bleah.

But no way was I going to throw it out. I ate what I’d mixed up, and carefully put away the remaining vegetables for another meal. We’re running through our stores really quickly.

Cyndi sent us a schedule for community meals this morning. I’m wondering if I’ll have to make use of this. I have to admit, I’d be embarrassed to do that. After all, I’m only on this eating plan for a few days; I could probably survive a fast if I had to; I don’t like the idea of taking resources that others genuinely need. Not to mention the fact that it would just feel downright weird to walk in the door. How will I explain my situation to the people who work there? Do they have to know my personal circumstances? But I don’t know them. I don’t really want to share the details of my life with them. I feel as if my privacy would be stripped away. As Maia would say, “Awkward.”

But my embarrassment is nothing compared to the humiliation of people who can’t see an end to this bare-bones style of eating, people who literally don’t know where their next meal might be coming from.

Still, as my husband pointed out, “You already know this. All the participants probably know it and believe it. The people who read the blog probably know it, too.”

Maybe I did know it. Certainly, I thought I did. But by participating in this project, I think I’m coming to understand it in a deeper way.

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