A poor excuse for a food allowance

TheStar.com – Living – The Stop delivers a shot to the gut with its Do The Math campaign
Published On Thu Apr 01 2010.   By Corey Mintz Columnist

This is the best carrot I will ever eat. What’s special about it is that I’m hungry and it’s the only vegetable available to me. I ate my other carrot yesterday.

It’s my third day of the Do the Math campaign, an initiative by The Stop Community Food Centre, asking participants to eat only what’s provided in one of its food hampers. The goal of the campaign, which began in August, is to highlight the inadequacy of provincial funding for the food portion of social assistance.

The maximum monthly amount an individual receives from Ontario Works (the rebranding of welfare) is $565. Of that, $364 must be spent on shelter, leaving $221 for food, clothing and transportation.

That slim margin sends many to places like The Stop, on Davenport Rd. near Lansdowne Ave., where neighbourhood residents can pick up a food hamper once a month.  On the day that I go to The Stop to pick up mine — the normal size for a single person (I contributed its estimated value) — food bank coordinator Cliff Gayer asks what’s my favourite thing to eat. Starch and fat, I answer, any type of pasta with olive oil, or bread with butter. He smiles, knowing that, after 48 hours, I will treasure the two carrots he gives me.

The Stop is more than a food bank — it runs programs such as food education and prenatal classes — but it also provides drop-in meals in the dining hall six times a week. On this Monday, people are here because they are hungry. The delivery from Daily Bread and Local Harvest is late. Every five minutes, a young woman asks a volunteer, “Are the trucks here yet?”

One diner carefully spoons three mouthfuls of lunch into his takeout container, an empty yogurt tub. Another collects the remnants of three plates — mashed potatoes, gravy, squash, salad, bread and sausage. She slides them all into a plastic bag and ties it up.

A man close to my age (mid-30s) takes a seat next to me with his young daughter. As a volunteer makes rounds to see who needs a meal, the girl, not more than 7, tugs on her father’s sleeve. “Daddy,” she says, “I’m hungry.”  It might seem like the maudlin script for a tear-jerker movie-of-the-week starring Tori Spelling. But this is the everyday scene here. He asks her to be patient.

At the counter where food hampers are handed out, recipients can choose items from each category: milk, beans, produce, canned soup, etc. What I get is a handful of potatoes, carrots and turnips, with a stack of heavily salted, packaged food.

At home, for a grim 30 minutes, I strategize a method to make this food last me past three days.  For a balanced meal, I fry up canned peas with rice and tuna. The turnips find a home in canned chicken soup. Devoid of any fresh green vegetables, I don’t dare cook the carrots, not wanting to lose any of their nutrients. Carrot peels and onion skins are set aside.  Boiling the vegetable scraps into a broth is an economical way to squeeze out a few more nutrients. But these are the fumes of nutrition, perhaps warding off hunger for one hour. I can’t imagine having to search for a job with this little energy.

The food lasts just over three days. At first, I fantasize about big hunks of cornbread smeared with pork fat. On the fourth morning, after eating the last of the chicken dogs, I run out to buy lettuce. The body wants vitamins. Right there, in front of the cashier, I tear off and eat leaves of romaine.

For me, it’s a privilege to take part in this as an experiment, knowing I will revert to the lifestyle I’m fortunate enough to enjoy. But to many, this assistance is a way of life.  These rations were expected to last me a few days. Gayer says some clients stretch that to a week.

The director of The Stop, Nick Saul, is frustrated that he can’t offer people more. He says 25 per cent of drop-in visitors are working full time. They’re just not earning enough to feed themselves and their families.
Saul, along with Dr. David McKeown, Toronto’s medical officer of health, are asking the provincial government for a $100 social assistance increase, per recipient, for food. It’s a down payment on the $172 increase McKeown estimates an individual needs for a month’s nutritious diet.

“If the government is going to provide support for people who are not able to earn a living,” McKeown says, “they should provide support at a level that will allow for dignity and decent health.”  Starting April 5, he plans to participate in the Do the Math campaign, along with Torontonians such as author Naomi Klein, councillor Joe Mihevc and singer Damian Abraham.

“I think this experience will help me understand this on a personal level and make me a more effective advocate,” McKeown says.

Community and Social Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur declined involvement.  “I don’t need to participate in that to understand that people have challenges on social assistance,” she says.  Meilleur suggests the $100 increase is unlikely. “In these difficult economic times, I doubt that we’re going to go that way.”

Saul explains the point of Do The Math is that people glaze over when the issue of funding comes up. But when it becomes a story, it starts a dialogue. “You need to create a narrative, to allow people into the conversation.”

Since its launch in the summer, the Do the Math website (www.dothemath.thestop.org.) has helped visitors add up their estimated monthly expenses to see where social assistance falls short and invited them to share their experiences. The food hamper challenge is phase two of the campaign.

“Not only is it about raising awareness of the issue,” Saul says, “but it’s also about trying to create some solidarity between those who are doing quite well and those who are struggling.”

Readers interested in continuing the conversation are invited to the Stop’s public event space, The Green Barn, 601 Christie St., Barn 4, at 7 p.m. on April 13. There will be a town hall meeting to discuss how community members can get involved.

“That’s the only way I know social change happening,” Saul says. “You actually create some noise around this stuff so that there is a political price to be paid for ignoring it.”

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