Eating-up Stratford
Bite by Byte

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Do the Math Challenge: "I knew it in my mind, now I know it in my heart and tummy"

How does it feel when you've got no food?
Musical Youth, "Pass the Dutchie"

Today is World Food Day. The theme for this year's WFD is "United Against Hunger". 

According to the United Nations World Food Program statistics, 925 million people worldwide do not have enough to eat, which is more than the combined populations of USA, Canada and the European Union.

According to Food Banks Canada, 794,738 people accessed food banks in our country in a single month in 2009. That month, food banks provided a total of 3,252,134 meals for fellow Canadians in need.

I don't think it is a coincidence that World Food Day corresponds with harvest season in the developed world of the Northern Hemisphere. Neither do I think that it's a coincidence the activists who launched the Put Food In the Budget campaign in Ontario scheduled the Do the Math Challenge in many communities for this bountiful time of year. Having just come off two incredible feasts of local, seasonal food at Savour Stratford and the Slow Food Toronto picnic, my experience living off the skimpy food budget afforded to people in our province living on social assistance was particularly eye-opening.
Here was the challenge for those who chose to take it on: for at least three days, eat nothing but what is either provided in the typical food bank ration, or eat on a budget of $5 per day, which is approximately what a person might have left over once they have taken out rent, transportation and other expenses from the $585.00 monthly social assistance allowance for a single person.

I lived on $5 per day for 3 days, and it was an incredibly challenging - but ultimately highly enlightening - experience. 
The first lesson I learned when I took my $15 and went to stock-up on three days' worth of food was:  you can get 10 lbs. of potatoes for $1.42 at Food Basics! I basically had steamed potatoes with every single meal I ate for three days, and still had some left over.

But I also got a dozen eggs, a couple of cans of baked beans, a bag of peanuts for snacks (which I finished on the first day because I perpetually have the munchies), and some frozen salmon filets.

So I thought I had this challenge beat when I rolled up to the checkout with my well-thought-out grocery cart. Then it all came into perspective as I observed the older gentleman ahead of me in line. His grocery cart just had one thing: the 10 lbs. bag of potatoes for $1.42. I got the strong feeling that this was his shopping for the week. My three-day challenge was his life.

As you may suspect from my blog's topic of choice, I'm not all that used to hunger. I'm used to being hungry, but I'm not used to going hungry. Over the three days, I did experience a degree of hunger I had never been exposed to, and being unable to satiate my stomach really changed my perspective on food. I realized how much I take it for granted. Food is everywhere in my privileged world of abundance, but that's something I never really appreciated until I found myself unable to freely partake.

At one point, I spent an afternoon trying to write on an empty stomach. I was basically useless. It made me think how difficult it must be for kids to achieve at school if they show up without having any breakfast or lunch. 

Having an empty stomach also made me grumpy. I found myself feeling uncharacteristically irritable, impatient, and generally cross. An empty stomach was all it took to make me creep over to an unfamiliar darker side of myself, and on reflection it really made me think about crime, violence and other negative presences in our society. How many people are in jail right now for things they did on an empty stomach?

Now I admit, I cheated. I am a strong advocate for community gardening as a tool for food security. So I used some of the produce from my garden plot at the McCully's Hill Farm Community Garden Co-op to supplement some much needed vitamins in the form of a couple of green salads. Adding a finely chopped sprig of rosemary to my ever-present pile of spuds made my three-day monodiet tolerable. I  actually didn't do this because I wanted to cheat, but rather because I wanted to prove a point: adding $100 to monthly social assistance payments (the policy goal of Put Food In the Budget) is important, but empowering people in our community to grow their own healthy, fresh food must be a contingent strategy if we're going to simultaneously promote physical, psychological and social health.

Either way, Kraft Dinner just doesn't cut it nutritionally, and ketchup isn't a vegetable.

This week, Put Food In the Budget community organizer Mike Balkwill came to Stratford to lead a Town Hall meeting where challengers got to share their reflections with other members of the community, including many who'd personally experienced food insecurity in Stratford firsthand. He informed us that Ontario MPPs were presented with the Do The Math online survey, and they calculated that an individual would require $1,340 each month minimum to fulfill their basic needs. These politicians admitted that it was virtually impossible to function on the current social assistance allowance, but at the same time they refuse to do anything about it because they feel there would be a public backlash (read: they might lose votes) if they increased payments. Mike Balkwill compared the $500 million it would take to fulfill the increases suggested by the Put Food In the Budget campaign to the $6 billion in tax breaks for corporations and wealthy individuals that have been established recently in our country, "In a wealthy society, governments make decisions about what they can afford."
The other two Stratford Do the Math challengers chose to live off the contents of a typical food bank ration (pic above is of an example on display at the Town Hall). After spending the week eating processed food, singer-songwriter Ali Matthews was supportive of a more field-to-table approach to food banks, "We're thinking we're so great giving people all this processed food, but I wish we could have farmers dropping off truckloads of fresh food." Stratford City Council candidate and Stratford Central Secondary teacher Kerry McManus was shocked by the uncharacteristic self-preservation reflex triggered by her miniscule food rations, and humorously remarked, "I was thinking I might want to start hoarding now!" McManus was also shocked by the nutritional inadequacy of her food bank diet - she toughed it out, but not without some stomach pain from the steady intake of  highly processed non-perishables. I think all three of us really appreciated the message that Mike and the Put Food in the Budget folks wanted to get across to communities across Ontario, "I knew it in my head. Now I know it in my heart and tummy."

Mr. Balkwill recommended that we approach our MPP John Wilkinson and ask him, as a member of the Liberal cabinet, to put his support behind an immediate $100 increase in social assistance payments to make it easier for people to meet their nutritional needs. The Honourable Mr. Wilkinson is a reader of my blog (thanks for posting the link on Twitter back in July, John!), so I would like to state for the record that if he stands up for this increase he will have my vote in next fall's provincial election.

I respect politics, and I'm totally in support of putting more money in the social assistance budget for food, but I also want to remind everyone in Stratford that there are lots of food security related projects that we can support or get involved in on a more grassroots level. There are the community gardens  popping up all around town, and a particularly exciting food production project is the Stratford Urban Farming Experiment - I'm going to  be donating my front lawn to produce food in cooperation with other community members next growing season, and the plan is for the SUFE crew  to also help out with the school gardens project next year too!
The Stratford School Nutrition program that's run by Paul Finkelstein and the Screaming Avocado Cafe culinary arts program of Stratford Northwestern Secondary provides healthy lunches to school kids throughout our city. I helped out last week by making a delivery of yummy homemade mac & cheese to Bedford elementary! Support this program by attending the Screaming Avocado fundraising events, such as next week's Chef series dinner with Joshna Maharaj (who I believe was once the chef for The Stop, the food security organization that initiated the Do the Math campaign).
Perth County Kitchens is a new initiative started by my sister-in-food Laurie Knechtel, who along with Marion Kuno spearheaded the Do the Math Stratford project. Perth County Kitchens is a program that provides people in our community with educational opportunities to build useful food skills such as canning and preserving. I was absolutely honoured to be invited this week to provide a soupmaking workshop for members of our community who are trying to stretch their food dollars while living on disability (that's me with my new friend Joanna above).

This time of year is Thanksgiving, and we should all give thanks for the unbelievable food that's all around us in Stratford and Perth County. But we should also recognize that there is a largely hidden problem of food insecurity in our region, and do what we can to see that our abundant resources are more equitably distributed. There seems to be more than enough to go around, so let's work together and make it happen!


  1. I had been reading about a similar program in Australia (although it was a fundraiser). Good for you for taking the challenge and getting involved.

  2. All I can say is simply awesome! Thank you so much... and I love "ketchup isn't a vegetable".

    I often thought about 'patio gardening' and I love to bake and cook which helps cut down on costs... also I feel is better nutritionally... but when suffering from overwhelming fatigue it just sometimes isn't possible.