Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"Welfare food challenge ends - for some.."

Metro News - Food Challenge

Thats the title from the online Metro newspaper. For those outside of Vancouver who don't know about this story, advocates have been trying to bring attention to the lowered rates of the Canadian version of the Domestic Purposes Benefit (DPB). In 2002, the DPB rates here was slashed. I have no idea to what level but that never bodes well for single parent families or for those with disabilities unable to get a decent job or for those facing or experiencing homelessness. And from what Ive noticed in the first month of living here - homelessness is a very serious issue here. But I suppose my opinion of that belongs in another post.

So this food challenge was to encourage people to try living on $26 of food a week, and for only a week to see what its like for a person in poverty here in Canada esp in terms of physical and mental health. I did not participate. I feel I do not need to, I lived that life for an entire year and more particularly in 2009. I witnessed my Mum doing this same 'challenge' as a single mother, and although I was too young to notice the daily and weekly struggles she faced with raising two children alone on the DPB, having lived it and struggled with it myself as a single person, I now appreciate the huge amount of courage and perseverance she had in getting herself and my brother and I through that season of life. I will not diminish how hard it was for myself and my mother (even more so for her), but I do recognise that those periods of hardship and poverty did produce something that would benefit us later. Empathy, generosity, a renewed perspective of the meaning of 'wealth.' In all honesty, I don't think a weeks worth of a food challenge is really going to do that. I appreciate those who actually tried but I am even more impressed with those who decided to do it for a full month like Ted Bruce.

Ted Bruce is the Executive Director of population health for Vancouver Coastal Health (a health provider). Bruce said his goal in taking part in the challenge, which wrapped up Tuesday (October 23), was to raise awareness of the degree that poverty contributes to making populations sick.
What I am impressed with, is the fact that this guy could have opted out of this and just called in a bunch of people to do it for him as a guinea pig style research project. He probably makes a decent amount of money in his leadership position and probably lives in a nice house or condo in a nice suburb here in Vancouver.

Food Challenge Blog

But he did it, and he recorded his experiences in a blog (see above). I have yet to read it but I will after this.

I can still remember the year of 2009 as if it were yesterday. Boy what a time of change that was for me. I was comming to the end of a four year relationship, and by September that year I had met my future husband. Secondly, because I had failed two papers the previous year at polytech (college) I was forced by the school to take the entire year off to complete them - one per semester. That was a massive blow to me. Since completion of my degree was well joined with my sense of (unhealthy) pride that sabbatical lowered and humbled me very much, esp as a professing Christian. Prior to these events I was steadily forging my identity around my degree (in occupational therapy) and in my relationship with the guy I met in highschool in whom I had idolised and given credit for pulling me out of the hell hole of living under my abusive stepfather. Neither of these things were what God had planned for me I believe and now see looking back in that rear view mirror. Because my study situation differed from a traditional full time student, I was ineligible for the student allowance, a free living allowance of $250 a week made by the NZ govt and since I was loathe to increase my student debt I refused to borrow money for living except for school fees and supplies. So in absolute shame I ran away from the student focused area of Dunedin and decided to board with a woman and her daughter in South Dunedin in the poorer hill suburbs. I did this to avoid questions as to why I wasn't in full time study anymore. It was a small neighborhood and I greatly feared being asked "Aww was it too hard for you? Did you drop out?" After much quarreling with myself I also applied for a job at McDonalds but it was an oncall position. That too was another thing that hit my pride really hard. I despised McDonalds and did not want to 'stoop low' so to speak. Even though I had happily worked in Subway, I considered McDonalds to be the lowest of low in terms of takeaway jobs. In the past I had gotten used to being offered jobs and me thinking my shit smelled better than everyone elses. I did not tell my manager this of course.

I was later to find out that the woman I boarded with failed to tell me that the board I paid did not include food. I thought it did, and made that clear at the beginning, but after a while I noticed the lack of food in the fridge and absolutely nothing in the cupboards. One day as I was placing my board money on her bedside table (as was the norm) I noticed out of the corner of my eye the amount of random food in her room.A suspicion formed in my head and without apology I went to her wardrobe and opened it and found bags upon bags of groceries. Not only that was also the unplugged internet modem ineffectually hidden by bags that I had been searching for, which was also an agreed on portion of our board agreement. Verbal only of course. I felt very much stuck with her and that situation. I was unreliable in my board which made the idea of me moving back into a traditional flat situation a dumb idea. I did pay my board but sometimes it was a week or so late due to my sporadic pay from McDs. Because of my sporadic pay and the hidden food and hidden modem I had to pay for my own food and if I wanted internet I could only go to school for that. After board and petrol I was usually left with $10-20 for food a week. I was literally trying to run my life off an oily rag.

Getting sick was a non negotiable, since I couldn't not go to work. But this is Dunedin after all, even wealthy homes have crap insulation down there. And as a lifelong asthmatic I have always been susceptible to 6 month long coughs and sore throats and in Dunedin esp I was even more susceptible to pneumonia and bronchitis as I had had a mild form of the former and several nasty cases of the latter.

So, from memory this is the food I pretty much ate during this period:
  • Porridge, I ate a large bowl with a little bit of honey every morning. No matter how full or bloated or sick I felt I made sure I ate the whole lot. Even if I had to chug it like a yardie I did. This is because I couldn't afford a proper lunch, and I did this to remain 'full' until say 3pm. It never worked of course and that 12:30 - 3pm period was the worst part of my day when after working hard all morning in my study I could smell everyones food. During that lunch period I got regular stomach aches and dizzy spells, which I tried to quell with drinking lots of water so I wouldnt become dehydrated.
  • Miso soup sachets, Expensive in chain grocery stores since its an 'international' food item. Luckily there was a very cheap Asian food wholesaler near the university and I bought miso in packets of 10-20 sachets for like $2. Technically this was my 3pm lunch. I had one of these in a cup of hot boiling water, boiling because it meant I had to take ages sipping it, which helped prolong the 'meal'. For those who don't know, miso is pretty much a soy paste with seaweed. Luckily I enjoy the stuff since I was (culturally) forced to drink it regularly when I visited Japan when I was 15. Lots of westerners think its disgusting. In China and Japan, miso is often served as an entree for every meal including breakfast hence why I got used to it and came to eventually enjoy it.
  • Fresh lemons and honey, For alot of people its very hard to come by cheap fresh lemons, but in the South Island in NZ it seems everyone's parents or grandparents have a lemon tree. When I wasn't stealthily taking them from my mothers tree back home I would contact friends who were given too much from their parents OR if their was none to be had Id spend $2-5 on a bag of them at the Otago Farmers market. Seems like a weird thing to buy but I was of the very strong belief that I would keep my health intact if I had a cup of hot water, with the juice of half a fresh lemon and a teaspoon of honey every day or so. I got this idea from the story of Captain Cook and his crew getting scurvy and other nasties from living off a stodgy diet of liquor and salted meat. I figured, that in my poverty, my constitution must be similar to the sailors impoverished diet.
  • Fresh bulb of garlic, Same reason as above, I bought garlic for my health as Id heard ample fresh garlic in a diet is very good for you. Bought on special of course or from Otago farmers. A garlic bulb would usually last me a fortnight or more so it was a good investment.
  • Potatoes, starch and fibre. Not very healthy on the scale of carbohydrates, but like the Irish I depended on potatoes to fill me up after the porridge had long run out. I tell you what. To this day, in my food psyche NO food is more happily eaten by me than a baked potato (never peeled since I considered the loss of skin as a waste) with a bit of salt and pepper and margarine. I usually bought a bag of potatoes for $4 from the Otago Farmers market as well.
  • Pasta, usually the budget brand spiral or spagetti. 99c a packet, 80c on a good day. 
  • Mince/Ground beef, the cheapest of course. I couldnt afford the heart tick brand, so obviously my mince had more fat and water in it. I didn't care really, fat in the mince meant little to no oil is used when cooking it. This was pretty much the only kind of meat I ate, except for random visits from my mother who had an inkling of what I was going through and would usually take me out to dinner and feed me chicken or seafood and huge portions of vegetables. This mince would usually go towards a spaghetti recipe Id learnt off my mother and cooked it at least 3x a week, then eating its leftovers. For flavour I usually had dried herbs and spices around that I added and to 'spice' it up Id change the type of pasta I used  to trick myself that it was a different meal.
  • Canned tomatoes, Budget brand again of course. 500ml cans usually cost 90c, if the larger cans were on special, Id buy those instead. This went towards my pasta recipe.
  • Skim milk and skim milk powder, Seems a no brainer really. Ive never not had milk in my diet. I would measure out my milk for my porridge and instant coffee in the morning and if I had some left by the end of the week Id mix the rest with custard powder and an egg (if I had any) and cook it up for a treat. 
  •  Eggs, If I had a good week (money wise) Id buy half a doz of eggs and treat them like gold bars.  
So that was pretty much my diet, day in day out for an entire year. Now I'll be honest here and say that McDonalds food was added to my diet after a while but this was very variable and unpredictable. As an employee I was entitled to free drinks, and after drinking one med coke I noticed the huge sugar hangover Id have afterwards so I stopped drinking it pretty quick and switched to their orange juice. That was full of sugar as well but it felt far less worse than the effects of coke. Plus I was hoping it would have a smidgeon of vitamin C in it somewhere.. The burgers on the other hand.. Getting them free was dependent on our food and customer service on a monthly basis. We called these 'gap busters' and I hated it. I used the incentive of possible free food as an incentive to work hard at any tasks I had so I quickly became good at all the random and nasty jobs like cleaning and working at the deep fryer during the dinner rush which is physically exhausting mutitasking in front of boiling oil vats while being yelled at by my manager, a pompous idiot who acted as if he owned the restaurant and took inspiration from Gordon Ramsay's Hells Kitchen. Very rarely did we actually achieve a gap buster, and this drove me insane, since I couldn't even eat a lunch from home while working around food that I couldn't eat. But on the off chance we could eat the food, I always went for a large orange juice and a skinless chicken deluxe burger. I stopped eating fries since fries had become my job by default and I was sick of looking at fries.

By choice I still continued to donate blood during this period as I had done since highschool and it was during these donations that the nurse told me how my iron levels were doing as well as the general health of my blood and I was always pleased to be told that I had excellent iron levels for a woman of my age. Excellent iron meant the honey, lemon, garlic, water, tomatoes and soy in my diet was somehow keeping me healthy...

Setting these food choices aside I'll also add the importance of charity. Some people who took this Welfare Food Challenge told media that they were going to refuse foodbanks, dinner drop ins run by churches for homeless etc, help from family. Another guy said the challenge impacted his social life in that he hated not being able to be generous to others. My thought is, there is a type of  people who find it easy to give and not take. They have a personal prejudice against receiving charity, being on the receiving end of help. I used to be like that in a way and I quickly realised (while hungry and smelling everyone elses lunch) that Id be a fool to not eat just because of my stupid pride. But at the same time I didn't outright ask everyone for help, since I was becoming reliant on God and seeing him help me in amazing ways. It humbles us and when we eventually have periods of harvests and celebratory comforts we are able to remember what we went through and have an open heart for others who still remain in poverty, whether theyre in Africa or across the street. Giving with a cheerful and loving heart is a great thing to learn and if empathy only truly comes from knowing what that person is going through cos you've gone through it yourself then thats suffering well spent.

I didn't enjoy my season of poverty and I hope it doesn't happen like that again. But I thank God for the massive growth that occurred with my maturity, my outlook on life and my faith in him for looking after me.

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