Trick question, when was the last time you lived the life of someone else? Confused, well that’s why it’s a trick question. For the most part, people live one life, perhaps dabbling in permutations of the same existence. This past week I was granted the opportunity to live as someone completely different from myself. I took part in the “Do the Math Challenge.” The initiative asked participants to mimic the eating plan of an individual who relies on food bank services. The challenge required the purchase or retrieval of a food hamper and forbade all food purchases and acceptance of any free food, unless they were eaten at a drop-in centre. The purpose of the challenge was to advocate for the addition of $100 to Ontario Works (OW). Currently, OW recipients receive $585 to cover all of their monthly expenses, including rent.
I opted to collect a hamper from the Fort York Food Bank. Below is the list of my week’s groceries:
- 3 potatoes
- 2 apples
- 2 onion
- 1 can of beans with pork and molasses
- 1 can of fava beans
- 1 mini box of frosted flakes
- 5 cups of cheerios
- 1 can of beef ravioli
- 2 individual sized yogurts
- 1 bag of green beans (fresh)
- 500mL of sour cream
- 1 litre of 3.5% milk
- 1 box of Hamburger Helper
- 1 can of condensed vegetable soup
- 1 granola bar
- 2 individual cheese cracker packages
- 8 individual packages of Nescafe latte
- 1 package of Roasted Garlic Olive Oil and Broccoli Rotini
- 8 tortillas
- 1-12-pack of chicken hot dogs
For many, this list may not seem so challenging, but for myself–someone that takes deep pride in what they eat and spends most of their academic time entrenched in the agriculture world–it was certainly a shock to the system. The shock was not raised by the available quantity of food, but the poor quality and constraint of choice. The bigger question that I ultimately asked was, what should I be fighting for? I certainly agree that $585 is an insufficient amount of money to live on, but is $100 the best request to be making? And if it is, is living on the food bank diet the way to share this message?
If the primary concern is eliminating hunger, it’s important to discuss the concept of food vouchers. The term ‘food stamps’ in Canada has a horrible connotation–almost a faux pas to speak about in public, or so it seems. But in reality, food vouchers, presented as a grocery gift card, can provide a safety net for those with a very limited disposable income. While the concept of controlled spending is quite controversial, a food card guarantees that even in the toughest times, an individual on OW will have access to food, outside of food bank hours. In certain cities in the US, food vouchers are redeemable at farmers markets. Certainly, countless opportunities exist for us in Canada; perhaps it is time to explore them.
While the parameters set out by the Do the Math Challenge may not reflect the true reality of every individual on Ontario Works, it speaks to a condition that some individuals in our province do experience. Living on a food bank diet offered me a world of knowledge, and even emotions, that I would never otherwise have. Developing one’s empathetic responsibility to recognize the unique personalities of those in our society offers a great deal of value, especially for policymakers. One of the biggest responses that I have gathered through my consultations with farmers in this country is that “those in Ottawa” don’t really understand farmers’ circumstances, simply because they have never lived them. It is time for policymakers to get their hands dirty. The real challenge, therefore, is to enter the unchartered territory of unknown circumstance through the stories and experiences of those around us, in order to widen our vision and see what needs to be seen.
Take a chance with a seat at a different table.
– By Jo Flatt