I was fully prepared for several days of poor eats when I took part in The Stop Community Food Centre's Do The Math media stunt earlier this month.[rssbreak]
But I was shocked at how quickly and completely the poverty diet that 10 of us signed onto impoverished me, my wife, Lori, and our teenage daughter, Anika.
Participants in the project aimed at highlighting the standard fare of some 400,000 people across Ontario were asked to subsist on a typical three-day food bank basket. At my place, we stretched a three-day ration to make it last four days - and I lost 3 pounds for my pains.
If that were the worst of it, I could repackage some of Anika's survival recipes - peanut butter stretched with flour and milk, and beans with flour (our version of hamburger helper) - as The Roberts Diet, a proven way to lose 3 pounds of fat after only four days of exercise-?free high-?carb living.
But meagre and nutrient-?free rations, a growling stomach and low-?grade headaches were the least of the problems we faced.
Because food is mainly thought of a commodity that fills the belly and delivers nutrients, it's widely considered that poor people on poor diets mainly suffer physical health consequences.
I held that view myself, which is why I've long harped on how all society pays the lifetime costs of poverty when the bills come due for diabetes, heart disease and osteoporosis. I still believe this, but there's another problem I'd never spent much time thinking about, the one my family faced after only four days: the mental ill health that comes from the demoralization of impoverishment.
Evolution has equipped us with a fight-or-flight instinctive response to stress. But when stress builds up with no prospect of release, something's gotta give, and likely as not, the spirit will give before the body.
The dispiriting starts at the food bank counter, where a cheerful and welcoming Stop staffer asks what I would like. Would I prefer rice or pasta? he asks, holding up a bag of each. That's actually my only real choice of staples, but we both keep speaking the fictional language of consumer freedom so I don't totally lose face and confront the reality that beggars can't be choosers.
Would I like some tomato sauce and tuna with that? he asks. Food-bank "shopping'' is all about the luck of what's been donated that week. How about a can of beans? Would I like some tea?
"Do you have any coffee or tea with caffeine?" I ask.
"No, we're out of that today."
"How about some bread?" I ask.
"No, out of that, too."
Those are the only two foods I'm addicted to, I tell him, forgetting that I would never share anything that personal or revealing of my weaknesses with a store clerk who takes my money, no questions asked.
"Sorry," he says, "but we do have two onions and three potatoes And how about our last lime?"
Fight or flight, where are you?
I barely say thanks and slink out without saying goodbye to anyone, cross the road and wait for the bus home.
For dinner, we cook up the pasta, tomato sauce and tuna, and estimate that servings of four heaping spoonfuls each will make this last four meals. After a perfunctory toast with a glass of water and four big gulps of macaroni, Lori and Anika talk menu plans. The potatoes, onions and milk will make scalloped potatoes for a Friday night treat.
That's about as creative and personalized as menu planning gets. Food bank food, mostly foraged from the industrialized aisles of supermarkets as their best-?before date creeps up, is made for instructions to heat, stir and eat. Savouring flavour or eating healthy come with ingredients cooked from scratch. They belong in another world, where self-?reliance, individual choice, control and empowerment aren't just a conceit of the middle-class imagination.
The next two days is when I realize how abundant and ubiquitous food is in our society. It's on display everywhere, centre stage at most social occasions. To honour my pledge to stick with the food bank diet, I have to pass on one potluck lunch and one free dinner at an evening meeting. Everyone else eats their fill, leaving plenty of uneaten food for the next day's leftovers or to be tossed in the garbage. This inequality adds insult to the injury of poverty.
To be left out when others worry out loud about eating too much, to be so overlooked that people throw out 40 per cent of the food they buy without considering the disgrace of hunger living beside excess, to be worthy of less thought than garbage, is to be someone who does not belong.
It's often said that hunger is a relative term that doesn't mean the same thing in North America as it does in India or Africa. Exactly. Hunger is also relative because food is about social relationships, not just physical contents, and therefore about exclusion as much as deprivation.
Fight or flight. Where do I find a personal power centre when I'm so without energy, and feeling left out?
But anger and despair aren't spices in my food bank diet. My only emotion is resignation. The relentless blandness of almost stale commercial food is simply demoralizing, discouraging and dispiriting. Even our increased family bickering and backbiting express more meltdown than flare-up.
I mistakenly used to think of myself as a person who didn't eat treats; I rarely eat pastries or candy. I was just oblivious to the fact that I doted on dark, caffeinated coffee all day, and then had a glass of wine with dinner, a habit I blame on a trip to Italy 10 years ago.
Treats are an essential part of the deferred gratification needed to make a knowledge economy work. Without treats or nutrients, I lack the concentration, calm and willpower even my sedentary job requires, as much as I would lack the energy and muscle to handle manual labour.
Poverty causes hunger, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN argues with impeccable logic. And just as true, they argue, hunger causes poverty, because hungry people lack the health, energy, pride and confidence needed for work.
Social assistance rates in Ontario are decided without regard for the cost of simple but nutritious food. In Toronto, a family of four is allowed $1,275 a month for rent, while health officials estimate that a frugal food basket for four costs $633.78. Both expenses, and a few extras like toilet paper and soap, cost more than a total allowance of $1,782. That beggarly amount explains why Ontario has food banks.
Until we teach governments to include a formal food allowance in all income security programs, we have no choice but to give to food banks. I'll be donating more often, and I'll give some wholesome taste treats that send a message of support to someone fighting to keep body and soul together.
What our family of three got for three days
8 packets instant oatmeal
1 bag macaroni
1 serving Chef Boyardee mac and cheese
1 jar peanut butter spread
1 can flaked tuna
2 single servings yogurt
1 quart milk
1 can Heinz pork and beans
1 can mixed vegetables
1 can tomato sauce
12 chicken dogs
1 box decaf tea
2 chocolate bars