Despite a grey and wet day yesterday, we managed to get out into the Britannia Secondary School garden with Outreach Alternate too dig up dandelions and make apple cider vinegar tinctures including rose hip, nettle, and yarrow. Plants are healing and the students really got into it curious and enthusiastic to be learning about the unique ways that plants are medicines. Thank you to our herbalist Lori Snyder for sharing her plant knowledge.
Like last year, participating in the Welfare Food Challenge has helped me to better understand the lived reality for people living on Income Assistance. Everyone knows that living on $710/month in Vancouver with the high cost of housing and food and all, is completely unrealistic. Where does the rationale for $710 come from? How can policy makers truthfully justify this number?
Eating on $19/week as I have this past week confirms what we all must know, which is that Income Assistance rates are cruel and punishing. I have felt hungry most of the week, I feel a bit more tired, I am sure that I have lost some weight. A person cannot live with any dignity on such little money. Worse, they are apt to get sick. With little money to purchase food, those on IA are then dependent on the charity sector to get by….a shocking development that we have seen institutionalized in this recent era of neo-liberalism and downloading of government responsibilities onto communities. For more on this subject read Graham Riches indictment of the charity food sector in First World Hunger Revisited: Food Charity or the Right to Food.
I have always believed that the measure of a just and compassionate society is how we treat our most vulnerable. I believe in the adage that the wellbeing of each individual is inextricably tied to the wellbeing of all. Sadly, we find ourselves living in a greedy, consumerist society in which our (self) worth becomes measured by our purchasing ability. It is hard to feel hopeful these days but there are glimmers of hope as people around the world are fighting back. Our new NDP provincial government has promised to tackle poverty, a pro cyclist woman mayor was just elected in Montreal, the first transgender member of a state legislature in Virginia, Democrat Danica Roem, beat out a republican, a progressive feminist Prime Minister was just elected in New Zealand. There is a rise in activist politics and a growing resistance to policies of hate and discrimination……There is hope.
Overhauling our income assistance policy is an important fight also for food justice, ensuring that those who are struggling (and we all struggle from time to time) get the support they need to get ahead, to get healthy, to feel connected to others, to feel a part of community, to feel a positive self worth, and to be an active member of the community however one freely chooses. This should not be so hard to achieve. Imagine how great it would be if everyone was well fed, well housed, well paid, well loved. This is the community I want to live in.
Looking at other food is really hard. I feel spoiled by the variety of food that I normally have access to …. as I said in my post from yesterday. I can only imagine how hard it would be for someone on low income to go into any store full of amazing food to eat. In fact, I find myself not wanting to go into stores at all. I avoid contact with food other than what I need to eat and as I become more aware of my obsession with food, I am also trying very hard to put all food out of my mind. This could become very stressful.
As I sit here and type, wondering what of anything important I have to say, I am feeling very aware that I actually feel very hungry. I take back what I said earlier about the rice and lentils perhaps being enough. I really want to cheat right now, run out and grab some potato chips, anything to satiate myself. Maybe water will help. Okay, get some water….I am back, yes, the water helped a little. I must be loosing weight. My stomach is definitely flatter, but for a slim person like I am, I really do not want to loose any more weight. Without a question, $19 is a starvation diet.
So people then turn to the Food Bank or programs like ours, whether they be community kitchens, bulk buy programs, or other community meals to get by. It is not like there is not enough food for people, but we have put an economic cost on food and much of it is becoming unaffordable, even for working people. We have put a cost on poverty or a cost on a person’s self worth and what we are saying is that you have no worth, unless you can afford to consume. In response we need to let people know that they are valued. We need to say that no matter what a person’s lived situation is, that everyone has the right to good quality, nutritious food. We should all be able to walk into Choices Food Market and buy what we want, to have food choice.
Instead, if you have no money, you get what scrapes are given to you, mostly food of such poor quality that it will make a person sick. You get donations which for the most part are overly processed carbs, you live on pasta and tomato sauce or hotdogs or whatever other food is really cheap. While it is possible to eat healthy on a budget, by preparing more grains and veggies, such as lentil dahl, a person still cannot live on $19/week. My healthy plates of broccoli, eggs, lentils and rice that I have been eating this week are okay from a nutritional perspective, but it is still not nearly enough. For me to adequately fill up, I would need to go to some food program, which may or may not give me healthy food. Again, I get what I get…no choice.
I leave you with this rather unappetizing look at how hot dogs are made, some of the food people eat to fill their bellies.
Another day of eating rice and lentils, which is actually serving me well. I was able to get quite alot by purchasing bulk, so at least I eat one very large plate of food each day. We should not denigrate this diet though, considering billions of people on the planet eat this food everyday, which makes you realize that they eat this food because it is cheap and can provide a reasonable level of nutrients, if not keep you alive. They are an inexpensive, low-fat source of protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber. Combined with Rice, I have been able to keep myself going. My energy is holding, though I do feel a bit tired.
But I am not used to eating the same food every day. I also realize how important spices are to bring flavour to otherwise less tasty food. Thank god for salt and pepper to make the rice and lentils actually taste great. Thing is that we see food all around us, It is really mind boggling the variety of food we now have available to us. literally every food from every part of the world, plus tons of crazy processed foods. We really are spoiled by the variety of food we can eat, though this availability has come at a huge price whether it be transportation costs, the environmental costs of degraded farmland, forests and oceans, overfishing, cultural and social impacts through the commodification of local foods. The list goes on. So many questions about this level of consumption. The ethical issues of what we eat are enormous. Being aware of what we are purchasing is important. Being limited by what I can eat, helps me focus on what I am eating.
Compare these pictures and what do they say.
Being able to choose good food over poor quality food is a huge privilege and the feeling of being limited by what I can eat, having little food choices, being dependent on charity or what have you, I imagine to be very stigmatizing to one’s self identity. Food is so central too our beings. Not only does it feed us physically, but it connects us to others. In my work, I often talk about the importance of bringing a holistic perspective to our community food programming and recognizing that food nourishes our whole selves – our physical, social, cultural, emotional, spiritual and so on. Food programs with dignity strive to incorporate this spectrum in programming, for example creating programs that have a high degree of social activity, provide for human connection and relationship building, that honor individual or community’s cultures or desires.
I love eating. I think we all do, and perhaps this is certainly one of the most important things that unites all of us – this love of food. At the same time, as Joyce Rock, past Executive Director at the Downtown Eastside Neighborhood House and visionary behind the Downtown Eastside Kitchen Tables Project, has said, food is being used as a weapon in the Downtown Eastside on the vulnerable. I understand her to have meant this as the way in which our social policies and the charity sector is, whether intentionally or not, withholding good, nutritious food that is maintaining poverty and ill-health, or dumping tons of poor quality diabetes causing foods on vulnerable residents knowing full well the implications. It is this knowing that makes it criminal and morally reprehensible, as Joyce Rock worked so hard to bring to our attention and change.
Being limited by choice, lacking self autonomy, and personal freedom is perhaps something we all feel under the capitalist, corporatist system we live, but this will be felt to the extreme by those dependent on the welfare system, more or less designed to beat down one’s self dignity. Perhaps no where is this so obvious than in the dehumanizing Income assistance rates that are not even enough to pay for rent in Vancouver. Through the Challenge, knowing when I walk into a food store that I am, for this brief moment, without choice. I cannot eat what everyone else can, I lack food access, I do feel different in a negative way.
Really enjoyed this Saturday just to lie in bed. The hunger has faded, maybe because my stomach is getting used to eating less food, but I am feeling more tired and slept alot today. Feeling completely unmotivated to do anything and feeling like I am on the edge of a possible cold (which I rarely get) so possibly my immune system is a bit weak. Cheated and took some oil of oregano (which is actually quite expensive) cause I really do not want to get sick. Oh ya, and also not feeling very cheery….a bit depressed.
Here is my breakfast – some tea with butter and 3 tables of coconut milk, two eggs for protein. I look forward to a more filling lunch of lentils and rice, a few pieces of broccoli and 1 stick of celery. I have noticed that I am wasting less and even ground up my egg shells and mixed them in my lentil and rice lunch.
At the same time, I am feeling very fortunate that I do not live in poverty and can return to a normal healthy diet next week. I feel guilty saying this knowing that for anyone on Income Assistance this is not really possible, but most frustrating is knowing that we can easily remedy this problem. We have created poverty knowing full well that the fix would be relatively easy and affordable in the larger scheme of things. There is ample data to show that ending poverty can actually save us money, no more so than in our health care costs.
I have already said that I suffer from chronic inflammation causing pain. At the same time, I am able to stay relatively healthy and in fact, other than a low level chronic pain, I rarely get sick and have been able to more or less work full time and live within a decent enough standard of living. But I know that many people who suffer far worse health issues than I and who are not able to work are staying ill. I have heard from some people who I work with, who have told me that they are getting sicker from the food they eat, namely poor quality, processed crap they get for cheap or as donations. Imagine someone knowing full well that the food they are eating is making you sicker, but also not having the choice because it is all they can get. It is really quite shocking.
And even in the few days that I have been on this crappy diet, and as much as I have tried to select healthy food with my $19 (eggs, butter coconut milk, a few veggies, lentils and rice), it is still not nourishing enough and I am already starting to feel unwell. This experience is really showing me the value of healthy food for feeling well, energetic, motivated, and happy. Everyone, no matter what their life situation deserves to feel this way.
Went to bed feeling hungry, woke up hungry, been hungry all day. Feeling a bit more groggy than usual and thinking how I enjoy sleeping even more cause when you are asleep you do not feel the hunger. I am looking at all the food around me and desperately craving to eat more, to break this awful, cruel diet.
So in my work as a community food developer, first and foremost is the understanding that food insecurity is a result of income insecurity. The programs that I run, like community kitchens, bulk food buy, food workshops, school gardening, community meal programs all help to improve food access and food literacy and hopefully help to decrease food insecurity, but ultimately we need social policy as advocated by the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition and others that provides for a minimum basic and dignified standard of living – affordable housing, living wages, universal dental and childcare, to name a few basics. To this end, our work must include advocating for social change and food justice, much like what Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshias in their book Food Justice understand as “representing a transformation of the current food system, including but not limited to eliminating disparities and inequities”. This is a necessary refocusing that creates new opportunities in our work for a deeper analysis of structural inequality in the food system and connection of the food movement to broader social movements.
Also check out Kirsten Cadieux’s and Rachel Slocum’s article What Does it Mean to Do Food Justice? who describe four key points of intervention necessary in transforming food systems. These include: inequity, exchange, land and labour.
An example that illustrates well a transformative food justice practice is the work of the US organization Growing Food and Justice Initiative (GFJI) “aimed at dismantling racism and empowering low-income and communities of color through sustainable and local agriculture”. Their work is foremost validated through an ant-racist framework recognizing relations of power and privilege as they confront race and class inequity. GFJI also provides leadership, training and empowerment supporting communities of color to engage in food system policy and advocacy (systems change) and more directly by creating meaningful employment opportunities in the food and agricultural sector for these communities through non-exploitative mechanisms of cooperation, equitable land access with sound environmental practices, and fair working relations valuing all labour.
The Growing Food and Justice Initiative illustrates the importance of engagement and empowerment of those communities most affected by food insecurity, giving them a strong voice to address systemic inequality and relations of power while also creating opportunities for direct control over one’s livelihood and food situation. This is transformative work that is rebuilding a new alternative food system based on dignity and communal self-reliance.
There is much work to do but change is certainly possible. But the first thing people need is food in their bellies so we all have the energy we need to reshape the society we want.