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#WeekInTheirKitchen is wrapping up, but the work continues

As I prepare for my final hours with my emergency food hamper, I find myself pulling together tools I can use with students (and others) in working towards a more food secure Calgary (or elsewhere). Food security cannot be separated from discussions about poverty. To work on food security we also need to look at the gap between social assistance (and our minimum wage) and the cost of living. Below are links to a few interesting multi-media tools that illustrate this gap and the need for emergency food programs.

Do the Math – The Stop Community Food Centre’s 2010 survey is available here. What’s the gap between social assistance and the cost of living in Ontario – take the survey to find out. Yes, it’s an Ontario tool and we’re in Alberta – but it’s still relevant. According to Lynn McIntyre, U of C scholar in Health Sciences, “Alberta has the poorest income support in Canada.”

The San Francisco Food Bank’s Hunger 101 multi-media tool is available here. This tool asks users to figure out how they’ll meet their daily nutritional needs on a limited income.

Lastly, why don’t we finish off this week by listening to the voices of those who have experienced hunger – we have not experienced hunger this week, but too many other people have. Check out photographer Michael Nye’s exhibit “About Hunger & Resilience.” You can preview a series of the photographs and audio clips documenting hunger in America here.


June 7, 2010 at 2:33 pm Leave a comment

Doing the math…

As we round out this campaign, I’ve reflected on the “scenarios” that we provided at the food bank as we registered as clients. Mark and I were going to the Food Bank because we “are expecting our first baby and I have had to take time off work due to complications with the pregnancy. We barely make ends meet.”

In fact, if you “do the math” – we don’t make ends meet.

Our income this month is $1,350 after taxes.

Our rent is $1,000 and we pay $175 in utilities. This month, we have $200 worth of medical expenses due to the complications with the pregnancy. And we only have one income. Using those figures, we have a shortfall of $25. We don’t have any money to spend on other necessities: Nothing for clothing (what if I need something for work, or for inclement weather?). Nothing for transit, not even a low income bus pass – How does my husband get to work? How do I get to my medical appointments? Nothing for household necessities that I didn’t get at the food bank (dishsoap, laundry detergent, soap, shampoo etc. I did get two rolls of toilet paper). Nothing to help me prepare for the baby. Nothing to set aside for an “emergency.”

So in reality, I wouldn’t be stretching my hamper for a week, I’d be trying to make it last all month.

Day 5: Decaying contents of the emergency food hamper. Note the brown lettuce and past-prime mushrooms.

Even getting to the end of the week, I’m feeling exhausted with the meal preparation (and wracking my brain to figure out what to make that my husband and I will both like). Yes, I still have food, but it’s limited. For the rest of the month, I have odds and ends – things that don’t make meals like: 3 cans of tomato soup (my husband hates tomato soup, if only it was chicken noodle!); 2 packages of chicken Mr. Noodles. A package of whole wheat hamburger buns; three quarters of a carton of milk; Oreo cookies, chocolate, muffin mix, cake mix, pudding, jello, corn syrup, meal replacement drinks (6), 2 cans of tomatoes, 1 package of whole wheat pasta, tomato juice, 1 package of cereal, 1 sleeve soda crackers, taco shells and Shake n’ Bake, 2 cans of tuna, 2lbs potatoes, 5 cups of rice, 1 can of beans and 4 plantains (very, very ripe). I also have 2 packages of coleslaw (but one looks very slimy and inedible), 4 packages of nearly inedible mushrooms). 3/4 of a loaf of bread and 4 eggs. Lots of margarine.

I have a few leftovers in the fridge. Enough pasta for two small portions (tonight’s dinner). Half a can of tomato soup and some fried plantains.

I also have some of the basic staples of the house: four, sugar, salt, pepper, vinegar, ketchup (replaced one of my spices), garlic powder, oregano and oil – although I am quickly running low on oil.

One might argue this is still a lot of food. I can’t imagine eating just this for 3 more weeks. I can only begin to imagine how stressed and fatigued, even angry, I would feel. And as Naomi Klein mentioned in the “Do the Math” blog in April, there are no second chances – if you screw something up, you eat it anyway. (She also mentioned that a lot of the meals they prepared – and same could be said for our participants – require time and a fully equipped kitchen – large fridge, full stove instead of a hot plate etc).

Also, if I really was expecting my first child, I would be drinking more milk than I really am. I’d probably have a bigger appetite too.

If I was stretching this hamper as far as I possibly could, I’d be seeking out other options in the community, like meal programs, places I might get help with clothing, transit passes etc. Then again, I’d need transit tickets just to get to a meal program, or the DI clothing store, social services etc. I would also feel isolated. No potlucks, no dinner guests. No shopping or movies with friends.

I’d probably be heading back to the CIFB on transit next month too – with my suitcases to lug home the next hamper (and remember, I’m pregnant.)

June 6, 2010 at 12:47 pm 4 comments

Fighting Hunger Snapshot – GTA

I’m learning a lot through this experience and it’s prompting a lot of questions. I need to know more. I also value the cross-country conversations this has sparked via Twitter and the Week In Their Kitchen blog. I want to know more. What does a hamper look like in Ottawa (ashamed I don’t know this). Where does someone in my hometown go for food and what’s available? (Really ashamed I don’t know this). How has the closure of the Hershey’s Factory and the Rideau Regional Centre impacted the food security of Smiths Falls folks? How often can someone access a hamper from The Stop in Toronto in comparison to the CIFB here in Calgary?

Through Twitter (previously a Twitter Quitter – but now seeing the value in a campaign such as this one), I learned of a new report through the Daily Bread Food Bank that provides a snapshot of hunger in the Greater Toronto Area. Economic recovery for many is far from over. On average, clients accessing food banks in the GTA spend 68% of their income on rent/mortgage and utilitities. 68%!

Forty-five percent of their clients have a serious illness or are disabled (and I am assuming, not able to work, or not able to work full time). The man I drove home from the CIFB last night had just had back surgery, and had just gone back to work but wasn’t fully recovered.

And despite what we may be reporting with our hampers here, and our week-long challenge, in the GTA 39% of adults accessing food banks go hungry at least once per week.

A few months ago, a volunteer with a local shelter boasted that nobody in Calgary goes hungry. I didn’t buy it, and I still don’t buy it. Emergency food is available. But if I’m working, it’s hard to get to a community meal. It’s hard enough to get to the Food Bank. I’m looking for your comments here. Can you challenge that statement (about nobody going hungry)?

The full report from the Daily Food Bank will be released in September – but you can see the snapshot here.

June 3, 2010 at 4:13 pm Leave a comment

Uninspired. Humbled.

First: Uninspired.

Today was a long one. Kitchen was clean and there were leftovers – still are for lunch tomorrow. But I knew I had to zip home from work, let the pups out, clean up after the pups and then get to the Food Bank to pick up my missing pasta (more on that next). And then I had to zip back home because the two foster puppies was suddenly going to be four foster puppies. A new record for us. This is a full house: 2 resident cats, 1 resident dog, 2 of us, and now 2 + 2 foster puppies.

So, not wanting to break into the precious gnocchi (reserved for lunches), I settled on 1 of the 4 cans of tomato soup (ate half), coleslaw and a toasted hamburger bun. Did the job, but very uninspired. But nutritious enough.

Second: Humbled.

The pasta. I arranged to get the car and drove back to get the pasta. This was a different experience from Monday’s pick-up as I wasn’t (as) expected. The parking lot was full and there were four vehicles ahead of me trying to get a parking permit and get into the lot. Everyone coming after work to get their hamper. Brooke told me just to go up to the window and ask for the pasta – it would be set aside for me. But I saw the line and couldn’t think of a good reason why I shouldn’t also have to wait in it. As I waited, I noticed more children than Monday. A man behind me commented that the hockey game wasn’t on the TV in the lobby – Flyers were winning though, he told me. And there was a man packing up a suitcase and some reusable bags in the corner – preparing to wrestle his hamper onto transit. That’s tough. He turned away a few items – I’m not sure if they didn’t fit in his bags, or if he doesn’t eat beef (hot dogs). Sympathy – I usually take the bus, and on days like that, it stinks.

Thought crosses my mind – do I offer? Where’s he going? Should I? Would he trust me? Do it. And thus the beginning of a great conversation.

He’s a recent immigrant and works TWO jobs; he’s learning English, but now can’t study because he has to work the two jobs and his work schedules conflict with his class schedule. He’s practiced (unfortunately) in the trip via transit to the Food Bank. His next hamper will be his last if I understood correctly. He’s looking for a Canadian mentor/tutor/conversation partner – check out the various immigrant services in Calgary – I bet there are many more people like him looking for conversation.

I appreciated the conversation. I hope he did too.

June 2, 2010 at 10:42 pm 1 comment

New questions, new concerns

I have little doubt that the “Week in Their Kitchen” experience would vary significantly across the country. Wouldn’t it be interesting if next year, several bloggers from several food banks (in urban and rural regions) took the same challenge? This type of awareness campaign has only been done twice in North America – two months ago in Toronto, and right now in Calgary. Even the two blogs reveal huge differences between the hamper contents. Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis struggled to make a 3-day hamper last through the week. Other participants stretched peanut butter with flour and water.

In Calgary, there’s no way I’ll go through all my peanut butter, let alone have to skimp or make it stretch. There’s also no way I’ll run out of food.

So two of my concerns are that followers of this blog will:

A) conclude that there isn’t a problem here that needs fixing


B) assume that because the Calgary Food Bank provides a sizeable quantity of food with some meat, some veggies and some other extras, that the situation is the same across all Canadian food banks. It isn’t. Even in Calgary, the selection varies daily because it is subject to whatever is available by donations.

The “Do the Math” campaign in Toronto, organized by The Stop, was about raising awareness about the inadequacy of social assistance in Ontario. Welfare, employment insurance, disability, old age security, minimum wage – none of them provide a living wage, and thus, citizens must resort to short-term, ‘band-aid’ solutions to make ends meet, or nearly meet. These short-term, band-aid solutions include clothing programs, community meal programs and food banks. “Do the Math” helps illustrate the hoops that low income Torontonians have to jump through.

So what’s wrong with the charitable approach?

The charitable approach is a short-term approach, but food programs have become industrialized and institutionalized. Food Banks in Alberta (and Canada for the matter) were supposed to be temporary fixes for the economic downturn in 1980s – but they are still here; more of them, and they are bigger and very sophisticated (huge refrigerators and freezers, trucks, forklifts, warehouses, hundreds of volunteers etc). One of the problems with the charitable approach is the risk that we divest ourselves of the responsibility to pursue more sustainable solutions to food insecurity (such as a living wage). We also run the risk, in celebrating the pounds of food raised or other accomplishments of the Food Bank, of minimizing the problem, and giving the impression that hunger and food security are not serious problems in Canada that require structural, not topical, solutions.

Many of my fellow bloggers have alluded to the lack of choice in their hampers, produce that is less than fresh, the misch-masch nature of the hamper contents, and the questionable nutritional value of many of the ‘donated’ items. I admire the work of the Calgary Interfaith Food Bank and support the critical service they offer Calgarians – especially in times like these. But this is emergency food, and a better solution would mean that Calgarians don’t have to line up for food, qualify for a hamper or figure out what to do with the somewhat random contents of their hamper. A better solution would be a living wage that would allow low income Calgarians to budget on their own, shop in a regular grocery store, and prepare foods that are culturally appropriate, nutritionally balanced, and suited to their liking.

This week, I am reliant on 1) the donations of food and money to the food bank; and, 2) the donation of time on the part of the Food Bank’s 100 daily volunteers. There is an uncomfortable dynamic of power that is set up here. In a charitable approach, the “giver” has more power and agency than the “receiver.” The “provider” controls what s/he gives – time, money, tuna, cookies etc. The “recipient” has a much more passive role and has little choice in what they receive. As a ‘client’ – I walk into the Food Bank and don’t want to be recognized. In my privileged life and as a frequent champion of food drives and other programs to raise funds for the Food Bank, I want to be recognized – so we blog, we take pictures, and we write press releases hoping that someone will pick up our good news. As a ‘client’ I am subject to the whims of the ‘donor’ (of time or money or food). Meaning, I will eat, or try to eat, what has been donated to the Food Bank. I give up some of my own agency – some of my choices are made for me by others.

Susan Learoyd, cited in Jean Swanson’s Poor Bashing: The Politics of Inclusion, warns “[charity] is a visible way of making people feel good about a problem, but not really addressing it in any depth. It doesn’t address the issue of why the person is poor [or hungry!] It doesn’t address jobs. It doesn’t address income levels” (Swanson, 2001: 138)

Of course – I feel good that I am participating in this campaign. I feel like I’m learning and I’m contributing. I also feel proud when my students present a cheque to the Food Bank or Brown Bagging it for Kids. But I do this work because I want to get to the next step, and I want my students to get to the next step too. If emergency food is step one, then capacity building is step two (community gardens, community kitchen programs, Good Food Box programs…), but the ultimate step is structural and policy change – addressing the root cause of hunger in Canada (poverty and inadequate social assistance rates). Only when this step is addressed will we see declining usage of our food banks, and ultimately the closing of our nation’s food banks and higher rates of food security.

June 2, 2010 at 2:17 pm 8 comments

Los Ñoquis del 29

I have a love affair with Argentina so it’s appropriate that our meal tonight stems from my first trip there in 2001 (before the crisis). We were outside a small community devastated by the loss of its primary industry (some 40 years earlier). My Argentine colleagues and I were doing some field work on a biological reserve – we had no running water or electricity and it was fantastic. Javier from Salta was our unofficial cook and he worked miracles.

One night he made up Los Ñoquis del 29 – potato gnocchi. I’d never seen or tasted gnocchi before, and for roughing it in the bush, it was divine. The Argentines explained to me that families would make gnocchi towards the end of the month when one paycheck was running out, and the next was a few days away.

Noquis before cooking - lots of work to get to this stage!

Having no pasta in my hamper (I’ll pick it up at the food bank tomorrow night), I decided to give it a shot. What a lot of work! The sauce was no problem, but I had to boil the potatoes (but make sure they weren’t too soft!), peel them, mash them, mix them into a dough with flour and salt, roll them into long ropes, cut them into gnocchis and then use a fork to give them some definition (and places for the sauce to stick!) – then boil them and drain them.

With sauce - and bits of fried hot dogs - yum.

Between caring for our own pets (read, children) and our two foster puppies, I probably didn’t start googling recipes and cooking until 6pm. By 10pm I had eaten but was just finishing the dishes. I’m feeling the “double day” today! I like cooking, but I never spend 4 hours in the kitchen on a week night. But I had dishes to do from yesterday, puppies to care for, gnocchi to tend and lunches to make. I guess I also made some iced tea from an herbal tea I had in the cupboard (I think that’s allowed) and some more Tican Patacones. I just can’t get enough of them. I probably ate half of them as I figured out the gnocchi.

Patacones frying... before mashing and refrying...just like Isla de Chira...

Anyway – at first I was beginning to think I was taking a gamble on the gnocchi and maybe should have held out for the pasta and used the potatoes for something I was familiar with. In the end, in two days I’ve eaten well and tried two new and delicious foods. But coming up with the menu is stressful and man, I’m exhausted. At least lunch is ready for tomorrow.

June 1, 2010 at 11:28 pm 2 comments

“Time” didn’t come in my hamper

10-day Emergency Food Hamper for 2-3 people, minus the pasta

I consider myself pretty informed about emergency food – but in one day with “A Week in Their Kitchen” I’ve learned so much that I could never set out to learn from books, documentaries, even interviews. I value the way this experience is making me think. I know that things like “time” are a luxury, and that those who struggle to make ends meet have much less of it, and much less of that other precious luxury… leisure time (or money to spend on leisure).

I spent close to an hour at the Food Bank. I live and work in the NW and it probably takes me and hour to get there and back. It took me extra time to sort through my hamper and figure out what I could make with its contents. It took me extra time to prepare lunches today, and I had to make sure that I planned to pack a dinner for my husband as he won’t be home after work (coaching Ultimate and then playing Ultimate). BTW – Mark forgot his packed with love lunch/dinner today. That would have been disasterous. Luckily I caught his attention in time. Now he’ll have a full belly all day.

As I sorted my hamper I realized I had pasta sauce but no pasta. I was pretty sure that pasta was a “guaranteed” item, but maybe you get rice or pasta, and I did get some rice. Turns out, I should have received pasta, and my hamper slipped past the inspector. Keep in mind, the Food Bank relies on over 100 volunteers every day, and this can happen. So I’m going to try to make potato gnocchi tonight, but I think I need that pasta. It seems crazy to return to the Food Bank for one bag of pasta (even for two!) but it would stretch my hamper farther if I had it – and would allow us to eat something that’s pretty typical for us.

More time. I need to get back to the Food Bank. That means taking transit or juggling schedules to get the car. Can’t go during work. Can’t go tonight because Mark has the car and I have puppies to take care of in his absence. This is also becoming an expensive bag of pasta. It will cost me in terms of time, energy, gas or bus fare. I’ll have to arrange to get there tomorrow night – seems like a lot of hoops to jump through just to eat. This happens, I’m told. And when it does, client’s call the next day and then arrange to pick up the missing item(s). I can’t imagine if I had kids to juggle as well. This pasta better taste good…

June 1, 2010 at 2:33 pm 4 comments

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