Friday, October 01, 2010

When a little isn't enough: experiments in poverty

In various places in southern Ontario, community leaders and media people are temporarily eating on tiny budgets or making food-hamper meals, to make points about the inadequacy of the social assistance food allowance and the realities of living without food "security." Here's one newspaper article. Here are the blog posts from that same experiment. And here's an article about a woman whose participation simply means doing what she was doing herself years ago.

I have mixed feelings about some of these experiments. I think they're effective at least as an attention-getter. Yes, people struggle to get enough food and the right kind of food for themselves and their children. Yes, there are big questions and big issues here.

But how accurate is it for one person to spend $20 Canadian on a week's food and say that his or her experiences during that week do or don't reflect what it would be like to live long-term with those limits? I've asked similar questions in the past and have been directed to people like Gayle, who feeds her whole family very well on US$60 a week.

So is this all apples to oranges? Gayle, for example, stockpiles sale and bulk foods but also buys small amounts of some things in bulk so that she doesn't end up with more than she can use; she freezes bargains, plans menus a week ahead, searches recipe sites for ways to use what she has. That is a bit different from a single person, who admits to being a poor shopper or not much of a cook, being handed $20 and trying to wrap that around a tray of hamburger, a bag of spaghetti and so on. Gayle is a good cook, a savvy shopper, can usually get to more than one store on grocery day, and is in it for the long haul. (Never mind, though, that she's also a busy mom, a student herself, etc.) And it often is cheaper overall to cook for more than one person. So in a way, yes, these experiments are both somewhat artificial and somewhat negative, because with enough knowhow and positive attitude you can overcome a limited food budget.

Not that I'm saying that people with more food in their cupboards should turn their back on food security issues and poverty, or stop donating to the food banks, or doing whatever seems right to share with others in need or to change wrong-headed policies. Not at all. In a way, living for one week on that amount of food, bothersome as that is, doesn't even begin to touch some people's reality, and the blog posts of the participants reflect that. One writer had planned to end the week with a steak dinner, but has decided to donate the money he would have spent on that. One point of the public challenge is raise awareness of what it's like not being able to just buy or eat anything you want whenever you want it.

Another experiment that has been much criticized but that has given others courage and inspiration: the original Hillbilly Housewife's $45 Emergency Menu and $70 Low Cost Menu, which were designed to work with a mostly-empty cupboard. Yes, of course prices have changed and may not reflect our geographical area; people don't "like" powdered milk and so on; but the point of those menus was that you COULD do it. You COULD get by, at least for a short time, on very, very little. And without all the...excuse me...bellyaching.

So it's hard to know how to respond to these experiments. Tell the participants that we're sorry they felt so hungry this week, but that maybe they should have loaded up on oatmeal and potatoes instead of that salad stuff? Think about how we'd manage in a similar situation? Wonder about how the government got into this business of social assistance food allowances in the first place? Ask if maybe there's something we could do to help get more people OFF social assistance instead of complaining that there isn't enough included for food? But we won't even go there right now.

What do you think?

1 comment:

coffeemamma said...

Hmmm... Hubby and I have been talking about the very same newspaper articles this month. And since I actuall WAS on social assistance for a while, I can honestly say that the experiment is so artificial as to be utterly useless.

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