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Andrea Curtis: The big cave

April 13, 2010


With no milk, no eggs, no vegetables and a can of soup left, we caved on Saturday night and gave up on our welfare diet experiment. We went back and forth on it, wondering if we were throwing in the towel too early – we could have had a small bowl of soup for dinner, after all, and there were enough corn flake peanut butter balls for breakfast….

But after two days at the provincial basketball finals (Nick as coach, our eldest son playing and the rest of us cheering – loudly) we were headachey and hungry and too exhausted to discuss any more. I felt a bit ashamed – until, that is, I began to gorge on crackers and cheese. I was desperate to fill my maw as quickly as possible – to eat and eat and eat.  Just because I could. I have craved flavour, savouriness, real, chewy taste, and the delicious cheese, crunchy crackers, savoury baba ghanoush and hummus really hit the spot.

I had to force myself to stop, worried about feeling sick after eating  little this week.

But though I’m no longer hungry (and the headaches have subsided), I continue to feel ashamed. Being able to quit the experiment so easily is a startling reminder of the great privilege we have compared to those we are attempting to show solidarity with, and, as a result, a reminder of the terrible inequities in our society. People on social assistance can’t just pack it in because they’re tired and bored of the same old soup or had a really tough weekend. They have no choice.

And choice is the thing I keep coming back to. Losing the ability to make choices about how I live and eat, how I socialize, where and how I go where I go was by turns depressing, disheartening and isolating.

I don’t really mean the ability to make choices as a consumer (although that, of course, is the first thing lost by someone living in poverty), instead, this lack of choice goes much deeper. Partly, it’s because food isn’t like other consumer goods – you don’t absolutely need a TV or nail polish, whereas food is essential, a basic need, and not being able to have any say in what/how much you eat feels like being striped of something equally essential. It feels like losing freedom, it feels like losing yourself. It made me feel enervated, sad and trapped.

I’ve been careful all week when I talk to people not to overdramatize my experience Doing the Math. I know it’s an experiment and a stunt and it’s not some magic wand that gives me deep insight into what it’s like to live on social assistance week after week, month after month. But I do feel like I have a more emotional understanding of some of the challenges.

I also have an even greater respect and admiration for people on social assistance – like many of those in The Stop’s inspiring Bread and Bricks advocacy group – who manage to find deep reserves of strength and dignity, speaking up and fighting back, despite living in extremely difficult circumstances.

Finally, this experience has left me feeling even more profoundly (and, I think, constructively) angry about our inadequate response to poverty and hunger in this province. Over and over this week I found myself trying to explain to people that the food bank hamper isn’t just a supplement to an already stocked fridge, it is the only thing many people have to eat after paying rent – and despite the best efforts of non-governmental organizations like The Stop, it’s inadequate to boot.

It is not just wrong that social assistance fails to meet basic needs and leaves people hungry, isolated, depressed and unhealthy, it is immoral.

I hope this project and the ongoing work of the Do the Math team will also inspire others to reassess what they think they know about social assistance and to challenge our society and our government to provide adequate supports (based on real life costs) to those in need.


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