In support of raising awareness of hunger at the local level, a dozen people recently took up the Hunger Awareness Challenge issued by Community Food Share and House of Lazarus, Dundas County’s two food banks.
I was among those who accepted the challenge to live for five days on the limited food options of a food bank client.
Because the challenge was based on a public social media campaign, due to my affiliations with print media, I chose to register as anonymous and to share my experience first with readers of The Leader. As a reporter, I cover food bank fundraisers and issues regularly, and had the feeling I knew exactly what I was getting into.
I knew full well that I didn’t have to take part, but I wanted to experience the challenges that users of these services face to see if this would change my perspective/ perception/understanding.
Signing up was easy, using my regular media contacts to discuss and make Community Food Share officials fully aware of my intentions. They arranged for me to go to the food bank and pick up the food supply that I thought would be the complete focus of the challenge. (As a challenge participant, a $30 donation was made to cover the cost of my food allotment.)
I walked in the back door, like I always do when I’m there on business.
Amy Jamieson, food and client coordinator for Community Food Share in Morrisburg, greeted me kindly as always and we chatted about my involvement.
She filled out the paperwork and then when I was ready to collect my five days supply of food she filled out a regular client card detailing the size of my family, including my child’s age and dropped it in the door for a volunteer to lead me through the process.
She looked at me and said, “I’m not telling them what you’re doing.” So, in the eyes of everyone there, I had fallen on hard times and was in need.
At that moment, everything changed for me.
I forced a smile as I greeted and looked into the eyes of folks I have known for years, unable to explain what was going on.
They were all kind, compassionate and non-judgemental. Cindy, one of the kind volunteers led me through the process, as I pushed a cart through the food bank choosing what type of canned goods pastas, meats and cereals I wanted/needed.
I shopped just as I would at the grocery store.
My full focus was choosing carefully the items I know my child will eat and what snacks are acceptable for school lunches.
Eggs, cheese, bread and six pieces of fruit and several potatoes were wonderful items that I was lucky enough to receive.
But there was no milk. In my household that’s a problem.
So, before I left the building with my food allotment I knew that I would be spending almost half of the $10 spending allowance, part of the challenge, on milk.
Canned meat, a bit of ground beef and pasta would be stretched for the next five days.
Looking at what I had received I knew that the food part of the challenge was feasible, although not ideal nutritionally, but we could make do.
As we proceeded to the hygiene products area of the food bank I collected a few items to get us through the week, and the volunteer handed over what my family was allowed for toilet paper – one roll for three people, for five days.
I wasn’t even out the door and I knew I would have to spend another portion of my spending money on toilet paper, which seemed a real shame for someone whose reality is trying to feed their family.
By Wednesday morning, the lone roll of toilet paper was gone, and we were out of milk.
I sat with a friend after school pick-up talking about the challenge and having a frank discussion about whether to buy milk or toilet paper.
I now understand why toilet paper is often under lock and key at public restrooms, and was eyeing up the work stash. In my mind taking toilet paper would allow enough funds to buy milk.
However, that was not truly an option because that would be cheating and I was not going cheat. Those who use the food bank don’t have the option to cheat. They have to find a way. I learned that dollar stores do sell toilet paper, and that was enough to allow me to get the milk I needed to finish out the five day challenge.
For me the challenge was only five days. By Wednesday, the end was in sight.
For food bank clients, there probably isn’t any clear end in sight: they have to stretch that five day supply out for much longer, maybe even for the month.
That week was a busy one for me with many events and late meetings. Snacks were offered and refused at various functions, because others might not be fortunate enough to have those options in their workday.
On long days, when I hadn’t brought food items with me, I would go several hours with nothing. Driving home to pick up what I needed to have a meal, or even a snack, wasn’t possible.
I actually learned a lot through the challenge, even more about myself and my own habits.
The food supply was a challenge, but it was do-able.
By the end of the week most of my food allotment was gone. All that remained was a couple of cans of vegetables, a box of Kraft Dinner and a last can of vegetable soup.
I gained a lot of respect for those who face that challenge in reality, once or often.
Finding a way to make the food supply work takes a lot of resourcefulness, creativity and planning, a lot more effort than I am usually willing to invest.
I learned that picking up a snack or a drink on the way to work is a luxury not a necessity.
I learned that having to constantly say no to a child’s simple request to stop by the store for a chocolate milk after school is beyond difficult and frustrating.
I learned that facing this challenge makes small things, like a kid deciding one day that she didn’t like the tuna casserole you invested time and your last can of tuna in, a much bigger more difficult issue.
I learned the value of a box of Cheerios. For the week it became our go-to breakfast and after school snack of choice.
There was much comfort in knowing that local schools have breakfast programs to help those who are hungry, for any reason.
I learned that it takes a lot of courage to walk through the doors of a food bank.
As I sit down this weekend with family and friends to enjoy a meal on thanksgiving, I will be a little more thankful for what we have.
At the end of my thanksgiving meal this year I will be putting together a box of items to donate to my local food bank. My donation will include toilet paper, Cheerios, canned meat whatever fresh produce I can spare and a little something for a sweet treat.
Over 40 per cent of Community Food Share clients are children. Sixteen per cent of adults who have used Community Food Share this month have paid employment.
Other participants in the 2017 Hunger Awareness Challenge presented by Community Food Share and House of Lazarus were; Mike Barkley, Cholly Boland, Sandy Casselman, Evonne Delegarde, Eric Duncan, Tony Fraser, David Nash, Robert Noseworthy, Frank Onassanya, Kim Sheldrick and Barb Tobin. To learn more about their experiences check out Hunger Awareness Challenge on Facebook.