The Stress of Food Bank Food

I was  fully prepared for several days of poor eats when I took part in the Stop Community Food Centre’s Do the Math media stunt earlier this April, when ten well-known Torontonians signed on to stretch a three day ration of food bank grub for as long as possible.

But I was shocked by how quickly and completely this poverty diet impoverished me, my wife Lori and our teenage daughter, Anika.

In solidarity with 400,000 people across Ontario who have to rely on food banks every month, we stretched three days’ supplies to make them last four days, and I lost three pounds for my pains.

If that were the worst of it, I would repackage some of Anika’s survival recipes – peanut butter stretched with flour and milk, and beans stretched with flour, our downscale versions of hamburger helper  – as The Roberts Diet, a proven way to lose three pounds in only four days of exercize-free high-carb living.

But to our surprise, meager and nutrient-free rations, growling stomachs and low-grade headaches weren’t as hard on us as the psychological strain.

We didn’t expect that because food is mainly understood in our society as a commodity that fills the belly and delivers nutrients. It’s widely considered that poor people on poor diets mainly suffer physical health consequences from hunger and under-nourishment. I shared that view myself, which is why I’ve long harped about how all society pays the lifetime costs of poverty when the bills come due for diabetes, heart disease and osteoporosis.

Such chronic diseases are often related to life on low incomes, I still believe, but other problems and illnesses are caused by something more debilitating than doing without the things money can buy — something my family suffered from after only four days.  I’m talking about the mental ill-health that comes from the sensory deprivation and demoralization of impoverishment.

Evolution equipped humans with stress as a form of creative tension that triggered a rush to either fight or flight. But when life closes the door on fight and flight, what’s a body to do?  Something’s gotta give, and it’s just as likely that the spirit could give first, before the body.

The dispiriting starts at the foodbank counter, where a cheerful and welcoming member of The Stop’s staff asks what I would like. Would I prefer rice or pasta, he asks, holding up a bag of each.  That was actually my only real choice, but we both keep speaking the fictional language of consumer freedom so I don’t totally lose face and confront my reality that beggars can’t be choosers. Would I like some tomato sauce and tuna with that, he asks. Foodbank “shopping” is all about what has and hasn’t been donated that week. How about a can of beans?

Would you like some tea? Do you have any coffee or tea with caffeine, I ask. No, we’re out of that today. How about some bread, I ask. No, out of that too. Those are the only two foods I’m addicted to, I tell him. Then it dawned on me: I would never ‘fess up to say anything that personal or revealing about my weaknesses to a clerk at a store, who needs no private information because my money talks for me; money means the clerk is paid to look after my desires, and I keep my needs private. Sorry, the sympathetic Stop staffer says, but we do have two onions and a potato for each of you. And how about our last lime?

Fight or flight, where are you? There’s nothing I can do.  I barely say thanks, and slink out of the room without saying goodbye to anyone, cross the road and wait for the bus home.

For dinner, we cook up the pasta, tomato sauce and tuna, and estimate that servings of four heaping spoonfuls each will make this last four meals. After a perfunctory toast with a glass of water and four big gulps of macaroni, Lori and Anika talk menu plans. The potatoes, onions and milk will make scalloped potatoes for a Friday night treat, and we’ll split one of the chocolate bars three ways for then too.

That’s about as creative and personalized as menu planning gets. Foodbank food, mostly foraged from the industrialized aisles of supermarkets as their best-before date creeps up, is made for instructions to heat, stir and eat. Saving money, savouring flavor or eating healthy come with ingredients cooked from scratch. They belong in another world, where self-reliance, individual choice, control and empowerment aren’t just a conceit of the middle class imagination.

The next two days is when I get to see how abundant and ubiquitous food is in our society. It’s on display at all kinds of stores, and it’s centre stage at most social occasions.  To honor my pledge to stick with the foodbank diet, I had to pass on one potluck lunch and one free dinner at an evening meeting. Everyone else ate their full, leaving plenty of uneaten food for leftovers or to be tossed in the garbage.

This inequality adds insult to the injury of poverty. It’s bad enough that we can’t invite any friends over for dinner. It’s even embarrassing to go out and not be able to participate in what everyone else sees as a pleasurable way to break the ice.

It’s often said that hunger is a relative term, and that hunger doesn’t mean the absolute same thing in North America as it does in India or Africa. Exactly so. Hunger is also relative because food is about social relationships, not just physical contents, and therefore about exclusion as much as deprivation. To be left out when others worry out loud about eating too much, to be so overlooked that people throw out 40 per cent of the food they buy without a moment’s consideration as to the disgrace of hunger living beside excess, to be worthy of less thought than garbage, is to be someone who does not belong.

Fight or flight, where do I get the power, energy or sense of belonging to connect to the stress I feel?

But anger and despair aren’t spices provided in a foodbank diet. My only emotion is resignation. The relentless blandness of almost-stale industrial food is simply demoralizing.

I mistakenly used to think of myself as a person who didn’t eat treats because I rarely eat pastries or candy. I was just oblivious to the fact that I doted on dark caffeinated coffee all day, had a blast dumping any pent-up frustration in a bootcamp workout on the way home, and then had a glass of wine with dinner, a habit I blame on trip to Italy ten years ago. Treats are what make the deferred gratification of a knowledge economy work, because a creative knowledge requires calm, zest, concentration, will-power, discipline, forward thinking, positive energy. Although service and knowledge economy jobs don’t require the physical energy and strength that food provides, they demand all the psychological energy and strength that food provides. There’s a reason why McDonalds ads present their offerings as worthy of someone who deserves a treat today.

This reality relates to a major argument put forward by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. It’s true that poverty causes hunger, they say. And just as true, hunger causes poverty, because hungry people lack the health, energy, pride, calm and confidence needed for work.

Social assistance payments of Ontario are decided on without regard for the cost of basic but nutritious food. In Toronto, a family of four is allowed $1275 a month for rent, while public health officials estimate a frugal food basket for four costs $633.78. Both expenses, not to mention a few extras like toilet paper and soap, exceed the total monthly allowance of $1782. That beggarly amount explains why Ontario has foodbanks.

Until we teach governments to include a formal food allowance in all income security programs, we have no choice but to donate to food banks. From now on, I’ll be donating wholesome and delicious treats that send a message of to someone fighting to keep body and soul together.


2 carrots

1 lime

1 tomato

3 potatoes

4 eggs

8 packets instant oatmeal

1 bag macaroni

I serving chef Boyardee mac and cheese

2 single servings of yoghurt

1 jar peanut butter spread

1 can flaked tuna

1 quart milk

1 small can pork and beans

1 small can of mixed vegetables

1 large can of tomato sauce

12 chicken dogs

1 carton of decaf tea

2 chocolate bars


  1. Jean Prescott says:

    There is nothing like walking a mile in moccasins to bring us around to face the reality of another. This is a stunning article which really highlights the issues beyond hunger that plague those who depend on the Food Bank for relief.

    Without a Food Policy which includes and addresses the needs of every citizen in our society we are deciding that poverty and hunger are acceptable. The loss to our society is the also the loss of vast human potential.

    If we want to consider ourselves a civil society we must look at the consequences of what we are doing and make changes.

    For more reading I recommend: The Glass Castle

  2. Sue Moen says:

    Wayne, Lori and Anika,
    Thank you for writing so eloquently about the emotional and psychological effects of both poor nutrition and participation in the charity model as a recipient. I’ve been a paid worker in the non-profit sector, mostly in food security, for 20 years and came to see that we actually contribute to the problems. Food banks and other services are necessary, critical to many, but were meant to be a short-term, stop-gap measure that has become institutionalized in society. Non-profits have taken the burden of trying to keep body and soul together in communities off both government and from many individuals – social injustice has become someone else’s problem to fix. The agencies, groups and individuals who make herculean efforts to effect change for our neighbours are seldom resourced enough to do the education, protesting, advocacy and shouting necessary to galvanize sufficient numbers of voters to force policy change. But we’re getting there and your efforts are part of the solution.

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