Anne Moon: Pass the cabbage: A week on ‘welfare’

I’m working in the food bank today, with a new appreciation for what our clients face each week. As I fill their 10-item “shopping list” of soup, tuna, tinned vegetables and, almost always, powdered milk, ground coffee and sugar, I hope there will be an extra helping of empathy in that bag.

For the past week, I have lived on the “welfare diet” along with singer Bif Naked, MP Jenny Kwan and dozens of other activists. The Raise the Rates coalition calculates that the average client on social assistance in B.C. has $21 a week left over for food. There are 170,000 of them. So this was a consciousness-raising exercise to buttress an appeal to the B.C. government to raise the welfare rates.

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I went shopping — very carefully.

I discovered there was such a thing as a generic egg — who knew? — and that I could get a dozen of them for $2.99. Cabbage and zucchini were cheap and so were bananas. One store offered bulk goods at 20 per cent off so I got a cup of rice for 82 cents. I clipped a $1-off coupon and got a pound of hamburger for $4.

What saved me was that I already subscribe to the Good Food Box, so $6 got me an assortment of six different fruits and vegetables. The other bonus was that I own a food processor, so carrots can easily turn into a silky soup. The processor turns that same vegetable into coleslaw with its cabbage accompaniment. A little gadget turns zucchini into pasta-like strings.

And I like to cook — a bit of imagination can turn that cabbage into something more than my grandmother used to make — a soggy, smelly, mushy mess.

I had originally planned to eat lots of sandwiches or toast. But I rarely buy “commercial” bread and was staggered at the current cost. I knew I could get cheaper bread at a wholesale place on Blanshard Street, but that involves bus tickets.

The “rules” of the welfare-diet challenge forbade me from handouts or visits to community dining places. So no surreptitious outings to the 9-10 Club, Our Place or even our food bank at St. John the Divine.

My sole treat was coffee on Sunday at St. John’s. I threw in 25 cents and put lots of cream in the cup.

I was brave enough to invite a friend for dinner, warning her of the rules: “No wine … and no whining.” She braved the carrot soup, the hamburger/cabbage casserole and the banana “ice cream.”

Bananas became a staple. They are sweet and wholesome and cheap. I sautéed one each breakfast, with an egg and a dollop of hot sauce — and was tempted to put on a reggae CD to accompany my Caribbean treat. Bananas turned into “ice cream” with the addition of a splash of vanilla and some yogurt.

But otherwise, there were no desserts, except for a couple of apples. And there was no snacking, no room in this budget for cashews or other treats.

Chilled water to drink was essential, since there was no money for coffee. At day’s end, there was a hollow, unsatisfied feeling. I warned friends that I was grumpy.

Worse, I was obsessing about food. What was there left for lunch? Just how many ways could I cook cabbage?

I know a week is just a taste of what it must be to live day in, day out, on such skimpy provisions. I hope the food-bank clients aren’t offended by my ham-fisted (ooh, I wish I could have afforded ham!) attempts to walk in their shoes just for seven days.

I decided, for sanity’s sake, that I had to season my food with whatever condiments I had on hand. Surely, I reasoned, a person who had spent a long time on social assistance would have the opportunity to amass a tin of curry powder or some mayonnaise?

Perhaps that was cheating? I know I desperately missed coffee and even fantasized about asking a friend for her discarded single-serving coffee pods. I figured I could empty them out and come up with a palatable cup. Maybe even two.

A dietitian would probably scoff at my diet — not enough calcium, where is the vitamin C? I know I feel sluggish and definitely not myself.

I wonder at the dedication that led the late Vancouver MLA Emery Barnes (who also served as the Speaker of the legislature) to live on this for a month. I am in awe of our food-bank clients who do this day after dreary day.

Anne Moon is 74, a Raging Granny and member of James Bay New Horizons.

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