Erica Kang, a Prince George dietitian, lived on the following amount of food for one week: a dozen eggs, 750 ml of yogurt, a baguette, two bananas, three apples, seven oranges, one onion, one zucchini, three carrots, one large sweet potato, one can of corn, one can of peas and carrots, one can of tomatoes, one-and-a-half cups of dried white navy beans, one-and-three-quarter cups of dried brown rice, two cups of dried green lentils, 900 grams of dried pasta, and 30 grams of grated cheddar powder.
It was all she could afford with $26, which is what the average welfare recipient in B.C. has available to spend on food. That's the commitment Kong made to take part in the Welfare Food Challenge, an initiative to encourage the government to raise welfare rates, which she says have been frozen for the past six years.
"This is the first time I have participated in the challenge and I am surprised at what an effect it has taken on my body, energy, and mind," she said in an e-mail to The Citizen.
The literature on the horrific effects of hunger to individuals and to a society goes back thousands of years. It brings out both the best of humanity (emergency relief for area hit by famine) and the worst (hoarding).
Food and the lack of it has been used as a weapon. Nothing gets attention like a hunger strike because it's the most dramatic and personal form of peaceful protest possible. Stalin starved the residents of the Ukraine not once but several times during the 1930s, seizing their food supplies for Russia and shooting farmers and their families for not making their quotas or for keeping food for themselves. More well known are the photographs of the starved inhabitants of Nazi concentration camps.
The effect of hunger goes deeper than just a sore tummy and lack of energy, as Kong noticed. In the short term, hunger makes us cranky, nervous and unable to focus and that's on top of the headache and nausea. Some of us experience that from time to time.
And some of us feel it every day and not because we want to fit into a dress or a suit for an upcoming event.
Chronic, ongoing hunger eats away at the human spirit and leaves scars on the soul. We can still see the historical effects of the Depression among Canadians now in their eighties and nineties who went hungry as children. Their food has to reek with rot and be covered in flies before they'll throw it away. The fridge, freezer and pantry are always kept overflowing, just in case.
Over the last 20 years, chronic hunger has returned to Canada, prompting the creation of food banks in even the smallest of communities. Multiple agencies in Prince George offer meals and food to the hungry. Many schools offer breakfast programs and keep emergency rations on hand to feed students who arrive in the morning with nothing for lunch and/or having had little or nothing to eat for supper the previous night. A child's grumbling belly will always drown out the words of even the most engaging and encouraging teacher.
As Kang herself would have to admit, how she spent her $26 is not typical. As a dietitian, she still focused on a balanced diet as best she could. Studies have shown clearly that people with little money to spend on food shop for quantity, not quality. As her shopping list shows, she could have diverted her spending on fruit and vegetables to get a lot more pasta or cheap processed food.
Meanwhile, governments are trapped between wanting to provide more assistance to hungry families and paying for education, health care and infrastructure. And even if governments could feed every hungry family, should they? Where does social caring end and personal responsibility start?
Welfare shouldn't be a paid holiday but neither should it induce ongoing chronic hunger among Canadian citizens. We can do better.