Over the past two and a half years, Bishop Bird has been involved in various poverty reduction events/initiatives. One which had a profound impact on him personally was the ISARC Social Audit Hearings in Halton. The Halton Social Audit was a key event in moving a poverty reduction agenda forward in the Halton Region. At a recent visit with Mr. Ted Arnott, MPP, Wellington/Halton Hills, to follow up with the audit findings, the Bishop and Mr. Arnott both agreed to take the Donated Diet Challenge in Halton at the invitation of Colleen Sym, Executive Director of Halton Community Legal Services. They were joined by ten other community leaders taking the challenge during the week of November 22.
The Challengers ate a food bank diet as a public act of solidarity with the low income community in Halton who cannot afford a nutritious diet.
I have to say that I was quite nervous about going through this exercise and in the days leading up to the start date, I couldn’t recall a time that I worried about providing a meal for myself. Of course there are the usual thoughts that come to my mind as I exit off the highway: “What will I make for dinner tonight?” but that kind of question in my life is never about what food I have available but rather it is about the choices I will make from a long list of possibilities. I am always able to choose from a full refrigerator and well stocked cupboards. To be holding the sum total of my selection of food for the next three days in a small cardboard box was an experience I am not sure I have ever had to face before in my life!
As I looked through the box scanning each and every item it became clear very quickly that my diet in the coming days would be very different. I try to have a bowl of high fiber cereal each morning and yes, there was cereal included in the box but the fiber count was quite low and there would be no fresh blueberries or yoghurt to go on top. My lunch for two of the three days was a peanut butter sandwich and in fact I had more peanut butter in these three days than I have eaten in the last ten years!
On the first night my wife made me a spaghetti casserole adding the tin of no-name chicken flakes and the tin of tomato paste – nothing like the homemade pasta sauce my wife makes with whole tomatoes that we freeze having picked them fresh from our garden. No parmesan cheese or a fresh salad that might have rescued the dinner a little bit. I did make a half decent desert by breaking digestives cookies into crumbs, layering vanilla pudding mix and tinned mandarin orange sections on top.
At the end of the evening I was no longer hungry but I was still left empty in some way. I think that part of reason I was feeling this way was because this meal and the ones I would eat for two more days would be the result of what others had chosen for me. Eating is a comfort or a pleasure when you are able to choose something that you enjoy or something that has a special memory attached to it and it would seem to me that all of this is stripped away when we no longer have the power to choose for ourselves.
On day two, after some toast in the morning and another peanut butter sandwich for lunch, I tried to make fish cakes for dinner with a pouch of instant potatoes and a tin of salmon. Usually, when I want to include potatoes in a meal, the task is easy- I just go to the cupboard, grab a few potatoes and peel them. Of course the only ingredient in these mashed potatoes is “potato.” The pouch of instant potatoes that I was given did have real potato in it but also included the following ingredients: salt, maltodextrin, shortening powder (partially hydrogenated soybean oil, lactose, sodium caseinate, dipotassium phosphate) partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, (cottonseed, soybean), mono and diglycerides, artificial flavor, artificial color, freshness preserved with sodium bisulfite and BHT. I made a decision not to look at any of the other lists of ingredients after that! I am afraid I didn’t eat much of the fish cakes and ended up with another bowl of cereal.
On day three I had no time to use many of the tins and packages of the pasta items that were left in my box but I did have some tinned soup and some more toast and cereal, and that has seen me through my three day adventure. Had I had the time, I could have had beans on toast or the Tuna helper mix for my last supper but that would have required me to have access to a kitchen and my work schedule would not allow for that to happen.
I do want to say that there was a wonderful treat in my box in the form of a homemade loaf of grain bread and I savored that small gift throughout the course of the three days. I am so very grateful that those food boxes continue to be filled by dedicated and faithful food bank workers and volunteers, and I understand that these boxes are there to supplement other sources of food but this experience heightened my awareness of the importance of nutrition and the challenge it is to get good food into the hands of those who live with poverty. It will change my thinking on the kinds of things I will be donating to food banks in the future. I will be looking for things that are well within the best before date and I would want to include items that are special, tasty and lower in salt content.
Our Diocesan Vision calls all people in the Diocese of Niagara to approach our lives and our faith from a position of abundance rather than scarcity. I am wondering what that would mean for me in this situation. How can people who must rely on food banks ever have a sense of this in their life. At the Eucharist each week we recite the words of Jesus: “I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never be hungry; who ever believes in me will never thirst.” I am left wondering: “what is my role in making these words live for everyone.”
It also felt like I experienced a lack of focus in my work from time to time especially when anyone walked by with a Tim Horton’s coffee or something good to eat! I want to thank the organizers for giving me the opportunity to take this Donated Diet Challenge and I am even more motivated now to advocate for some real solutions to the root causes of poverty and to seek out new ways to get healthy, nutritional food into the hands of those who are unable to provide it for themselves or their families.
Our Diocesan Vision also challenges us to move beyond the four walls of the church in love and humility to listen to and engage with the people of this generation. It seems to me that a good place to start would be to do some serious listening and engaging with those whose lives are touched by poverty and to stand with them and to add our voices to theirs as we strive as Christians to fulfill the sacred promise made at our baptisms to: “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”