Home > Uncategorized > Food hamper big enough — but please, hold the salt

Food hamper big enough — but please, hold the salt

When it comes to surviving off a food hamper from the food bank, the issue is one of quality, not quantity.

At least that’s what I discovered last week when I took up the Put Food in the Budget Challenge. For five days, I ate only what would be available to me if I were a single person living off a three-day food hamper allowance.

The challenge, launched by a group of local non-profit agencies, asked participants to live three to seven days on a food hamper allowance. The point of the challenge was to demonstrate that people on social assistance need more money for food. Organizers are asking the province to add a $100 “healthy food supplement” per month for every adult living on social assistance.

Armed with a sample food hamper list, I went to the store and purchased the items I’d be living off of for about a week. Aside from the list, participants were also allowed five pantry items, like coffee, tea, vegetable oil and ketchup – all things someone would likely have in their cupboard or refrigerator.

The first concern I had when I looked at the list – and it’s a concern I had throughout the challenge – was the amount of sodium in the food. There was the tin of vegetables, followed by canned soup, canned stew, macaroni and cheese, a jar of pasta sauce and some wieners.

I’ve been conscious of the amount of sodium in my diet since early 2010 when I wrote a piece on the Champlain Local Health Integration Network’s sodium reduction strategy. I kept a food diary for the story and discovered that, at 1,900 mg of sodium per day, I wasn’t doing too badly, but I could do much better.

I made little changes in my life to get that number even lower, like opting for an organic “no salt added” pasta sauce, and shying away from too many pre-made foods. Obviously that wasn’t an option on the food hamper diet.

On the bright side, the food hamper included one fresh piece of fruit, two fresh potatoes and an onion. The six eggs ended up being a godsend, and the rice could be dressed up in a myriad of ways.

The first day on the diet was a little rough, but I wasn’t well prepared and only had a peanut butter sandwich to see me from lunch through to dinner, which happened to be after 8 p.m. By the second day things got easier (I took a hard-boiled egg in my lunch as a snack to get me through if I was late getting home). And once I challenged my friends to come up with some dishes with the items listed, the eating got even better. A “faux jambalaya” (rice, chickpeas and wieners) was good for three meals, and the tuna casserole was good for another three or four. It became evident that creativity was the key.

While I craved other foods, I was never starving. In some ways, it was like being back in university, when food that was quick, easy and inexpensive was a gourmet masterpiece. They weren’t the healthiest of choices, but it got me through those days.

By the end of the fifth day, I was tempted to go even longer, but it had become a strain on my family and friends. Making separate meals at home was troublesome, and my friends were starting to feel guilty about eating other foods in front of me. But the point had been made. While the food bank hamper allowance isn’t ideal, it will keep someone from starving. At least, it kept me from starving. The biggest problem, aside from sodium content, was vegetables and fruits. It would be nice to see more of those in the hamper.

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