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Michael MacMillan, a former CEO and a keen cook, thought he’d have fun creating meals from a food-bank hamper. He didn’t. KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Michael MacMillan, a former CEO and a keen cook, thought he’d have fun creating meals from a food-bank hamper. He didn’t. KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Living on a welfare diet Add to ...

The hot dog rice "pilaf" was a highlight. Peanut butter on home-baked, unleavened crackers - not so much.

For one week, former Alliance Atlantis CEO and Samara charity co-founder Michael MacMillan subsisted on the offerings of a local food bank to experience how many Ontarians who live on social assistance eat when money runs out before the end of the month.

The high-profile challenge - Toronto medical officer of health David McKeown, city councillor Joe Mihevc, journalist Avi Lewis and his wife, author Naomi Klein, also participated - was part of The Stop Community Food Centre's Do the Math campaign. The purpose: to show what it's like to eat when most of your monthly cheque has gone for rent, transportation and clothing.

As his provisions started running out with four days left to go on Friday, Mr. MacMillan spoke with The Globe and Mail.

We went to The Stop Community Food Centre and got our hampers of food. When I got it, I thought that didn't look too bad. I should've known better. I'm a very avid cook. I cook every day for friends and family. I'm a big food person. I had two potatoes, a carrot, a couple of onions, a package of hot dog wieners, a jar of peanut butter, a container of olives, a tin of tuna, a tin of soup, four eggs, a litre of milk, a bag of rice, some oatmeal, a tomato and a pear. This three-day hamper is really hoped to stretch out for seven.

[Last Friday]my lunch was a lovely hot dog/wiener rice pilaf - pilaf being a pretty fancy word. I had sautéed an onion and a carrot in olive oil. You're allowed to use modest amounts of five out of nine basic pantry ingredients, like olive oil, salt, coffee, flour, soy sauce or ketchup. The main one that I elected to use was olive oil.

They didn't have any bread [last Tuesday]at The Stop. I used a little bit of flour and added water and salt to it, rolled it out and baked that [into] unleavened thin crackers. I applied the peanut butter to that. That didn't taste all that great. Then I just ate the peanut butter by the spoonful.

I suppose the blandest [meal]was plain oatmeal with some milk, no sugar. A tin of baked beans was not so hot. I had a tin of chicken noodle soup yesterday for lunch, and that was not very filling - there were only 200 calories in a big, 450-gram tin. So then I ate a container of SpaghettiOs, which was unattractive also.

I've got a couple wieners left, a bit of peanut butter left, and an egg and a little bit of rice. I'm going to fall off this by tomorrow at some point and cry uncle. Otherwise, I could not eat for the final two or three days. What would I prove to myself by doing that? I don't know, and I'm not actually wanting to lose weight. I may have already dropped a pound.

I've been hungry during the week, but I wasn't surprised about that. I was surprised how really limited the diet was, and the food was.

I ordinarily eat large quantities of fruits and vegetables and a range of protein, and that just wasn't available. I didn't realize how important that was to my lifestyle.

The other surprise was social. You end up being a hermit in your house. You obviously don't go to restaurants. One's social life just collapses. You don't go out, and even at home it's not appealing at all to eat like this.

At the beginning, I thought this would be a neat game, and that because I'm a good cook I could stretch this stuff out and I could do well with it. My temper's getting shorter and I'm just now annoyed. That's my overall emotional state, and I hadn't imagined that. It's the cumulative impact. To put the time into making a meal that tastes so bland, and has not enough calories, is very different than what I'd normally put into a meal, with nice fresh fruits and vegetables.

I think that food is a human right. Water and air and food are essentials. They're not nice-haves: they're must-haves. If you don't have each of those three, you die.

If we think it's important to look after the most vulnerable in our society, and those who are down on their luck, we ought to give them enough. The purpose of welfare is not to hurt somebody, or kick them when they're down. It's to help them in order to get off welfare, and back into more productive, social, healthy and useful lives.

From doling out food to dishing on policy

"The Stop started 30 years ago. It was Canada's first food bank, but is now much more of a community centre based around food," says Michael MacMillan, who volunteers there. "It provides hot meals to those in the community who need them and also advocates on public policy issues that have to do with food and poverty.

"The Do the Math campaign focuses on the amount of money that somebody in Ontario on welfare or disability assistance gets. Of the $590 [allotted] about $356 is specifically designated for rent. If one is lucky and clever [enough]to find a spot that costs less than that, they don't get to keep the money: That gets clawed back. If you don't use it, lose it. About $225 is the balance for everything else: that's clothing, that's TTC, that's food. Try living on that. It's hard to figure out why we choose $590 a month to be the total for welfare.

"This is a campaign to bring this up to the government's agenda in order to try and increase the amount of money for food."

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