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Cheating on the Special Diet

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Issue: 37 Section: Food Geography: Ontario Topics: social movements, food security

May 19, 2006

Cheating on the Special Diet

McGuinty's recipe for Ontario's poor

by Hillary Bain Lindsay

handsoffmyspecialdiet_web.jpg
There are 760 000 people living in Ontario who can't afford to provide for themselves or their children. photo: OCAP
"The Harris government cut welfare rates by twenty-one per cent in 1995, so today - with the cost of living higher - that's forty per cent that's missing from [social assistance] cheques," explains Rachel Huot, an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP).

For over a decade, OCAP and countless other organizations have been calling on the Ontario government to raise the social assistance rates in the province. "We've seen nothing from either government - Conservative or Liberal," says Huot. "We began to feel that we were in a situation where we needed to take back some of the money that we were owed."

The situation Huot refers to is a desperate one for many people living in Ontario. "There are 760 000 people living in this province who can't afford to provide for themselves or their children. I got a call from a single mom with 8 kids who gets $600 per month to live on," says Huot. "The basic situation in Toronto is that, given the lack of rent control, and given the list of 71 000 people waiting for social housing, people can't pay rent with what they're getting."

It was only when OCAP learned of the Special Diet Allowance, however, that the group knew how it would 'take back' the cash that was desperately needed by the province's poorest people. "The Special Diet Allowance is part of provincial welfare and disability policy," explains Huot. "A government approved Special Diet is prescribed by a medical provider and then welfare and disability are required to pay for the special diet allowence.

This provision was not being advertised to welfare recipients and most had never even heard of it. As it turned out, however, just about everyone qualified for the allowance: sympathetic medical professionals understood that, if someone could not afford a healthy diet, it put them at risk of future illness. Welfare and disability recipients were eligible to receive up to $250 more a month.

"With special diet – people weren't buying Cadillacs, or anything like that - but for the first time a kid was able to eat meat or strawberries, or a teenage kid was able to get an allowance for the first time. Things that other people take for granted," says Huot.

OCAP understood the dramatic effect the Special Diet Allowance could have on people's lives, and began doing what the government was not – telling people about it.

In February 2005, OCAP began holding "Hunger Clinics." In community centres, apartment buildings and parks across the province, people could see a supportive medical provider who was able to prescribe the Special Diet Allowance.

Thousands of people signed up for the Allowance through OCAP's clinics. "Without [the clinics] the Somali ladies would not have even known about [the Special Diet Allowance]," says Amina Ali. Ali became involved with OCAP through the Hunger Clinics where she translated the forms and the doctor's questions for Somali women.

"So many of them have 6 or 7 kids. Their money from welfare was not enough," explains Ali. "Whatever you get goes to the rent, and then the rest - maybe 50 bucks - has to last. You know how stressful it is when you don't know what you're going to feed your kids tomorrow….It's not healthy.

"[The Special Diet Allowance] helped a lot," Ali continues. "They could buy fruits and vegetables and stuff that they didn't have before. They could afford to eat meat." Ali says the women she knew no longer needed the painkillers and sleeping pills they were using to cope with the stress. "The mothers were happy and the stress was less. "

"We had a few months [with the allowance] that went okay," says Ali. "Now it's back to the way it was."

In November 2005, the McGuinty government revised the application criteria for the Special Diet Allowance, drastically decreasing the number of people that are eligible. Minister of Social Services Sandra Pupatello said that people were cheating the system. "We have a problem with this because the system has to have integrity."

Huot does not see a system with integrity. " We want to be clear that when they talk about cheating, they're talking about single moms who were able to feed their children, or someone who was living on the street who could finally afford to get an apartment and keep it. These are the people who they were calling 'cheaters.'"

A Special – and Not-So-Special – Meal

"They love to eat rice and meat. Goat meat and rice and cook it for the kids. They love pasta with the sauce. Mostly they like rice and meat and vegetables and all that.

"Boil the goat meat and then you make a curry out of it. You make rice. Steam veggies and put it on top of the rice. And drink a lot of milk cause they love that too.

"Without speical diet supplement, no rice, no milk, no meat. Maybe a can of beans and bread if they can find it."

Amina Ali on the meals her Somali friends cook for their children


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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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