Challenge to Change

Justin Brake
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Three days that could change your life

I'm on Day 1 of a three-day food ration challenge initiated by the Canadian Foodgrains Bank as part of their "End Hunger Fast" campaign. The purpose? To encourage Canadians to experience what it would be like to live off the same foods and portions refugees and natural disaster victims do when receiving food aid.

The meal? Lentils. Not lentil soup, and not lentils flavoured with spices. Just lentils, and a sprinkle of salt.

Justin Brake takes on a food ration challenge. Submitted photo

I'm on Day 1 of a three-day food ration challenge initiated by the Canadian Foodgrains Bank as part of their "End Hunger Fast" campaign. The purpose? To encourage Canadians to experience what it would be like to live off the same foods and portions refugees and natural disaster victims do when receiving food aid.

The meal? Lentils. Not lentil soup, and not lentils flavoured with spices. Just lentils, and a sprinkle of salt.

"Be careful. People make themselves sick doing these things," a concerned family member tells me on the phone later that day.

The self-education seems pointless at first, considering it is unlikely I will ever have to worry about a shortage of food. I cannot, however, predict natural disasters or the future, for that matter. So I try to enter the 72-hour experiment with an open mind.

As I begin what some are calling the "refugee diet" millions of Burmese, in the wake of cyclone Nargis, are desperately awaiting similar foods for survival - the stuff I'm not the keenest to have on my plate.

I already face a moral dilemma: should I feel like I'm depriving myself when I see others eating "normal food" or should I be keeping in mind the 850 million people in the world who rely on oatmeal, lentils and other "abnormal foods," and consider myself lucky to have it stored in my cupboard?

The next three days, I suppose, may help me resolve the predicament.

Day 1

On Day 1 I rise early and prepare the very breakfast I'd eaten so many times before - oatmeal. Only difference is, I'm not allowed to put anything in it except water.

In fact, my diet for each of the next three days must consist of 400 grams of unprocessed cereal, 50 grams of pulses, 50 grams of vegetable oil, 5 grams of salt and unlimited water. I choose oatmeal, lentils and grab the bottle of oil and the salt shaker from the cupboard.

For dinner, I have oatmeal again since I've never prepared lentils before, nor do I have the time to figure out how.

Without my usual berries or honey, the oatmeal is bland, but tolerable.

In the afternoon, my stomach communicates its displease with my neglect of diversity, but I ignore it - I'm tied up with work and don't have time to think about food.

By suppertime, I could eat a horse.

I make my way home and confer with my roommate, who's embarking on this journey with me.

"Can we cook the lentils now?" she asks. "I think we just boil them."

The problem we face with the lentils resembles one of many challenges food aid recipients face all the time.

For a better understanding of the world's food aid situation, I meet with Memorial University professor Stephen Keller, who teaches a course called The Politics of Food.

"Too often, the needs of the beneficiaries are not considered," says Keller, drawing from his experience as a former World Food Program director in Laos.

Keller talks about the relationship between politically influenced decisions involved in allocating surplus or economically beneficial food commodities to aid organizations and the cultural needs of the recipients.

He says recipients of food aid are often unfamiliar with the foreign foods they are given, nor do they necessarily have sufficient water or fuel supplies to do so.

"Lentils are staple," he says, after learning they account for a good portion of my new diet. "They're low-cost protein and have nutritional value."

Day 2

By Day 2, however, I'm lacking energy. The absence of fruits, berries and caffeine is affecting me.

The coffee, in particular, is difficult to give up. It's a regular and important part of my morning intake.

My roommate and I have oatmeal for breakfast, again. Judging by the dreary look on her face as we pour the boiling water, she shares my lack of enthusiasm.

Later in the day we learn we can substitute rice for lentils in our diet - without exceeding the 200-gram limit of course - so we cook and mix them both and fry the creation in oil and sprinkle it with salt.

Now we're talking.

"It would be better crispier next time," I say.

For supper we re-fry the leftovers and achieve the texture of low-quality chicken-fried rice. But we're excited about it.

In the evening we sit by the fire sipping water, not the usual red wine, and talk about the first 48 hours.

We're both feeling drained and irritable. The oatmeal and lentils are feeding our hunger, but temptations are testing our will power.

We devise a plan to cook a pot of vegetarian chili on Day 3. This will enable us to get close to the food, smell it, and be prepared for the stroke of midnight, the 72-hour mark.

Day 3

Day 3 begins and I can barely pull myself out of bed. I've been to the gym each morning but today I limit my visit to a 30-minute stretching session, unable to find the energy or the will for a workout.

I skip breakfast and, as I go about my day, am perplexed by most things that come my way. I heat up some leftover rice and lentil as another of my roommates has just fried bacon, eggs and sausage.

"Smell that?" he says, with a smirk on his face.

"I don't eat that crap anyway," I reply. Deep down though, I'd set my morals aside for some diversity.

My bad mood carries through the day and intensifies in the afternoon when I step in dog feces five feet from my front door. I could normally find the humour in golden moments like these, but the food deprivation is affecting me in ways I didn't think it could.

"We're going to the grocery store," I tell my roommate.

We wander up and down the aisles, gazing at the pictures of steaming hot food on the packaging and start grabbing ingredients for our chili, which no doubt will be the best we've ever had.

As we pass the lentils, I begin conjuring images of the people in Burma who are desperate. And the 850 million others I recently learned are surviving on the rations I've been eating for nearly three days.

That's everyone in Canada, multiplied by 25. Twenty-five Canadas depending on others to send food.

"It couldn't possibly happen, could it?" I ask myself.

Real challenge

At that moment it becomes clear that sympathy, not even to empathy, will not benefit me or anyone else. The lesson is to understand and - here comes the word that scares most of us - change.

It's hardly a feeling or experience which can be expressed in words. There's this activation lever to our deep conscience and it's blocked by a seemingly impermeable barrier of comforts, securities and privileges that, once we're subjected and accustomed to, we don't want to be deprived of.

We've already reached the point where we don't want to see images in the media of poverty, injustice or anything horrific happening to human beings.

Once that barrier is broken and the lever is pulled, however, you might learn something new about yourself. The true spirit of human compassion that is inside every one of us is infinite but does not seem to be always obvious.

As I try to comprehend the distribution of food and wealth in the world, I think of the child who dies of starvation every five seconds because they don't have enough to eat.

At the very moment that child's heart stops beating, somebody somewhere is complaining about the taste of the food on their plate. We've all done it.

Something an anthropology professor at MUN recently shared with a group of students comes to mind: "The fact that I was born fortunate doesn't entitle me to ignore those who weren't."

Families, take the three-day food ration challenge. The Smith family from Winnipeg did and shared their experience with the nation in a CBC special - visit to see it.

Teachers, acquire some lentils or cornmeal and feed your students lunch one day.

The next time you throw out food, think of the child whose life may have been saved if they had access to the portion that now sits at the bottom of your trash can.

It's about change, any way you look at it.

But don't take my word. No one else could have pulled that lever inside me. We can only break our own barriers to reach it.

Visit and see if you're able to break yours. Then, at least, you have the option to pull the lever or not.

Organizations: Canadian Foodgrains Bank, World Food Program, MUN CBC

Geographic location: Laos, Burma, Canada Winnipeg

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