Food Diaries: Toronto

“I’m lactose-intolerant but I can no longer afford lactose-free milk”

Yvonne Alabaster
(Photo by Ebti Nabag)

(Photo by Ebti Nabag)

With the rising costs of nearly everything, Canadians are particularly feeling the pinch when it comes to rising food costs across the country, further fuelling a food insecurity crisis being experienced by many throughout the nation. Here, Yvonne Alabaster, a former chef and now on disability support in Toronto discusses how she gets by:

I spent two decades working as a chef for places like the Intercontinental Hotel Group, Chili’s and Cora. I have fibromyalgia, rapid-onset migraines and a condition called hidradenitis suppurativa, which leaves open wounds on my skin. In 2017, my symptoms got so bad that I went on disability. I now receive $1,500 each month. I live with a roommate in a huge two-bedroom apartment in Toronto’s east end. It’s fairly affordable because my roommate’s mother lived there for 20 years before she died. I pay $625 a month in rent and buy groceries; my roommate pays for cable and internet.

I’m lactose-intolerant and gluten-sensitive, but I can no longer afford to buy lactose-free milk and cheese or gluten-free pasta. I’ve started buying regular milk and gluten pasta because it’s cheaper. I try to eat it in small amounts. It’s not great when I sit down to eat a bowl of pasta I know is going to aggravate my skin and hurt my stomach. But I have to eat.

I only have around $5 per day to spend on food. I’m sticking to one meal a day—I eat bread and peanut butter to keep my body from going into starvation mode. Occasionally I break down and have a can of soup at lunch. I’m always tired.

Many of the sales in Toronto start on Thursdays, so I look up the flyers on Wednesdays and compare what’s on sale that day and what’s on sale the next so I know when to run out to the store. This week I went to Food Basics and bought a loaf of bread, a bag of peppers, and canned tomatoes, which I will use to make a giant pot of pasta sauce that will last me the month. There was a good deal on ground beef—$4 a pound—so I bought three pounds and froze some. I also got five decent-sized chicken breasts for $12. Because I found meat on sale, I was able to buy bananas at 69 cents a pound, which made me really happy because I can rarely afford fruit anymore. I also bought bags of frozen peas and corn. I always buy the one-kilogram bags, but I’ve noticed they’re only 750 grams now even though the price has stayed the same. When did that change?

I’m luckier than a lot of people in my situation: I was a chef for two decades, so I can buy a pork tenderloin and cut that into a week’s worth of chops. Recently I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos on container gardening. I think food costs are only going to get worse, so I’m going to try my hand at planting a garden on my balcony next year. I’d like to grow tomatoes and can them so I can cut down on that cost, as well as strawberries and raspberries, so I can enjoy fruit again. — As told to Isabel B. Slone

This story is part of a series on food insecurity in Canada funded by the Maple Leaf Centre for Food Security, in partnership with Community Food Centres Canada.