I’ve worked hard my whole life and I can’t afford food

“You shouldn’t have to choose between paying rent or eating dinner, but that’s the choice we face”

Goldie Wallensky
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(Photography by Claudine Baltazar)

(Photography by Claudine Baltazar)

In 1975, at the age of 21, I moved from California to North York. My parents had grown up in Toronto and wanted me to experience the city too. I took some advertising and business courses at Seneca College, but never graduated with a degree or diploma. I had a few jobs over the years, mostly in sales: I worked in cosmetic sales at the Bay, wrote call scripts for telemarketing companies and did fundraising for not-for-profits. I never made a lot of money—my savings always hovered around $2,000. 

The cost of living was much cheaper back then so I never had to worry about finding affordable food or housing. My first apartment, in 1990, was a one-bedroom in North York that I rented for just $300 a month. My next place, in 1993, was a $700 two-bedroom that I shared with a friend. On the weekends, I took out a $20 bill from the ATM, which covered both groceries and entertainment. I could buy bread, cheese, bologna slices and pasta all for $10, with a lot left over to hang out at the local bar. 

In 2009, at the age of 55, I moved into a rent-controlled condo in North York, at Marlee and Eglinton. The rent was $900 a month, and I split the cost with my partner, who is an independent filmmaker. We were lucky to find such an affordable living situation—market rent at the time was $1,100. I was working in sales for a vitamin company, earning minimum wage and bringing home $400 a week; my partner was earning about $1,000 a month. 

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At 58, I was diagnosed with osteoporosis, high blood pressure and a thyroid condition. My doctor told me to think about slowing down and I retired in 2012. I didn’t have much money to fall back on, with no savings and only $3,000 in my chequing account, but I figured I could pick up some part-time work if I needed to. I looked for office jobs—telemarketing, customer service, filing—but I couldn’t find anything. So, I went on welfare for about six years, bringing in around $345 a month. Nowadays, at 69, I receive $1,700 a month from government assistance, $232 from the Canada pension and $1,500 from old-age security. My partner, brings in about $1,200 a month. We still can’t afford to buy food. 

I live right across from an Urban Fresh, but it’s too expensive for me. Instead, once a month, I go to No Frills or FreshCo, which are relatively cheap. I buy vegetables to make a big salad—lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, red peppers. That lasts me about a week. That’s what I usually eat, because I can’t afford to buy other groceries. Sometimes I’ll splurge and buy almond milk (it helps wth my osteoporosis), pita bread and cheese slices, or fresh fruit, like apples and strawberries, if they’re on sale. It all costs about $60—the maximum we can afford to spend on groceries. The rest of our income covers our phone and internet bills and the fare for public transit, which we use to travel to community food programs and food banks around the city. 

We go to food programs about six times a week—in North York at a food truck run by Ve’ahavta, a Jewish non-profit; in midtown at St. Clement’s Church; and downtown at Toronto Lawyers Feed the Hungry. They serve lasagna, salads, rice, meatballs and tuna sandwiches—meals that I can’t afford to make at home. From the North York Harvest food bank, where we go twice a month, I can get Campbell’s soup, zucchini, Kraft macaroni and eggs, which I wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise. If I didn’t have access to these programs, I would starve. But I worry whether I’m getting all the nutrients I need, especially with my osteoporosis.

We spend our free time talking to the people we meet at these food programs. It’s nice to stay connected to our community and socialize with others. At the same time, it’s frustrating to realize that I’ve worked hard my whole life and still can’t afford to buy food. 

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We don’t have much housing security either. Our rent has risen to $1,100 a month, which my partner and I split. Our landlord is in his 70s. He could sell our unit at any moment—there’s no protection or guarantees. I’m only 69, mobile and otherwise healthy. But what will happen as I get older and need care? This month, I only have $1,500 in my savings account—and I haven’t even paid my rent. If we want to treat ourselves, we’ll go to Tim Hortons and get a doughnut. There are no fancy dinners or trips. I try to stay positive amid everything. I volunteer with community programs that help students and new immigrants. I make collage art. I write stories about my life. 

Food banks aren’t the answer—the government needs to do more to help feed people. We need affordable supermarkets with affordable groceries, where people pay what they can. There should be more affordable land, where people can grow their own food gardens, as a way to save money and become self-sustainable. You shouldn’t have to choose between paying rent and eating dinner, but with rising rental costs and unaffordable food pricing, that’s the choice we face. 

—As told to Mathew Silver