London·Sounds of the Season

'It was like I was shutting down': London woman talks about struggle to find healthy food on the street

Sandie Lynn Fletcher lived on the streets of Toronto for 16 years, before moving to London.

Sandie Lynn Fletcher says she's allergic to carrots, whole wheat and lactose

Sandie Lynn Fletcher has come a long way since being homeless in Toronto, but being able to afford healthy food still poses a challenge. (Liny Lamberink/CBC London)

For 16 years, Sandie Lynn Fletcher lived on the streets of Toronto.

It's a tough situation for anyone to be in. But Fletcher, who moved to London and has been in affordable housing for the past four years, faced some added complexities.

"I have quite a few food allergies," she said. 

Carrots, whole wheat and lactose are some of the things the 50-year-old said she has to stay away from, making it particularly difficult to find community meals that would agree with her body.

Fletcher, who also uses an electric wheelchair to get around, said it took more than a year before some of the places in Toronto offering such meals recognized her and began making special exceptions for her dietary restrictions.

"They would ask me ahead of time if I was coming and they would put a portion aside that didn't have carrots in it for me," she explained.

But she couldn't find a meal every day. And when she couldn't, she would panhandle.

"I would go into the space that I was using and ask the store people, tell them I'm only there to get a certain amount of money which would enable me to get some food or coffee or bus tickets, and then after getting a certain amount, I would leave."

As time wore on, Fletcher wore out.

"It was like I was shutting down," she said of her last two years in Toronto. "I just became accustomed to not wanting to fight about my food issues." 

Fletcher stands in front of her pantry, holding one of the many cans of food that she can't eat because of her allergy to carrots. (Liny Lamberink/CBC London)

Eventually, Fletcher said she became anemic and accustomed to feeling hungry. 

"There was a point in time where if I smelled food, I would just throw up. All I could do was drink fluids, like coffee or juice, and I just didn't want to have anything to do with food."

In 2015, she hit her breaking point. Fletcher moved to London for a fresh start, lived in the city's shelters for about four months and was then able to secure affordable housing.

Food is still a struggle in London. But it's less of a struggle than it was before.

Fletcher turns to the food bank during the last two weeks of the month, when Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) funding starts to run thin. She said she'll trade with her friends the food items that she can't eat, for ones she can. 

Food insecurity, by the numbers

One in seven households across the region struggle to put food on the table, according to the Middlesex-London Health Unit.

Linda Stobo, the health unit's manager of chronic disease and tobacco control, said it's not because healthy food is becoming too expensive — but because people's incomes are too low.

"Year after year, what our results show us is that individuals who are on social assistance do not have enough money left over at the end of the month, after they try to account for food and for rent."

The Nutritious Food Basket is a survey tool that measures the cost of basic healthy eating, nutrition recommendations and average food purchasing patterns.

According to the 2019 Nutritious Food Basket Data Results for Middlesex-London, healthy food will cost a single man $308 per month.

If that man is living off Ontario Works, the Middlesex-London Monthly Income and Cost of Living Scenarios for 2019 pegs his monthly income at $825 and his monthly rent at $669.

So if he spends $308 on healthy food, he'd "be in a deficit of $152," said Stobo.

"And that's not factoring in other costs like personal care items, a phone, utilities and any out-of-pocket medical or dental costs an individual will incur."

The same data says a family of four on Ontario Works will have $467 left over after paying for food and rent for a month, while a family of four with a median income will have $5,827. The family with the median income will only need to spend 11 per cent of their income on food, while households with low incomes spend up to 37-per cent of their income on food, said Stobo. 

People will buy cheaper, less nutritious foods in an effort to pay for other expenses when money is tight, she explained. And those poor diets increase the risk of infection, chronic diseases and poor mental health in both children and adults.

"The data tells us that adults who are severely food insecure will cost the health care system 2.5 times more each year than food secure adults."

Part of the solution, according to Stobo, is revisiting the way social assistance rates are set and taking into account the complexities that exist from region to region.

She is also calling on the provincial government not to align its definition of disabilities with definitions from federal government, which she said will limit people's access — particularly those with episodic disabilities — from accessing ODSP.


Sounds of the Season is our month-long campaign in support of the London Food Bank. We're raising money throughout December, with special live broadcasts of both London Morning and Afternoon Drive taking place on Dec. 20. 

Join the conversation and follow along throughout Sounds of the Season in the month of December by tagging @cbclondon.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Liny Lamberink

Reporter/Editor

Liny Lamberink is a reporter for CBC North. She moved to Yellowknife in March 2021, after working as a reporter and newscaster in Ontario for five years. She can be reached at liny.lamberink@cbc.ca

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