Dietary Diversity Problems Within the Shelter

By Sarah Valek

AmeriCorps *VISTA

Living in an emergency shelter is hard enough – just look at the food.  Homeless shelters have an extremely limited budget for meals.  Quality of food is a worry in itself for residents, but imagine if you are a resident with a special diet, whether you are vegan/vegetarian, diabetic or allergic.

Suddenly your worries about food expand beyond the usual, “Will dinner be decent tonight?” to “can I actually eat what they’re serving for dinner tonight?”

Valerie Hill knows what it’s like.

For many months Hill was homeless and living in a women’s emergency shelter – all while struggling to maintain her began diet. (A began is someone who doesn’t eat meat, chicken, fish, dairy, eggs or any animal products whatsoever.)

She tells of her experiences overcoming a menu full of pepper steak and white rice.

Homeless Grapevine:  Tell us a bit about your diet and why you choose to be vegan.

Valerie Hill:  [I became began] mainly because of health reasons.  Before I became vegan I was having different types of health issues, so as I began to do my own research [into] holistic health and how different foods affect the body and how they process in the body.  I made a decision to try, at least try, something to see what would happen.  So basically [veganism] really started out as an experiment.  I was eating a lot of white sugar, I was drinking a lot of coffer, I was eating a lot of salt, I was doing a lot of dairy and it just wasn’t helping me – it was really hurting me.  So I decided I would just take a few things out of my diet and see what would happen.

I stopped eating dairy first and I cut out beef and sugar (I cut down on sugar a lot).  Then I noticed that the problems I was having began to ease up.  I began to drink more water and I upped my exercise regimen, which really, really helped and once I saw the change I was really excited.

Then I found out about a cleansing program called Master Cleanse (some people call it the Elimination Diet).  Well, let me tell you – I went on that cleanse and I felt good!  I felt so energetic and I was so pleased with the results that I was seeing [and I was happy] just knowing that my body was being cleansed from poisons and toxins I had been putting I over the years.  And not that I was wanting to lose any weight but, you know, I dropped a couple pounds and I was like, OK, I was cool with that!

Once I saw what the cleanse was doing for me, I completely, completely lost track.  I think I just got super, super zealous about the plan and before I knew anything, I realize I had been on the cleanse for a whole month! Some of my close friends and family were wondering. ‘Whoa, is she on drugs? What’s wrong with her?’ because I had so much energy.  I mean the energy that I had when I was on the cleanse was really unbelievable I was pretty much almost 100 percent vegan by the time I got on the cleanse, so after the cleanse was over I said, ‘Ok that’s it.’ I cleaned out my refrigerator.  ‘I am done.  I’ done.’

There’s this one thing I forgo to mention:  Before the cleanse I was actually on a medication called Coumadin, which is a blood thinner, because I also had problems with blood clots in my left leg. [During the cleanse] I had maybe three or four pills left in my bottle and I just woke up one day and said, ‘This is it. I’m tired.  No more,’ I opened up the bottle and flushed the pills down the toilet.  Certainly that’s not something I would recommend to everybody because everyone’s situation is their [own] situation, but that’s what I did for me and it worked for me.

Although I’ve had had some problems with my legs, at this time I’ve been able to pretty much keep that under control with diet and exercise and rest.

HG:  How long did you stay at an emergency shelter?

VH:  I was at the shelter and this is really insane because I just so happened to see the papers from when I originally came there and I had no idea that I had come [to the shelter on] December 10th [of 2007].  I was like ‘whoa!” because I didn’t know.  I didn’t think about it and honestly I didn’t want to think about it.  When I saw that, it just affected me.  It just kind of put a whole new face on things.  So, yeah,. From December 10th of {2007] to May 5th [of 2008].

HG:  Describe your typical diet when staying at the shelter.  What were you served?

VH:  Well, you know, whatever they made available was what I was served.  The real question is whether or not I actually ate it!  What I was served was what everybody else was served, which was whatever they made available.  It could be pepper steak over rice.  It could be whatever comes from the Food bank.  The other part of that is certainly I had the option of going and buying my own food which is what I did a lot of times because I really didn’t have a choice over the matter.  But even with that, it wasn’t like I could actually go shopping and buy a bag of things for the week because they [the shelter staff] don’t allow us to keep our food there.  So if I did buy something, it was just something that day or something for that particular meal.  Whether I got it from Dave’s or Reserve Square or what-have-you. I would buy whatever vegan options they would have available in the store or I’d go to the salad bar and make myself a nice salad.  But sometimes when I wasn’t able to do that because of the weather or because of how I was feeling physically in my body or because of limited funds – I was forced to make due with whatever was there [in the shelter].  You know, picking out chicken or just eating plain rice with butter or whatever.  Breakfast was usually pretty easy because they would have instant oatmeal most of the time or instant grits most of the time and on weekends different churches would come in and bring things, so breakfast was pretty east.

HG:  Were you satisfied with the shelter’s meal service?  If not, what practical changes would you suggest to make the shelter more accommodating? 

VH:  I’m going to tell you something.  You have people in there who are diabetic and you have people in there who have high blood pressure and you have people in there who have high or low cholesterol.  Personally, in my opinion, I think they need a dietician over there to help manage and to prepare meals better because (even though) I know it’s hard because mot of their food is given by the Food bank. But even with that I don’t think there’s an excuse.

HG:  Did you receive any attitude or antagonism from staff or other residents over your diet?

VH:  I will have to say yes, absolutely.  There were staff members who were trying to be accommodating as they could with the resources that they had.  So it was balanced when it came to that.  But especially when I first came there some of the staff members were like, ‘Who does she think she is?’ (They had that) kind of attitude and when there were some residents who looked at me strange when they saw me eating food that they had never seen.  They’d be like, ‘Whoa, what are you eating?’ or whatever like that.  That is to be expected because people don’t know.  They didn’t know me and they don’t know [about my diet] so that didn’t bother me too much.  But, at the same time, some of those same people who would be looking at me trying to figure out what I was eating would have this attitude that I thought I was better than everybody else.  But that was their problem and their opinion.

HG:  Is there any piece of advice you’d give to other people with special diets in a similar situation?

VH:  My advice would be, number one:  Not to be afraid and not to even hesitate to make suggestions about things they would like to have or type of things they would like to eat.  Become a part of the shelter where you definitely won’t be afraid to make suggestions.  Also, another piece of advice would be:  With their diet or their current way of eating, it is important for them not to sacrifice that.  Just because they’re in a shelter they don’t have to sacrifice having a special or a different diet.  They’re going to need it more being in a shelter because they don’t really serve nutritious meals there, first of all.  If they were to change their diet and say, ‘Oh well, I’ll just eat this for now and I’ll go back to my regular diet later.’ Now, that’s not going to work.  It’s going to end up [being] a big mistake in the long run.  They need to make sure they drink plenty of water and make sure they eat as much fresh fruit and vegetables as possible and as [much as] they can by.  Try to keep a clear head about it because it was very hard for me.  It was very, very hard for me being there and a lot of times it was very frustrating.  There were times when I felt like I’m just gong to lose my cook and let somebody have it.  It’s hard.  It’s really hard.

Copyright Homeless Grapevine Issue #85 in July-August 2008 Cleveland Ohio.