Activists protest `diet' cut
ROB FERGUSON AND ROBERT BENZIE
That's why she went to Queen's Park yesterday for a free lunch and a doctor's note — which could garner her and her baby up to $250 more a month each for food — at the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty's "hunger clinic."
The clinic was aimed at getting 1,000 welfare recipients signed up for the provincial government's diet allowance, designed to help people whose medical conditions create nutritional challenges on tight budgets.
"I've been feeling dizzy and the dietitian says it's because I'm not eating healthy," said Bowen, as she lined up with hundreds of others, some in wheelchairs, others pushing baby strollers.
"With the extra money I'd be able to buy vitamins and fruit."
But it will soon become tougher for people without specific medical conditions such as cancer, hypertension, pregnancy, diabetes or HIV and AIDS to get the diet allowance.
Social Services Minister Sandra Pupatello said the government is moving quickly to close a loophole being exploited by "rogue advocates" like OCAP, whose officials acknowledged they have held 20 such clinics since February. Some 10,000 people currently receive monthly diet allowances.
"Our hope is that we'll put the government in the position where they're forced to raise welfare rates and grant this special diet money to everybody on assistance without needing to prove that you need food for your family," said clinic organizer Rachel Huot.
Application forms for the allowance, which must be signed by a doctor or another health professional, are being revised to include more precise medical criteria, Pupatello said.
Currently, doctors are simply required to outline a medical condition requiring a special diet, which Pupatello said is leading to "abuse" of the allowance for which spending has doubled every year in the last five years.
`There's actually a campaign out there to misuse the intent of such special diet allowances.'
Sandra Pupatello, social services minister
She said some doctors have been threatened by patients demanding they sign the diet forms, a growing problem that a source at the Ontario Medical Association confirmed.
"We didn't see any abuse of it in the past," Pupatello said in an interview.
"When we understand that there's actually a campaign out there to misuse the intent of such special diet allowances, we have a problem with this because the system has to have integrity."
Several people at the hunger clinic said they've had difficulty getting their physicians to complete and sign the diet allowance application forms.
"My doctor of 15 years refused," said Patricia Messam, who is raising three children on $934 a month in welfare and relies heavily on a food bank.
Other doctors are happy to sign.
"The premise of the clinic today is that poverty is a medical condition and helping people to access adequate funds to afford a nutritious diet is a medical intervention," said Dr. Melissa Melnitzer, a Toronto family physician helping out at the clinic yesterday.
"Some of the diets are for calcium-rich foods, which, for example, helps to prevent osteoporosis (and) iron-rich foods — many people, who are poor, certainly have anaemia or are low in iron."
Diets that aren't nutritious can lead to growth and development problems in children and low immunity to diseases as simple as the flu, requiring more educational help and medical care, said Joan Lesmond of the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario.
That's why more people on social assistance need the extra money, she added.
"In the long run it's going to be more cost effective for the government because people won't get as sick."