Could you survive on $18 a week for food? For people who live on welfare this is a reality and an incredible challenge.
Raise the Rates, is a coalition of groups concerned with the level of poverty in British Columbia. They focus on those in the worst poverty: people living on welfare.
According to Raise the Rate, one in 25 British Columbians are on welfare. Of these, 62 per cent are people with disabilities. British Columbia has not raised welfare rates from $610 a month since 2007. When you subtract basic rent ($500 a month), a cellphone, which you need to find work ($25), and other expenses like clothes or laundry soap ($11), that leaves just $76 a month for food.
In recognition of Oct. 16, World Food Day, Raise the Rate runs the Welfare Food Challenge, where people are asked to spend only $18 on food for one week. Brenda and her family are participating this year.
As a family they had $105 for the week. Brenda told me that the hardest thing about the challenge was “the food we bought is heavy on carbs, refined sugar and sodium. It is boring, repetitive and bland. I find that it’s the kids’ snacks that are really getting me. I feel terrible giving them cheap 49-cent noodles for an after school snack and telling them that’s all until dinner.”
For her part, she says “Trying to function in a job while feeling fuzzy is really difficult. I warned colleagues ahead of time about my tendency to get “hangry” and tried to adjust my work load because I knew the impact that this challenge would have on me.”
“Sending children to school with lunches that aren’t quite enough to sustain their high activity levels and learning” weighs heavy on Brenda. “I sent an email out to the teachers prior to the start of the challenge. They have been very supportive. I realize that it must be a significant challenge to have classrooms with hungry kids – it’s hard for the kids to focus, manage their emotions and social situations while hungry.”
“I would definitely encourage other people to try it out. It makes you realize the impact of consuming low-quality food has on your ability to function. That said, I realize that I am a ‘poverty tourist’. We get to go shopping again on Sunday without these financial constraints. I can’t imagine the heavy heart that a mom must have who doesn’t have the choice.”
Another friend who is a dietician on the challenge worked very hard to make food from scratch and she was able to stretch her $18 to make four bowls of chili, 3.5 bowls of soup, three bowls of curry, 13 banana breakfast cookies, 12 scones, 12 muffins and six hardboiled eggs to last her the week. No coffee. That alone makes me think I don’t have the metal for this challenge. But again, I have a choice.
She says, “There is no way to nourish yourself on social assistance. This diet lacks fruits and vegetables, calcium, vitamin D and trace minerals. The large amount of low-cost beans and lentils provide a great amount of fiber and protein. Forcing someone to limit their food intake to this amount does not promote a positive connection to food, health and cooking.” She wondered how she would make it through the week when she goes to bed hungry and wakes up hungry.
“Increasing food prices has the greatest impact on those that are the most vulnerable. The work of food banks, hamper and meal programs is to try to fill that gap between the money that people earn and the money required to live a fulfilled life. We need to focus on closing that gap through increased minimum incomes and reducing barriers to high-quality, nutritious food.”
Consider taking the challenge, and remember that you are choosing to take it; there are over 185,000 people in our province who don’t have that choice. It is their daily reality.
My guess is that you will be convinced to sign a petition asking to raise the basic welfare rate in B.C. Visit welfare food chanllenge.org to find the petition and for more info.
Linda Geggie is the executive director with the Capital Region Food and Agriculture Initiatives Roundtable and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.