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An Experience to be Remembered: The Welfare Food Challenge

Melissa Baker, RD works as a clinical dietitan for the Fraser Health Authority and as a nutrition consultant for Choices Markets. She pursued dietetics because the profession encompasses many things she is passionate about and values: food, nutrition, teaching, evidence-based practice, life long learning and opportunities for research, leadership and interdisciplinary team work. Outside of work she loves to cook/bake, do yoga, hike, run, volunteer and socialize. Visit her website or connect on Facebook, Linkedn, twitter and at melissabaker@outlook.com. 

  
Spending only $26 for a week’s worth of food. Sound do-able? How much do you currently spend?

The Annual Welfare Food Challenge
The 2nd Annual Welfare Food Challenge took place in BC starting on World Food Day, October 16th 2013. Challenge takers from across the province agreed to live on a welfare food budget of $26 for 1 week. This is the amount of money a single able-bodied person on welfare has for food – every week.

Considering I spend most of my day talking, educating, or thinking about food this challenge definitely hit close to home. I interact with many food insecure patients on an almost daily basis. I have tried to understand what it’s like but I think it is hard to fully understand until you have to deal with it yourself. So, I volunteered to eat on a welfare food budget for 1 week to bring attention to the challenges and barriers faced by people struggling to live this way every day. The most recent Cost of Eating Report, which has been published annually by Dietitians of Canada for over a decade, shows that over twice that amount is needed to purchase food for a healthy diet.

Individual and household food insecurity is a serious public health concern, with profound health effects such as poor pregnancy outcomes, poor growth and development in children, learning deficits, poor school performance, and profound stress. At least 11% of the population, and over 15% of children, in BC are food insecure.

Why $26?
The BC government provides $610 a month in welfare to an able bodied, single person (with ID) who has to prove they are looking for work.
 
Total welfare $610
Rent (realistic cost of an SRO –Single Room Occupancy) $425
Damage deposit $20
Book of 10 bus tickets (to look for work) $21
Cell phone (to look for work) $25
Personal hygiene/laundry $10
What’s left for food $109
 
$109/m * 12 months = $1308 a year
$1308/a year /365 days = $3.58 a day
$3.58 a day * 7 days = $25.09, rounded up to $26
No money for clothes, a coffee, haircuts, or a social life!

Pre-Challenge Prep
  1. I created an excel spread sheet to sort out my food budget and planned a tentative (hopefully nutritious) grocery list (unrealistic for most people).
  2. Trekked to the grocery store armed with an eye for sales and measuring cups (for the bulk section – I definitely got some weird looks).
  3. I, luckily, found some good deals: a 5 lb bag of carrots for $1.58, 3 lbs of onions for $0.97 and 750g yogurt for $1.67. I ended up with a bit more than I expected for $15.58.
Sadly, meat, fish and cheese were out of the question. I also couldn’t afford nuts. My fruit was limited to bananas and two apples (on sale). No berries or greens would fit into my budget and most vegetables (besides squash, carrots, cabbage and onions) were too expensive. I couldn’t afford butter either. Most yogurts were also too expensive. Condiments were clearly unaffordable. This is definitely a very limited and bland diet!

Typical Day
B = rolled oats, small amount of milk, 1 large banana, cinnamon, peanut butter
L = 2 slices of toast, 2 eggs, carrot sticks, cabbage
D = sautéed onion, barley, lentils, roasted squash
Snack = air-popped popcorn

Missing nutrients: Potassium, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin E and iron (among others). Eating this diet over a long period of time could result in an increased risk of osteoporosis, anemia, rickets (in children), osteomalacia, muscle spasms, and an impaired immune response, just to name a few.

The social aspect of this way of eating was definitely the most challenging for me. My social life usually revolves around food. Making meals with family and friends, as well as going out to try new restaurants are very frequent events.

The lack of variety and flavor in my meals made me eat to avoid being hungry (or hangry as I call it), not because I was excited about it or enjoyed the food. When I went to bed at night I would think about what I had left to eat for the next day and meticulously plan it out in my head. I ended up thinking about food even more than usual.

It’s interesting how my food preparation changed as well. I have never been so careful peeling a hard-boiled egg, I stopped peeling my carrots and I definitely scraped the pots and pans clean. I was also a lot less motivated to keep up my exercise routine as I did not want to burn extra calories. Actively looking for employment (as someone on this budget would be) would have been extremely challenging, especially considering the amount of time and thought I put into managing my food budget.

Conclusion

At the end of the challenge many of the participants attended a wrap up session. This was a very memorable event. We all shared our stories, tips and struggles. We were also privileged to hear from people in the community currently living on welfare.

The amount of time spent to ensure they had enough to eat (let alone healthy food to eat) was astonishing. One man told a story of walking over 30km in a day to get meals. We also talked about how many of us challenge takers had good cooking skills and fully functioning kitchens, which made food preparation a lot easier. Sadly, this is not the case for most living on welfare.

This was definitely a memorable week. I hope to see an increased awareness on this issue and change in the future. I think it is an especially worthwhile experience for dietitians working with food insecure populations. I encourage other RD’s to try it for themselves and become another voice for change! 

Read more of Melissa's Food Challenge Blog posts here on her website.
 

Editor's Note: This post concludes our Welfare Food Challenge series.  I welcome your thoughts on Melissa's story and the whole challenge experience.
 

  1. I wonder if Christie Clark took part in the challenge. She seems to think that the people on welfare and disability are getting far too much money as it is. There has not been an increase in eight years. Her excuse is that there is not enough money in the budget to increase welfare rates. There seems to be enough money to increase her salary and the government workers though.
  2. Good Job, Melissa! It's amazing what we take for granted! I did a similar challenge and at the end of it, I felt a bit guilty because my week was over, while millions of people are still trying to live and eat on too little income.
    If you are looking to live below the international poverty line, you may want to consider doing the "Live below the line" challenge, where you get a chance to live like 1200 million (no typo!) who try survive on a a pittance. Hint you get to eat for $1.75 per day for five days.
    Once again, congratulations on taking up this challenge; it's a great way to experience what it's REALLY LIKE...
    Gilles Cloutier, RD
    Gatineau, QC
  3. @Julie - If you live in Ontario, EatRight Ontario has a number of recipe cards that were developed after consultation with food banks that you could order for free. You can see some examples on this page: http://ow.ly/ufUsb

    The Canadian Public Health Association also recently revised The Basic Shelf Cookbook: http://ow.ly/ufUN9
  4. The local food bank wants me to generate some recipes and ideas of what to do with some of the unusual vegetables and tinned goods they are often distributing. Does anyone know of any resources already available in this area?

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