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Eating on $26 for a Week to Help End Poverty

Colleen McGuire is the owner of At the Table Nutrition Inc., a nutrition consulting and counselling company out of Vancouver BC.  Since co-writing the Cost of Eating in BC Report in 2011, she has become passionate about food security in BC and the right to good quality food for all. Colleen currently sits on the board of the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House. Feel free to contact her at or on Twitter @every_table.

Doing the Welfare Food Challenge for seven days in October was just that: a challenge. With only $26 for a week’s worth of food, I attempted to eat as close to a healthy, balanced diet as I could.
This is the second year that Raise the Rates has challenged people across BC to live for a week on only the food they could purchase with $26. Why $26? The BC government provides $610 a month in welfare to an able-bodied single person who has to prove they are looking for work. After subtracting rent, a damage deposit, bus fare, a cheap cell phone and personal hygiene products, there is about $109 left for food per month or $1308 per year. This equates to $3.58 per day or $25.09 per week – which is rounded up to $26. There is no allowance for clothes, a coffee, haircuts, or any social life or treats.

My week on the Challenge 
I did not really plan ahead.  The day before the Challenge began, I bought a jar of natural peanut butter, a loaf of whole grain bread, and a dozen eggs. I thought those items might stretch through to the end of the week for a fairly reasonable price. I did have a pear that I had in the house; I added its $0.50 price tag to my total for the week.  I then purchased the rest of my food for the Challenge and found out that $26 does not go far. I was able to get bulk lentils, chickpeas, brown rice, and popcorn, 5 apples, carrots, 2 oranges, 2 onions, 4 bananas, 2 yams, 1 can of sardines, and 1 litre of milk. This was enough for me as someone who is 5’3”, but would not be sufficient for others with different body types.
Food is normally a source of pleasure for me and I enjoy cooking with lots of spices. My eating on the Challenge was quite repetitious – toast with peanut butter and banana, egg sandwiches, some fruit and carrots, and very simple bean or lentil soups with rice, onions, and yams. It is always in the forefront of my mind that many people on social assistance do not have fully functioning kitchens and the knowledge and skills to even make a simple soup, which is probably one of the most economical and healthy ways to eat.
The most difficult part of the Challenge for me was giving up my morning coffee. Instead, I had black tea, which a colleague also taking the challenge told me was about $0.10 per bag (bringing my total for the week to $25.41 including the pear). I woke up on Day 2 with a terrible headache and wondered how people on social assistance would afford the Advil that I took to alleviate the pain. I must confess that I had a cup of coffee that morning.
I stopped taking the vitamins that I usually take, like Vitamin D and Omega-3s. My food choices contained all the food groups, but were very deficient in vegetables. I craved foods that I knew would fill me up: foods that contain high amounts of protein like eggs and peanut butter, and high amounts of fibre like beans, brown rice, and whole grain breads.
I realized that it is impossible to socialize on $26 per week. Any venture out for a coffee or lunch was out of the question. Going anywhere meant coming up with a way to take food with me, something that I could eat in the car before a meeting. I had to catch myself before saying things like: “Let’s meet for coffee or lunch” or “How about a quick dinner.” I found that I was constantly thinking about my next meal.

As I completed the Challenge and met with others who had also spent seven days living on $26 for food, I realized that, for us, it was over and we could go back to our usual eating habits. This is not the case for social assistance recipients, who live with this restrictive budget all of the time. I can only imagine the fatigue and anxiety that would accompany a long-term lack of sufficient nutritious foods, not to mention other negative health effects. Changes need to be made to social assistance rates in order to ensure that all British Columbians have enough nutritious food to eat.
We, as dietitians, can raise awareness at the government level and the community level that changes are needed in terms of our social safety net and in our food systems. Go to the Welfare Food Challenge to learn how you can help by signing the petition, writing to the premier or provincial politicians, or writing to the local media.

Editor's Note:  As we continue with our Welfare Food Challenge series, I'm constantly struck by some of the things we take for granted when we have a larger budget for food.  What sticks out for me are the food skills needed to make a small budget stretch.  What stands out for you?  Please share in the comments.


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