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Welfare Food Challenge 2015 – 5 key takeaways from this eye-opening experience [plus bonus video]

A UBC dietetic student shares her thoughts and experiences after completing the fourth annual Welfare Food Challenge.


EYHS.jpgElizabeth Yu is a third year dietetics student studying at the University of British Columbia. She is currently working at a women’s centre in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and is a passionate advocate of improving food security across all populations. Elizabeth enjoys learning about the role of food in people’s lives in the context of different social and economic situations. She participated in the 2015 Welfare Food Challenge in Vancouver, BC. You can find Elizabeth on Instagram @elizabethyu.

  

After hearing about the high number of people in BC experiencing food insecurity, two friends and I decided to reinforce our role as food citizens by participating in the fourth annual Welfare Food Challenge from November 3-9, 2015.

We each had to get through the week with only $21 worth of food.  Moreover, we were not allowed to accept food from friends, charities, events, or food aid initiatives.

By participating in the Welfare Food Challenge, I aspired to learn about and better understand the perspective of someone who is food insecure, especially pertaining to the difficulties they face regularly. I also wanted to help raise public awareness about this important topic, and thereby express an essential point: Being on welfare and being food insecure is not choice.

Although my experience didn't fully reflect the challenges a welfare-reliant individual faces, I wanted to share five things I took away from participating in the 2015 Welfare Food Challenge.

Participating in the challenge:

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  1. Was socially isolating
Before starting the Welfare Food Challenge, food played an integral role in my social life.  The taste of food was a pleasurable experience and I found great pleasure from being able to eat as I pleased.
 
However, the challenge eliminated my enjoyment of food. Eating transformed into a negative experience for me. Going to the grocery store took three times longer as I had to compare prices endlessly. This was then followed by cooking tasteless food and eating for the sake of getting rid of my hunger pangs. I wasn’t even able to enjoy a meal with my family. It was socially isolating. I couldn’t eat what they were having and I didn’t have enough food to share. Even grabbing a coffee with a friend would have cost me 10% of my budget for the week.
  1. Deprived me of sufficient energy and nutrients
I felt fatigued every day. I didn’t have the energy to exercise and I found it extremely difficult to focus on my studies. All I thought about was food. If living on a food budget this limited was a part of my regular life, I would not have been able to get through my daily routine, let alone complete my course work.
  1. Showed me the value of having food skills
It was helpful to cook large batches of food that lasted me about 4-5 meals. However, it is important to note that this required a stove, refrigerator, freezer, and food skills. If I didn’t know how to cook, or have the equipment to do so, preparing food would have been a lot more difficult.

If I didn’t have adequate refrigerated food storage, I would have had to cook each meal individually to prevent food from going bad. This would have taken a lot more time and money and most likely would have resulted in me eating instant or processed energy-dense foods.

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Given my nutrition background, I was able to pick out nutrient-dense foods for a lower cost. I tried to incorporate as many food groups in each meal as possible. For example, I made large batches of chicken soup with vegetables and lentils; a vegetable, lentil and potato curry, which was usually eaten with brown rice; and pasta with tomato sauce and vegetables.

Being able to employ basic food skills enabled me to use as much of the food product as possible to minimize waste. This is an important point, as many of those living on income assistance may not have this knowledge. On a welfare food budget, wasting food could mean going hungry.
  1. Introduced me to the difficulties of rationing food
I was able to portion my food to sustain me throughout all seven days, but it would have become much more difficult to do so if I lived on this budget for a longer period of time. My hunger pangs would have become increasingly worse and continually rationing my food would be difficult and frustrating.
  1. Made me question the status of food in our society
By the end of the challenge, I started to think that access to safe, sufficient, and nutritious food seemed more like a privilege than a human right. This challenge caused me to question if food is recognized as a human right as it should be. I was shocked to find how difficult it was to meet daily nutritional requirements with the $21 weekly budget. It just wasn’t feasible.

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My last 80 cents spent on day six. The tastelessness of my meals made me crave sugar and salt badly.

The Welfare Food Challenge made me reflect on how many people are experiencing food insecurity and how food insecurity affects all aspects of one’s life and wellbeing.

I was fortunate to have the rest of my basic needs met, such as shelter so I could sleep, cook, and maintain proper hygiene. This allowed me to take more time and energy to focus on planning and preparing my meals. If I lacked more than one basic need, my energy and resources would have been spread even thinner.
 
The prevalence of food insecurity in British Columbia is truly astonishing and I hope we can all make food security part of the conversation.  Until people have adequate income and have the choice to choose what to eat, they will be food insecure. What can we, as dietitians, do about this? How often is food security a part of your conversation? Please share your thoughts with me in the comments section below.
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Editor’s note: Congratulations to Elizabeth and her team for taking on this challenge. I know from personal experience that it is not easy! This amazing group also made a heartfelt video of them reflecting on their experience doing the Welfare Food Challenge. You can view it here. For more resources and information on individual and household food insecurity visit this page.

The recently released Food Costing in BC 2015 report states that the average monthly cost of a nutritious food basket for a reference family of four in British Columbia is $974. 

Please leave comments and questions for Elizabeth below. 

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  1. Thanks you Elizabeth for writing about your experience with this challenge. Your experience is relevant and moved me. Your story should be on the national news. It really makes one appreciate the food security issue and how futile some of our counselling is when one is facing the endless daily struggle of inequity. Great work!
  2. Thank you so much for sharing your observations. As a dietitian who works to feed needy children breakfast and lunch at schools, I see families struggle every day with isolation, fatigue, depression, and lack of skills and equipment. These parents know more about budgeting that I ever will. They deserve our support and compassion.
    Dietitians are well educated people, who have generally come from priviledge. Before providing advice to clients, we need confirm that our assumptions about their abilities (such as the financial ability to purchase food) are valid.
  3. Thank you so much for sharing and completing the challenge. I have heard several people not follow through because of the difficulty. With rising costs of healthy foods daily across this country, there is much work to be done to find a more sustainable solution.

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