Welfare Food Challenge

What eating on $18 a week felt like


Last week I took part in the Welfare Food Challenge.

The Challenge asks participants to spend only $18 on food for a week (the same amount a person on social assistance would have once other necessities had been paid for). A group called Raise The Rates created this challenge to spotlight the fact that the current social assistance rate of $610 a month – unchanged since 2007–is unacceptable and unsustainable.

I began this challenge with a strong awareness of how previous years’ participants found this experience to be deeply emotional (you can read about why I decided to do the Welfare Food Challenge, here). What I didn’t realize until I participated in the challenge myself is just how quickly a myriad of emotions would kick in. These feelings included:

  • Anger: when my only options were dollar store canned tomatoes in my pasta or as a starchy supplement in my vegetable-and-meat-bereft soup dinner. And more anger when my options to ensure that I had enough ‘quantity’ of food meant that my week was overflowing with white-flour carbs, and void of nutrition.
  • Alienation: anytime friends wanted to grab a coffee, or go for dinner, I’d have to pass.
  • Embarrassment: I worried whether fellow shoppers would judge me for the unhealthy items in my basket.
  • Astonishment: discovering just how quickly an absence of nutrition affected my body. By day five I was exhausted, depressed and had to leave work early due to a blinding migraine.
  • More anger: hearing people speak openly with heavy judgment regarding people living on social assistance. The stigma is very much alive and thriving.

When planning my shopping, I knew that repetition was the only way to make this $18 budget happen. Oatmeal each morning. Peanut butter and banana sandwich every lunch. Pasta each night. Didactically, I knew I’d be ‘bored’ of the food, but could never have predicted how quickly this absence of protein, fruit and veggies would take a toll on my mental and physical health.

Lindsay Bissett, a Vancity Talent Specialist, strongly identifies with this toll having just completed her second Challenge.  “What surprised me the most is that it was just five days into it that it all broke for me, when I experienced both mental and physical changes. I felt like I couldn’t focus because I was thinking about food all the time. I was distracted and moody. There wasn’t much nutritional benefit, so food wasn’t going to make me feel strong or prepared to take on the day. When people ask me about my experience I tell them ‘you can’t beat it. You’ll be hungry, you’ll be crabby’. There is no beating it, and that is why the [Social Assistance] rates have to change.”

One of the teachings that echoed the strongest in Bissett’s ears also resonates deeply with me. “I’ll never forget what one of the women from Raise The Rates said,” recalls Bissett. She said “you’ll have to choose between being healthy and being full,’ and I always remembered that.”

In other words, there is NO level playing field when people are nutritionally deprived.

Whether you participated in the Welfare Food Challenge or not, you can still help to create change:

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