I’m starting a new series of posts here on the blog dedicated to issues around food. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about poverty, access to healthy, fresh food, obesity, and waste. These are all issues that we, whether we know it or not, face every single day. And I want to talk about them–they are discussions that need to be had, and possibly we can find some grass-roots solutions to them, as well.
I’m starting this series with an interview I did with Samuel Mickelson, who is currently the Community Initiatives Supervisor for Gordon Neighbourhood House (who, by the way, are trying to lead the way in the community when it comes to food and nutrition). Last year, he took The Welfare Challenge, where he lived on welfare rates for food for one week. Bif Naked is a celebrity who has recently also taken the challenge.
I’ll let him tell you about it, and how it affected him.
RC: What exactly is the Welfare Challenge? How much money for food did you have to live on per day and for the entire week?
SM: The Welfare Food Challenge is an initiative organized by the Raise the Rates Coalition with the aim of stimulating a deeper conversation on poverty, hunger, and the inadequacy of welfare rates in BC. My task was to live on $26 for a whole week. It’s worth noting, however, that challenge-takers this year were tasked with living on $21 (see the Welfare Food Challenge website for an explanation).
I did my main grocery shop at Buy-Low on Main and Kingsway on the Wednesday that marked the beginning of the challenge. That afternoon, I went to No Frills in the West End to spend the rest of my budget on items which I had forgotten about earlier that day but which I knew would be key. These items included bread, eggs, and mint tea (a way to provide me with some comfort during the week). In hindsight, it might have made more sense to save some money for items that came up during the week. But with such a small budget for food, it was difficult to make the decision between spending it all on one grocery shop or dispersing it over the week.
RC: What were you able to buy with your $26 budget?
SM: Here is an overview of what I bought with my budget:
- white rice
- black beans
- can of tomatoes
- butternut squash
RC: What did a typical day’s meals consist of?
SM: Breakfast – an egg and toast
Lunch – pasta or cooked barley
Dinner – same as lunch
RC: How did you feel eating that kind of food? Did it affect your work, relationships, productivity?
SM: It felt completely frustrating and deflating eating this type of food. There was no variety and very little flavour. At work it affected my mood, concentration, and productivity. In my personal life, being on the Challenge made me cancel plans with friends because I could only live on what I bought with $26 and could not accept charity of any kind (i.e. brunch or dinner at a friend’s).
RC: How difficult do you think it is to eat a healthy diet without relying on the food bank if you are on welfare?
SM: It is very difficult, if not impossible. The stipend that someone on welfare receives is simply not enough to support all of their basic needs, including a healthy diet. In my opinion, while food banks are a helpful emergency food relief mechanism, they obfuscate the systemic issues of poverty and low welfare rates that drive hunger. That disconnect between emergency food relief via food banks and the need for systemic changes is what the Welfare Food Challenge aims to address.
RC: Thanks, Sam! For doing the challenge, and for sharing your experience with us.
If you want to know more about the Welfare Challenge, visit their website.
I’ll have a second, follow-up post to this one in the near future, which will go into more depth and detail about these issues.