A 16-package Lipton chicken soup box, three stalks of celery, five bananas, three apples, a loaf of white bread, one small bunch of kale and peanut butter. That was my life for a week.
Our newsroom was notified of the Welfare Food Challenge just before it started on Wednesday, Oct. 16. I stepped up to the plate, challenging the notion that it would even be a challenge. I participated in the 30-hour famine in high school, I was an Italian turned vegetarian for almost 10 years – what would one week of spending a welfare budget of $3.60 a day, or $26 for the week, on food do to me?
Unfortunately, the lack of preparation time to spend the budget wisely was something I felt immediately the next day when my meals lacked a certain variety.
Each day for breakfast I’d have toast with peanut butter, and sometimes with a banana sliced on top, which I called my fancy toast. My snacks were half a piece of celery and half an apple. Then lunch was half a packet of the chicken noodle soup with kale ripped into it. Dinner was the exact same. Dessert, if you can call it that, was toast with peanut butter. Again. I spent about $24 on everything and had $2 left over.
My first worry when I agreed to do this challenge was telling my Italian family.
My favourite reaction from a family member had to be from my uncle who elegantly asked, “If you had to write an experience about doing crack, would you do crack for a week?”
While it’s the equivalent of the old adage, “If Susie jumped off a bridge, would you?” And while I understand the sentiment, last I checked, eating on a welfare pittance for a week is neither illegal nor threatens to kill me or scar me for life.
I expected comments such as, “Well that’s stupid,” to, “you’re going to kill yourself for work,” to, “Really? Really? I’ll make you some pasta.”
My mother’s first reaction was to find a loophole in the system. It doesn’t cost me anything if she makes me dinner, right?
Bill Hopwood, organizer of the challenge, said the point of the week is to explain why the week’s portion for food is only $26. I asked him if it was acceptable to keep pre-made plans to go to a friend’s house for a dinner party, but he noted that it defeats the purpose of trying to survive on almost nothing if I ate at someone’s house all the time.
“Over time, your circle of friends changes – it is sad, but true that many of the people on welfare (disability and unemployed) long term lose many of their former associates, some people do judge,” he said. “Also, if the invite is to a place some distance away you have to either get a bus or SkyTrain ticket there and back.
“This question, in many ways illustrates exactly the difference in life between people on welfare and people who have a living income.”
According to Hopwood, the $26 comes out of the $610 welfare cheque each month. The amount for rent is about $425, then a $20 damage deposit, a book of 10 bus tickets is $21, $25 for a cellphone (for job searches and interviews), $10 for personal hygiene and then $109 for food.
So when they break down the cost of food each day, it was rounded up to $3.60, which is almost $26 a week.
This leaves no additional budget for clothes, coffee, hair cuts, treats or other things you’d find yourself spending money on for your social life.
Registered dietician, Rosie Dhaliwal, who works at Simon Fraser University’s health and counselling services, informed me my diet lacked any dairy, and I was not getting anywhere near the suggested seven to eight servings of fruit and vegetables a day for an adult female.
“The whole point of this activity is to highlight that the cost of eating is an important issue and how it relates to poverty with B.C.’s current situation and lack of poverty action plan,” she said. “I emphasize to clients I work with in the broader community, the importance of cooking from scratch.”
However, Dhaliwal said it’s often hard for people to cook from scratch if they don’t have a cooking facility or access to a kitchen, as people in that lower-income bracket often don’t.
She noted my lack of nutrition and my symptoms deriving from eating high-sodium foods and small portions of healthy food were connected.
“The key piece is when you say you feel tired, you’re feeling paranoid or sensitive – all of these things for people who often have food, it’s hard to make a connection,” she said. “You can’t imagine how bad it is until it happens to you. Even though science tells us our brains are fuelled by glucose, we know that, people who don’t feel the repercussions of this need to be reminded.”
That connection to what someone on an unhealthy diet deals with on a daily basis was precisely the point of this challenge and experience.
She also consoled me by saying that what I was eating this week wouldn’t do any lasting harm to me, which I was temporarily glad about until I thought about the people whose lives I’m mimicking and what their long-term health problems could be.
It’s hard to even begin to appreciate that.
During the week, I was invited to a friend’s house for dinner. My senses started to sharpen and I realized I never truly appreciated the wonderful smells food can have. It’s also fairly embarrassing to bring out a packet of chicken noodles in front of people eating what looked like a glorious beef roast.
On Friday, my co-workers went out for Greek food. Not only did I get the cocked eyebrow when I rejected ordering food from the waitress, but another one when I had to say no to our table’s free dessert.
But my weekend was the worst. When I’m at my desk, my lunch and food are organized. There were no other options, so I didn’t face that same temptation.
By the third day, I was averse to the soup.
I found myself thinking, “How much is a McDonald’s hamburger?” “I can hear my heart beating through my chest,” to “If I have a nervous breakdown at work, at least I can blame my diet.”
I stopped thinking about food. I stopped thinking about how much our city streets are packed to the brim with restaurants, grocery stores, markets and cafes.
I realized it had to stop being about surviving or beating the challenge, but embracing my limitation’s, making the most out of it and truly coming to terms with the fact that many people, including children, live with this challenge for a lot longer than a week.
Since I’ve had a consistent income, I never really stopped to appreciate that I could grab extra snacks for home, some drinks in case someone popped by and I absolutely hate to admit this, but I spent $26 on a dozen peaches at a farmers’ market this summer. Peaches.
They were delicious, but it was definitely a huge splurge.
As the week wound down, my food routine was in the back of my mind. My stomach grew accustomed to the feelings and I’m sure my insides will glow a bright yellow chicken soup hue for awhile.
Many people have a food budget, a limit or maximum as to what they’re willing to or even can spend on food.
Sure, it was uncomfortable for me to live like this for a week. But the bottom line is this is people’s lives and no one should have to choose between food and their health.