2017 Welfare Food Challenge

welfare food challenge graph

**EDIT** Before you read this post, please take a few minutes to read Anita Hauck’s story here which I came across after writing this post. Her story touched me because of her will to help others from her birth to her death. Me and her could have been the same person but an event of rape changed her life forever. At the time of her death, she was a week away from getting into an apartment.

So this year, I decided to sign up for the 2017 Welfare Food Challenge here in Vancouver, BC, one of the most expensive cities to live in in the world. The challenge was to only spend $19 on food for an entire week, which forces participants to place themselves in the shoes of those living on basic welfare. Of course, it wasn’t anywhere near an exact replica of their experiences since I still had my comfortable one bedroom home and car.

“BC has had one of the highest poverty rates in Canada for the last 15 years. There are almost 600,000 people in our province desperately trying to make ends meet and keep their heads above water.”

To be honest, I thought that the challenge was to spend $19 a DAY. Yes, I spend way too much of my pay check on food and the habit is hard to break. Here is the breakdown:

Total welfare (as of 2017) $710
Rent (realistic rent for an SRO)* $548
Room damage deposit $20
Bus fare ($6 compass card, 2.20/trip, or 10 trips at 2.85) (to look for work) $28
Cell phone (to look for work) $25
Personal hygiene/laundry $10
Total of all non-food expenditures $631
What’s left for food   $79

$79/m * 12 months = $948 a year

$948/a year/365 days = ~$2.60 a day

~$2.60 a day * 7 days = $18.2, rounded up to $19

No money for clothes, a coffee, haircuts, or any social life or treats.

By the way, to get assistance, one has to apply and be able to submit their paperwork successfully. It’s also not a guarantee that you will get into low-income housing.

Did I successfully complete the Welfare Food Challenge? No.

But I don’t think the point was to say “I did it!” but to experience living with limitations far different from my own, and then to be able to speak up for those who need more empathy and understanding from the rest of society.

As you may or may not be able to tell, I am very interested in the relationship that we all have with the world and one another. How can we live happily while those who live down the street from us are unable to feed themselves? I am guilty of this. There is no doubt that homelessness and poverty is an issue in my city.

But I’ve always wondered…What can I personally do to help? Is welfare really not enough to help one get their life together? What is the truth? I wanted to become more educated on the topic this year.

One thing is true though: Although the impoverished community in Vancouver troubles me when I think about it, I have never stepped outside of my comfort zone to try to help or understand the situation better.

My intentions for doing this challenge were not entirely selfless. At the same time, I wanted to see how much money I could save by cooking everyday for a week. A lot of my friends who are also in their 20s or even 30s find it difficult to not dine out every day, not just me. We seem to lack an appreciation for our money and food.

Every day, we are bombarded with advertisements of cool new things to either eat or buy and our attention is being directed away from these ‘uncomfortable’ issues such as homelessness and poverty. Of course, would a middle-class young adult rather read a Buzzfeed story about the latest Netflix show or would they want to spend 10 minutes of their time learning about the cold realities of a population that they cannot relate with?

My thoughts on the Welfare Food Challenge:

Since I live with my boyfriend, I convinced him to participate in the challenge with me and we were able to spend $38 on food all together which helped a lot! Here’s what we got (the rotisserie chicken purchased specifically for my boyfriend was not photographed):

We failed the challenge due to several reasons:

  1. We kept receiving free meals from our friends who wanted to help (we justified it by thinking about the food donations that low income families may receive)
  2. We did not have enough time to prepare our meals every day (due to coming home late from work or another activity) and ended up eating out at least 3 times.
  3. We used some ingredients that we already had in our fridge/pantry out of desperation.

So yes, compared to everyone else who completed the challenge according to the rules from Day 1 – 7, we failed miserably! 🙁

However here are my reflections:

  1. I am far more privileged than I thought.
  2. It’s hard to maintain the same social life that we are used to when we are limited to cooking everyday (however it did impose the question of: why don’t we just meet after dinner instead? Or invite them over for some cheap home cooked meal?)
  3. I can no longer leave that last piece of sushi or tempura and let it go to waste. I have begun to take leftovers home, no matter how small the amount is.
  4. We can not eat nutritiously on such a budget – forget bodybuilding or bulking up!
  5. Those with little to no income do not have a car to easily drive to the store with the cheapest deals and then haul it back home. We were lucky we could go anywhere we needed to.
  6. It was stressful having to resist buying food when convenient, and it certainly left me with no room to feel inspired or creative.
  7. I have so much more to learn.
  8. I can’t look away anymore. The situation won’t go away if we just ignore it.

What I know for sure is that poverty is a continuous cycle and it is getting more problematic in Vancouver due to the increase in rent and living costs. BC is the only province that has never had a poverty reduction plan. However it seems like they finally have plans of creating one, and are asking their citizens for their ideas and feedback!

“Many services only provide short-term relief for the downstream symptoms of poverty like hunger but we need long-term solutions that go upstream to fix the root causes of poverty and change the system.”

What will I do now?

I’m going to keep educating myself and keep informed. Just like how I’ve started paying attention to where my food and products come from this year, I know that this experience has already changed the way that I view poverty in BC.

There is also a lot of stigma against people living in poverty. They deserve it. They are lazy. They get a lot of assistance from the government already.

I am also guilty of making assumptions. Growing up, I was told not to give any money to the homeless because they will buy drugs with it. That idea lived in my head all my life. For the first time ever, I looked at a homeless man on the street and felt compelled to buy him a Tim Hortons gift card.

If there was only one homeless person on the street, then we would probably all reach out to help. But it’s just because of the sheer number that we are turning our heads away.

The Food Bank receives a lot of donations but the problem is that a large chunk of the donations have already passed their expiry dates and it adds to the amount of work that the volunteers and workers have to put in to sort it out.

“Every day residents watch police, city workers, and outreach workers descend on homeless people who sleep on the street in tents or under awnings, or simply on the sidewalk. They force the homeless people to wake up and move their shelter and their belongings. If it’s raining, homeless people are forced to move all of their sopping wet stuff and pack it around all day until they set up again at night only to be moved on in the morning.” – Carnegie report

Here are some links that you can check out if you are interested in learning more about poverty in BC and what you can do to take action:

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