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Saturday, November 17, 2012

Feature: Welfare Food Challenge

Food plays a crucial role in people's lives -- it does more than simply sustain health and life -- but, as many of us gather together with family and friends over the holidays to eat and celebrate, for others, the ability to simply secure enough food is not certain.

Low-income Canadians are less likely to get the proper nutrition required for good health. For people receiving welfare, getting enough food week by week is a regular challenge they face.

An able-bodied single person in B.C. receives $610 per month in income assistance. After rent, transportation, and other monthly expenditures, that leaves $109 for food. That's about $26 left for food per week!

Total welfare $610
Rent (realistic cost of an SRO) $425
Damage deposit $20
Book of 10 bus tickets (to look for work) $21
Cell phone (to look for work) $25
Personal hygiene/laundry $10
Food $109
Source: Welfare Food Challenge

Last month, from October 16 to October 22, over 100 people participated in the Welfare Food Challenge, organized by anti-poverty group Raise the Rates. During this week, participants ate only the food they could buy with the $26 food stipend. No accessing food banks or free meals through charities or friends, eating food they already had, or eating food they had grown.

The goal of the Challenge was to highlight the low welfare rates people on income assistance must live on.

What can you get for $26?

Raise the Rates spokesperson Bill Hopwood noted that the $26 did not go very far, nor did it provide money for things like spices to lend the food some flavour.

Gerry Kasten, a registered dietician and former cook, reported that his diet over the week fell short of Canada Food Guide recommendations -- by 17 servings of vegetables and fruits, 17 servings of dairy, and one serving of meat and/or meat alternatives. It was also short on micronutrients such as iron, calcium, zinc, B vitamins, and vitamin C.

Celebrity chef Karen Barnaby, in support of the Challenge, presented a sampling of low-cost meals in the Downtown Eastside during the week. Barnaby bought what she believe to be a week's worth of ingredients, barely breaching the $26; however, she soon realized that the ground rice-based meal plan she constructed would only provide enough food for five days.

Other participants recounted the feelings of stress that began to set in as the week went on, spurred by concerns that food would run out before the Challenge ended. Halfway through, some participants were already running out of money.

While the stress that participants encountered was temporary, the chronic stress that low-income people can experience given stretched food budgets and poor nutrition has short- and long-term physiological and psychological effects, such as weight loss, difficulty maintaining weight, and feelings of anxiety due to lack of control over their access to food.

So, how does the stipend of $109 fare? Not very well, it turns out. The Dietitians of Canada 2011 "The Cost of Eating in British Columbia" report put the monthly cost of a healthy diet for a single man on disability assistance at a starting cost of $322.

What is food poverty?

Low-income Canadians are much more likely to report poor health than people with higher incomes and further experience higher rates of chronic disease and a greater risk of premature death.

Food poverty refers to the inability to access sufficient amounts of health food needed for survival. While food banks and meal kitchens can help offset a lack of food, these social supports remain inadequate and were never intended to be long-term solutions to hunger.

In more remote parts of the province, food and nutritional assistance is often less reaer dily available.

The impact of not getting enough food transcends nutrition. Stress about running out of food and the lack of control over access to food also have a toll.

The problem with current welfare rates is that they have not kept pace with inflation and the rising costs of living. The last increase to provincial income assistance amounts was back in 2007.

Raise the Rates is hoping that the recent Welfare Food Challenge will spotlight the issues of food poverty and insecurity faced by low-income Canadians and specifically by welfare recipients. It wants the provincial government to increase welfare rates immediately, end the five-week wait for welfare, end the 100% clawbacks of earnings and child support from welfare recipients, and increase the minimum wage to $12 per hour.

Want to know more about the Welfare Food Challenge? Visit their website: http://welfarefoodchallenge.org/

For more information, visit the below websites and related articles:

Raise the Rates
MLA Welfare Challenge
Dietitians of Canada, "The Cost of Eating in British Columbia"

The Province, "Welfare food challenge"
Metro, "Welfare Food Challenge ends - for some"
The Vancouver Courier, "Welfare Food Challenge participants hungry and stressed"
The Vancouver Sun, "Vancouver Sun food columnist gets creative with low-cost cuisine"
Georgia Straight, "Impacts of food poverty highlighted by B.C. welfare challenge participants"
The Vancouver Sun, "Dozens step up for Welfare Food Challenge"
The Province, "Eating on just $26 a week proves challenging"

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