Welfare Food Challenge Ends

After a week of eating a poverty diet, only spending the $26 that a single person on welfare has for food, the people who took the Welfare Food Challenge can return to their usual life.

Most feel changed and now they have a much better understanding of life in poverty and an appreciation of food and its costs.

Bill Hopwood (Raise the Rates organizer), Chair, stated his thanks to the 130 or so people who took the Challenge. He said “Raise the Rates invited the people of BC to take the Welfare Food Challenge. Unfortunately no MLAs stepped up – I guess they know they can’t have a healthy diet on the money they decide that other people should live on – they wouldn’t walk in the shoes they make other people wear. But we have been overwhelmed by the response from across the province with families, school and university students, people in work and seniors who all stepped up to eat a poverty diet for a week. Of course there are the 177,000 people on welfare and the over 500,000 people in poverty who do this every week.”

Constance Barnes (Commissioner, Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation) outlined that, “I was always thinking about food. I couldn’t ride my bike everywhere as I usually do because of a lack of food and energy. But I was lucky, I could take a bus while a person on welfare couldn’t afford that and would just have to walk and suffer. I became bad tempered. It is scandal that the government has kept welfare is so low and keeps people in misery; we need a real increase in welfare.”

Fraser Stuart (Raise the Rates activist living on welfare) said, “I am grateful to the people who took the Challenge as they voluntarily lived on a poverty diet for week to shine a light on the terrible poverty of being on welfare. I have to do this every week and it is a constant struggle; on welfare you are always looking for free food – even in dumpsters. I know it is damaging my health. No one chooses to live on welfare; people are on welfare because of personal tragedies.”

Gerry Kasten (Registered Dietitian) stated, “I am a food expert. I have trained for years on cooking and on diet. There is myth that if only people in poverty were more sensible with their money they would be fine, but even with all my expertise I could not eat a healthy and filling diet. In one week I was short 17 servings of vegetables and fruit, and 17 servings of dairy products. I was short on many nutrients including vitamins, zinc and iron. We know that iron shortages can damage children’s development for the rest of their lives. There is not enough money on welfare for a healthy life. We need to raise welfare and the minimum wage so people can eat a basic healthy diet.”

Ted Bruce (Executive Director of Population Health with Vancouver Coastal Health) said, “Poverty and poor diet is bad for health; it cause higher levels of diabetes and more frequent and longer hospital stays. The health system pays the cost of poverty. Even in one week I could feel the difference. I was constantly worrying about food with not enough to eat and not enough quality or nutrients. Stress is a pathway to chronic ill-health and someone in poverty is under constant stress. They worry about hunger and a lack of control over one of the basics of life – food. The system that allows this poverty to needlessly continue is failing people.”

Victoria Bull, (Parents and Grandparents in Poverty) shared her experiences. “I am a grandparent raising my grandchild on welfare. Food is a constant struggle and worry; I try to do my best but it is very hard on welfare. I have $178 a month for food, clothing and other expenses for the two of us, which is less than the people who took this Challenge. We need the government to take action. Parents and Grandparents in Poverty have written to the Premier, Christy Clark, saying we want a meeting. The Premier talks about families first and we want action so that parents are no longer forced to raise 137,000 children in poverty in BC.”

Jean Swanson (Chair of Raise the Rates) said that, “People are suffering in poverty; there are not enough jobs to go around. People who are left behind are forced onto welfare, many with disabilities, from minorities and women. To survive they are forced in dangerous and possibly self-harming situations such as sex work, or dumpster diving. Due to the low levels of welfare many are forced to rely on charities for survival. Poverty costs the province of BC more than it would to end it. Welfare hasn’t been raised in 5 years, we need action to raise welfare and end poverty in the rich province of BC.”

Karen Barnaby (Chef) couldn’t take the Challenge because tasting food is part of her job. Instead, she prepared a week’s worth of food with $26 so people would have a visual and visceral experience of what it actually looked and tasted like. She said that: There were gut-wrenching choices to make. If I bought an apple, that would mean less protein. If I bought a package of 20 teabags for 89 cents, that would mean no broccoli. I didn’t buy any oil or seasonings except salt, choosing to spend the money on food. There are many people who have to make these choices, daily. And when you have to make these choices – that so many of us take for granted – it’s very hard to find peace or joy in your life.

Bill Hopwood in closing pointed out that, “Several people stopped taking the Challenge because they couldn’t do it, they had run out of food or were so bad tempered they couldn’t function. Raise the Rates allowed people that choice, which is more than can be said for government policy. Many people in BC cannot access food banks – which were set up 30 years ago as a temporary measure, 30 years is not temporary, it is nearly half a lifetime. The government should not rely on charity to keep people alive. It would save money to end poverty. It is time for government to take seriously its responsibility to the people of BC.”

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