The Welfare Food Challenge

By Marjorie MacDonald

Last year about this time, I was at a research team meeting in Richmond that included several academic researchers from various BC universities and representatives from each of the six health authorities. We were discussing the future of our Core Public Health Functions Research Initiative and how we were going to ‘re-vision and re-brand’ it. We also talked about the need to develop a new five year research agenda to build on the cross cutting themes of our current research agenda. One of those themes is “health equity.” Over our discussions, we were enjoying breakfast, coffee with fruit and muffins, and a delicious lunch – all funded by CIHR research grants – that is, by the taxpayers of Canada. I noticed that Ted Bruce was not really eating or drinking the coffee and then at lunch I asked him why he wasn’t eating. He told me that he was doing the welfare food challenge that only allowed him to spend $26 dollars a week on food. I was impressed with his fortitude in the face of such abundance. I wasn’t sure I would be able to resist eating when the food was laid out so beautifully in front of me. It did inspire me, however, and I contemplated doing the same thing the next time the challenge came around. Fortunately, it seemed ages away!

This year, I got the notice about the food challenge when I was reading Stats Canada’s recently released report on the income of Canadians and was surprised to find that I was actually in the top 10% of Canadians in terms of income. Who knew? I never considered myself rich, although I am well aware of my privilege! At least I didn’t make it into the top 1%. Having been raised Catholic, I’m pretty good at guilt, so this realization prompted me out of my cocoon and I resolved to do more than I had been to address the issue of poverty.

The food challenge seemed a good place to start but I was so busy writing another CIHR grant that I forgot to sign up right away.  Ironically, in the proposal, I was citing the poverty statistics in BC – for example, that BC has the highest poverty rate in Canada and that BC’s child poverty rate is tied with Manitoba for being the worst. To add to my discomfort, I know that poverty is a major contributor to the health inequities that I am researching. As President of PHABC, which is a member of the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition (co-chaired by Ted Bruce, past president of PHABC and blogger extrordinaire), I knew that it was time to ‘put my money where my mouth is’ (excuse the pun) and sign up for the challenge. I encourage all PHABC members to do the same. Here is the link – it is not too late – the challenge starts today.

I will be blogging about my experiences in Health Voices so stay tuned!

Marjorie MacDonald is the President, Public Health Association of BC


Government Must Be Accountable for the Costs of Poverty

By Ted Bruce

A report on the rising poverty rate among new immigrants to Canada ran side by side with an article on BC’s version of austerity as the government moves to deal with a declining economic situation.

The report on poverty notes that the failure to address this rising poverty sets up a “tinderbox” of discontent. A similar message has been repeatedly stated by the public health community. There is ample evidence as demonstrated by epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Picket and documented so well in their book The Spirit Level that societies with high levels of economic inequality perform very poorly. And it is clear that the public wants government to address poverty as is shown by the recent polling done by the BC Healthy Living Alliance.

Is government’s “austerity” response the solution? Governments that essentially ignore poverty reduction policies say that they can’t afford them or that policies related to job creation will be the best solution to the problem. The economists can debate this but there is ample evidence that the cost of poverty is greater than the cost of the investments that could alleviate it. The study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (supported by PHABC) provides a startling analysis of the costs of not acting.

But even if politicians believe their austerity and trickle down growth paradigm is correct, they have an obligation to demonstrate that it works. So why not set some timelines and targets as has been called for by public health organizations like PHABC and the Health Officers Council of BC? If our elected officials believe they are building a better society for citizens through their policies, it is not asking too much for them to show us they can reduce poverty. Let’s measure it and report on it. That is not asking for too much.

Ted Bruce is the past-president of the PHABC