Welfare Food Challenge Days 3 and 4

By Marjorie MacDonald

I did not get the opportunity to blog this weekend because I have been sick. The only good thing about that was that I wasn’t hungry, which made it a bit easier to cope. On Friday, however (Day 3), I thought a lot about how challenging it is to eat a healthy diet on such a low income. Although I have been able to include some fruits and vegetables, the most nutritious foods are out of my price range. There is no way to eat “organic” and if you want to eat meat, forget about buying meat that comes from animals not raised with hormones and antibiotics – you pay a premium for that.  Meat, in fact, is a luxury that would be pretty difficult to afford on a daily basis.  If you have any kind of health problem, it actually does become impossible to eat appropriately. Cheaper foods are often calorie dense, with low fibre and nutrients. Anyone living in poverty with a chronic condition, like diabetes, is going to be at very high risk for adverse health consequences. No wonder the illness and death rates are so high among the poor.

On Saturday afternoon, I dragged myself out of my sick bed to make some bean soup for dinner, thinking it would be a good nutritious meal that I could eat for several days. Variety on $26.00 a week? Forget it. My soup included mixed beans, water, two Oxo cubes, onions and carrots, and on preliminary tasting, was quite delicious. The Oxo cubes I used were pretty high in salt content so not so great for my high blood pressure, but did contribute to the good taste. Being sick, I laid down to rest while waiting for it to cook. This was a big mistake because I promptly fell asleep, waking up to the odor of something burning. OMG – it was the soup! And yes, it was badly scorched. I managed to scoop off the top layer of the soup and put it into another pot. It was heartbreaking to have to throw out about half the soup.  What was left tasted scorched. There was no longer enough to last for 3 or 4 days, but I could still get about 2 meals out of it. This kind of an event for those who are not poor might be annoying and frustrating, but for a person living in poverty, this would be a disaster that could mean hunger for the rest of the week.  For me, I can look forward to Wednesday when this food challenge will end, but there is no end in sight for those living on social assistance.

– Learn more about Rasie the Rates’ Welfare Food Challenge and how you can get involved in raising public awareness about the inadequacy of welfare rates and the costs of poverty in British Columbia.

BC Poverty Reduction Coalition: http://bcpovertyreduction.ca/

Welfare Food Challenge: http://welfarefoodchallenge.org/

Marjorie’s Welfare Food Challenge – Day 2

By Marjorie MacDonald

Keen to stay on track today, I started the day with a shopping trip – choosing the grocery store that I know is generally cheaper (but the vegetables are not as nice) than the others. I bought some mixed beans and oxo cubes to make soup, a small bag of black beans, a small bag of brown rice, a bag of mottled apples on the discount shelf, two onions, a bunch of spinach, a small bag of skim milk powder, a loaf of whole wheat bread (the cheap kind), a dozen eggs (not free range, free run, or Omega 3) and the most inexpensive small bag of ground coffee I could find. I wistfully passed over the fair trade coffee beans I might otherwise purchase. As I walked to the checkout, I saw a bunch of bananas on sale and got very excited that I had just enough money left to buy them.

If I had children to feed I would likely not have purchased coffee at all – it would be an unjustifiable expense. The sacrifices necessary of parents on welfare are a stark reality when there is only $26.00 in your pocket. It also immediately became clear to me that people on welfare do not have the opportunity to take advantage of the benefits of bulk purchasing to get the better prices.  Small bags of beans and rice cost more per unit than large bags that will feed more mouths and last longer, but buying the large bag uses up too much of the food allowance. I can see this becoming a vicious cycle and never allowing one to get even just a wee bit ahead.  You have to have money to save money!

Yesterday, I was consumed with sorting out the details of how I was going to engage in this challenge, so I did not have much time to confront and consider the meaning of this experience or why I was actually doing this.  Today, with the details taken care of, I had time to think about all of this and to confront some of the emotions that were just below the surface yesterday. I was reminded of something I had not thought about in many years – my own childhood growing up in a family of 8 children. We did not often go hungry, but the cost of food was an issue for my parents, at least when I was quite young (later their financial situation improved greatly). But then, we drank powdered milk, ate primarily hamburger for meat (or fish sticks on Friday), sometimes had a “bologna roast,” and rarely had fresh vegetables.

There was almost never enough for seconds, but when there was, the first one to finish got the seconds, so I learned to eat fast and that unhealthy habit remains with me today.  My mother had to intervene to make sure that everyone had a turn for seconds over the course of a week. What dawned on me suddenly yesterday was something I had never realized or considered as a child. You will probably wonder about my intelligence level that I didn’t realize what was going on, but my mother sometimes said – when we told her to sit down and eat was – “No, you go ahead, I’m not hungry. I ate something awhile ago.” And we would jump in and eat her share.  She was sacrificing her food so that we would have more and I was completely oblivious to this. Of course, I forgot all about it when I got older and we became more financially secure. She never discussed this with us even as adults.


Join Dr. Marjorie MacDonald, from October 16th – 23rd, as she spends a week on the Welfare Food Challenge.

But I know that this is a common experience for those living in poverty.  No one should have to sacrifice their own food and health to feed their children.  Please do your part and lobby your MLA to “Raise the Rates”.  While you are lobbying your MLA, also encourage them to support a poverty reduction plan.  To get started, visit the Poverty Reduction Coalition’s ‘Meet your MLA and Ask Them’ online resource.

Marjorie’s Welfare Food Challenge – Day 1

By Marjorie MacDonald

Because I had forgotten to sign up for the challenge in advance I did not do any real preparation. This was a huge mistake.  I had not looked to see whether there were any guidelines for participants before starting. Thus, I struggled through the first day trying to figure out what I was allowed to do. I had a lot of questions like:

  1. Could I eat the food I already had in the house? I thought – probably not, but what else was I going to do since I was not prepared?   However, I was pretty sure my organic steel cut oats might be a bit too expensive.  Some cheaper no-name oats out of the bulk bin would likely be a safer choice. Put that on the shopping list.
  2. Was I allowed to put food I had purchased (e.g. stale bagels I bought on sale) into the freezer to keep them from getting any staler? Someone living on welfare in a SRO would not likely have a freezer.  Hmmm. Check with Ted on that one.
  3. Could I eat food that I had been given? For breakfast I did toast a stale bagel, no butter. I used some homemade jam that someone gave me. I had a vague feeling that was probably not OK, but hey, it was free wasn’t it? Note to self – find out if someone has written any guidelines for this.  I felt Ok about using my toaster (versus the freezer) because my husband bought it for $2.00 at a thrift store about 10 years ago. I had considered putting a skiff of cream cheese on the bagel (surely that small amount wouldn’t cost much?). I discovered, however, a bit of mold on the cream cheese.  Big dilemma. Should I just scrape off the mold and keep using it because I couldn’t afford to throw it out, or use my public health knowledge about food safety and get rid of it. I’m pretty sure that if I was living on welfare I knew what the answer would be – scrape it off! I got rid of it.
  4. How the heck was I going to manage without my coffee? I knew for sure that my gourmet beans freshly ground in my coffee grinder would be a bit out of my price range this week. But, there was no way I could face a day on $3.50 cents worth of food without my caffeine. I had one cup. Guilt trip – cheating already on my first meal of the day!

These were just some of the many questions that I obsessed about all day.  It took me quite awhile in the morning to calculate the cost of everything for my lunch, which consisted of a hardboiled egg (about 40 cents), some carrot sticks (about 10 cents – bag of carrots $2.99, with 30 carrots, so one carrot about 10 cents), cucumber slices (10 cents), and an apple (about $1.00).  That is pretty healthy I thought!  Oh oh, probably costs too much and I’ll be going over my limit. Dinner was pasta (purchased at Costco – yikes, that is probably not ok – I wouldn’t have a membership if I was on welfare) with a bit of canned tomatoes on top and lots of pepper. Note to self – protein is going to be an issue. I definitely need to find the rules for this venture and do a proper shopping trip.

Postscript. I did look for the guidelines last night and discovered that I had broken most of the rules on the first day. No charity. No food already in your house.  Ok, I guess that means a trip to the grocery store this morning – to start fresh today on Day 2.  I promise myself I won’t cheat today.

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.  http://welfarefoodchallenge.org/

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

Marjorie MacDonald is the President, Public Health Association of BC