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Lessons from the Welfare Food Challenge

Today marks the last day of the Welfare Food Challenge, an annual event that invites participants to eat for a week on what $26 will buy.

The challenge, now in its second year, drew dozens of participants from across the province, including nutritionists, nurses, students and other members of the public, many of whom blogged about their experiences.

The $26 figure was calculated by Raise the Rates, the Vancouver-based advocacy group behind the challenge, based on what would be left for a single adult on social assistance after deducting rent, a damage deposit, a book of bus tickets, a small amount for personal hygiene/laundry, and a basic cell phone plan.

Seth Klein, B.C. director of the Canadian Centre for Policy for Alternatives, wrote on Day 1 (Oct. 16) that since he's been researching and writing about welfare policy since the late '90s, he "figured it was high time I tried to experience a little bit of what life on welfare is actually like, even if only symbolically; to see first-hand just how hard it is to eat a reasonable diet on the amount of money someone on basic social assistance in B.C. receives."

Although ultimately Klein didn't run out of food, throughout the week he wrote of boredom of the same foods, the embarrassment of having to leave items at the cash register, and the impact on his social life. It all amounted to a lot of additional anxiety, something echoed by others on the Welfare Food Challenge.

Klein's posts received many comments from people who live with this anxiety, or have lived with it, on a daily basis.

Commenters weighed in with shopping tips (use coupons, buy in bulk, and buy extra items on sale -- especially milk and bread -- to store in the freezer). Others simply shared their own stories.

"I live on assistance myself and I know what it is like and I know what the general population is like in my area. Many people are under educated, many have never been taught how to cook, many have mental health issues that hinder them from traveling distances for food or even being able to cook a meal on a regular basis. it is stressful to never have extra money. to have spent nearly every dime by the middle of the month so you can 'buy in bulk' after you've paid your bills," wrote Ashlea.

Amanda wrote: "My friends I have been there done this for real. The $$ were a bit higher because I had two young children but I will tell you it was an enormous stretch to make it work while we got back on our feet from a family breakup."

"Seth is doing this as a single but try taking a bus to the grocery store and back with children and getting out of the store without them wondering why they can't have more expensive sugary cereal amongst many other things," wrote a Victoria shopper.

From Karen: "While I am not criticising what you and others are doing, I also want to remind readers that a single week of living on a $65 food budget is one thing, but I know that the grueling never-endingness of living week after week with this limitation cannot possibly be replicated."

"We talk about how people on this system with mental illness as if they come onto the system with this infliction," wrote Bonnie Morton. "We don't talk about the contribution this system has to the creation of people's mental illness due to malnutrition, the stress of not knowing where their next meal is coming from, and struggles for other needs. I know what a number of years on the welfare system did to my psychological well being."

Klein noted that this topic garnered more comments than he is accustomed to. "I especially appreciate the notes from those of you who really do live on social assistance, and for whom this is not a symbolic game," he wrote. "What your comments capture is the stress that inherently builds when this is a longer-term reality..."

Klein and other participants will be back to their regular dietary schedules tomorrow. Others in B.C. aren't so lucky.

Colleen Kimmett is an editor at The Tyee.

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