Oct 16, 2013

My welfare food challenge: Day 1


Today is Day 1 of my welfare food challenge, during which I will spend one week trying to eat on a total budget of $26. You can read more about the Welfare Food Challenge here.

I’ve been researching and writing about welfare policy since the late 1990s (including a major 2008 study entitled Living on Welfare in BC, in which we followed 60 social assistance recipients over a two-year period). But I have never lived on social assistance myself. I’ve had a very fortunate and privileged life, and so I 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 BC receives.

Why $26? The math looks like this (the following comes courtesy of the folks at Raise the Rates, who have organized the challenge):

The BC government provides $610 a month in welfare to an able-bodied single person who has to prove they are looking for work.


Total Welfare


Rent (Realistic cost of an SRO)

– 425 =


Damage deposit

– 20 =


Book of 10 bus tickets (Need to look for work)

– 21 =


Cheap Cell phone (Need to look for work)

– 25 =


Personal hygiene, laundry, etc

– 10 =


Left for food



$109/m * 12 months = $1308 a year

$1308/a year / 365 days = $3.58 a day

$3.58 a day * 7 days = $25.09, rounded up to $26

No money for clothes, a coffee, haircuts, or any social life or treats.


Welfare Food Challenge participants will be expected to live on only the food they can purchase with $26 dollars. So no use of charities, food in your freezer, or from your garden, fishing or hunting. The government assumes that the money on welfare is enough to live on without use of charities, etc. Also many people on welfare do not have access to charity or to go hunting!

Preparation: On Monday, just before going to a beautiful and bountiful Thanksgiving dinner, I went to do my grocery shopping for the Challenge. I went to the Buy-Low supermarket at Kingsway and Broadway, which I was advised has some of the cheapest food in Vancouver. Notably, that’s not walking distance from my home, so I drove, but assume many on welfare would need to use precious transit fares to do that.

I have rarely shopped so carefully. This voyage through the grocery aisles took much longer than my usual shopping trips. The truth is, I don’t normally pay much attention to the cost of grocery items. Sure, I do a bit of comparison shopping, and if something’s price seems exorbitant I take a pass. But I make a good income, and so when I shop normally I do so without much thought to the total bill I will put on my credit card. I also do much of my grocery shopping on-line through SPUD, an organic home delivery company I’ve used for years. Delivery is free, but only if your total order is over $35. I think SPUD’s prices are reasonably competitive relative to some stores, but not likely Buy-Low.

Here’s what I could buy for $26

food photo

As you can see, it’s not much. I managed to purchase:

  • A large can of pasta sauce on sale for $1
  • Spaghetti (the cheapest package available)
  • A jar of peanut butter (on sale)
  • 7 apples (cheapest I could find)
  • Oats (carefully measured out in the bulk section, so I had just enough for breakfasts for seven days)
  • 2 liters of milk
  • A large loaf of bread
  • A bag of dried chick peas (which I cooked the night before the challenge)
  • A bag of dried soup mix, largely peas and lentils
  • 2 potatoes
  • 2 carrots
  • A bulb of garlic
  • An onion

(I cooked the last 5 items into a large bowl of soup the night before the challenge.)

Total bill $25.87

Some of the things I really, really wanted to get but couldn’t afford, and left at the check-out till:

  • Coffee (I better get some good sleeps!)
  • Brown sugar for my oatmeal
  • Bananas
  • Tuna fish
  • Eggs
  • Tomatoes
  • More bread
  • Butter
  • Jam
  • Some more fresh or even canned veggies

This morning I ate some very plain oatmeal with milk. I really miss the coffee. I packed two peanut butter sandwiches and an apple for lunch.

One final note on this first day: I’ve been fighting off a cold, and so popping vitamin C and Echinacea. That has to stop today, as including either of those items in my grocery list would have completely blown my budget. We will see how my cold fares, but if it persists, it would certainly interfere with my work (or were I actually on welfare, with my work search).

I like a challenge. But I can see already this is going to be hard. I’ll keep you posted on my progress. Here we go…