Why I'm not taking the Welfare Food Challenge

This week, people all over British Columbia are eating the way the provincial government expects people on welfare to eat.

Trish Garner, photo by Terra Poirier
Trish Garner. Photo by Terra Poirier.

This week, people all over British Columbia are taking the Welfare Food Challenge -- they are eating the way the provincial government expects people on welfare to eat.

A standard welfare cheque in B.C. is $610 a month, and has not been increased for almost a decade. Organizers of the challenge calculate that after rent and other necessary costs have been paid, all that is left for a week of food is $18.

I did the Welfare Food Challenge five years ago, and I signed up to do it again this year. But, as the starting date grew closer, I began to reconsider. This time I knew what I was getting myself into. I knew that I was signing up for hunger, social exclusion, and physical and mental exhaustion.

The week I did the Welfare Food Challenge, I learned that being hungry reaches far beyond physical discomfort. I learned that when I cut my food budget down to the challenge amount (back then, it was $26), I don’t focus well.

I become a slower writer, the tasks that I do regularly with efficiency become challenging, and thoughts of food consume me.

I have a vital grant application due on Friday that the future of my organization rests on, so I need to be my best this week. After much consideration, I chose not to do the Welfare Food Challenge.

I got to choose.

The 185,000 people in B.C. who live on welfare or disability benefits don’t get this choice. They are expected to ignore their hunger while they research jobs, write applications, and go to job interviews.

It is my partner’s birthday this week. Signing up for the Welfare Food Challenge would’ve meant not eating cake with my family.

Losing out on a dessert is easy; losing out on the celebration and the warmth of sharing meant much more to me. Breaking bread with each other feeds our bodies and souls. I chose to eat cake.

I got to choose.

People living on welfare miss out on these kinds of social connection every day, whether it’s just going for a coffee or sitting down over a home-cooked meal. We take these simple events for granted, but they’re crucial to the fabric of our social lives and our communities.

When I was about to start the Challenge five years ago, a friend of mine who lives on welfare himself came up to me with tears in his eyes and said, “Don’t do it!” I was worried, “What’s wrong, what happened?” He looked at me, “You’re going to be a bad parent this week; it’s not worth it.”

He was concerned that the physical and mental exhaustion of hunger would affect my relationship with my kids. He was right. I was quicker to snap and had less energy to play. My kids were okay, but I only had to do it for a week.

We expect parents on welfare to be good parents. We expect them to nurture their young children while they’re hungry and stressed.

And, if they can’t, the government takes their children away, driving families into even worse situations instead of supporting them with adequate income to be good parents.

While families do get more than the basic rate of $610 – including the recently increased Canada Child Tax Benefit, which thankfully will not be clawed back – it is still far from enough.

One of the biggest reasons that people don’t take the Welfare Food Challenge is for health reasons. Perhaps it’s just a cold? Or perhaps they’re diabetic? Or have a heart condition? Or need a special diet? So, with much apology, they don’t take the challenge.

They got to choose.

I’ve heard many reasons why people aren’t doing the Welfare Food Challenge.

But, for every reason for not doing it, there are people on welfare who are living with that reason and have no choice but to make those issues worse because they don’t have enough money to eat healthily, feel the warmth of sharing food, or have the nourishment to get back on their feet.

Every time I eat this week, I think about those taking the challenge. But those people will be done in a few short days. For the 185,000 on welfare and disability benefits in B.C., the challenge never ends. Every time we eat, we should be thinking about them.

So, instead of doing the Welfare Food Challenge this year, I am committing to take an action every day to urge the provincial government to raise the rates.

On Day 1, I was at the press conference to launch the week. On Day 2, I shared about the Challenge through social media. Yesterday, Day 3, I wrote this. And today I will sign the petition.

Whether you are doing the Welfare Food Challenge or not, please join me in taking action at welfarefoodchallenge.org

Let’s empower people to be the best they can be. Let’s raise the rates.

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