Welfare Food Challenge – Day 5

Am relieved to have gotten through the day given that this was my most physically demanding day. On top of work, I found the energy to cycle over to the Vancouver School Board rally in protest of the provincial government’s firing of that Board. Funny how the issues are connected – a provincial government that has little regard for poverty reduction nor public education.

Anyway, back to the Challenge. My co-worker Kathy Whittam, who is also on the Challenge, again shared me some of her food, which again, helped me through the day. I guess this is what people in this situation do….they help each other. Kathy, her husband and daughter are all on the Challenge and she says it is a bit easier for them having $54 for the week and being able to stretch that money further…for example, finding a large bag of potatoes for a few bucks, like bulk buying. Kathy also took more time to source out the cheapest food she could find. I have actually been under budget for a few days, so was also able to splurge a bit tonight and roasted up 2 full potatoes with ketchup. Wow, what a treat….two potatoes.

My understanding from today is the importance of sharing. I alluded to this in my previous post where I mentioned the need to better redistribute food surplus, to work towards creating a sharing economy in which we take care of others based on free access to food. This is a notion that has become more clear to me recently when challenged by First Nation leaders who I work with, that food security is not simply a right, as defined by some legal principal, but rather a responsibility, and one of four core values in the Aboriginal world view –  the three others being respect, wisdom, and relationships. We have the responsibility to ourselves, our families, our communities, and the land.  It also entails mutual accountability, reciprocity, maintaining a healthy, balanced life as well as showing leadership through modelling wellness and healthy behaviors (First Nations Health Authority). When I see First Nations standing up for the environment for example, I better understand that this commitment comes from an awareness of one’s responsibility.

Welfare Food Challenge – Day 4

It was a rough day. Woke up nauseous and with mild headache and brain fog. It is not unusual for me to have days like this. My health is a bit of a roller coaster, but this morning seemed extra rough and quite possibly exacerbated by this shitty diet. I am also reminded that I don’t digest beans very well, which I will spare you the details of needless to say that I have a sensitive gut.  So what do I eat for protein?  Anyways, I felt better as the day progressed and had enough in my budget for a decent evening snack that included a handful of hazelnuts, a few Tbls of chia seed and coconut milk. It was enough to stave off hunger….until morning.

Fortunately, my work week is pretty easy, which is lucky cause work can include a fair amount of physical work and long hours. Having said this, tomorrow is our school garden day, which includes some physical work. Then Friday will be easy but Sat I booked a landscape work party at the co-op where I live in which we will be building new raised garden beds. I am a bit worried whether I will hold up.

I imagine that being on income assistance or disability and eating poorly would make it hard to pull oneself together, to get out and find work, to simply get through the day without the physical (and mental) energy.  This reminds me of a participant in our Bulk Food Group who is a senior on a meager pension and who called me up and basically told me that she was starving, in the very real sense. Her doctor had told her that she was severely malnourished and needed to start eating properly again. She had very little money to buy healthy food, and for whatever reason was not accessing such food from anywhere.  Her health was compromised and she suffered from a number of chronic ill health conditions. To declare oneself as literally starving in Canada should be an oxymoron.  Good news is that she is feeling much better since accessing fresh produce through our program. She always comes to pick up food and is consistently enthusiastic, positive and extremely grateful for the food.

I am also thinking more about how our commodified food system has really created this messed up two tier system in which there are those of us who can afford healthy food and those who can’t (or many who can only afford healthy food some of the time). At the same time, we have a tremendous surplus of food and up to 30% (maybe higher in some places) wastage. There is no reason why people should or need to go without, especially if we were to find a way to redistribute this surplus food through a redistributive or sharing model. Rather than food as a commodity, good food should be freely available to all as a right or responsibility.

Welfare Food Challenge – Day 3

I cannot live on one meal a day as I have been trying, apart from a coffee and butter in the morning. It means going a full 24 hrs before the next meal and today, by noon, I was so hungry, my stomach actually kinda hurt. I will need to eat smaller amounts through the day to get by. Thankfully, Kathy, who I work with and who is also on the Challenge had some extra food (I don’t know how) and shared it with me so I was able to have two meals today. Apparently it is not cheating if someone else who is on the Challenge shares their meal. Anyway, I thought is was very generous of her.

Apart from feeling very hungry much of the day, which is no fun, my energy has been holding. I added some nettle tea to my menu today, which will provide me with good general medicine. Talking about medicine, I am on number of supplements, so if there is one thing that I am cheating on this week, it is that I am not prepared to give up my supplements needed to maintain my health (remember the chronic inflammation). These include magnesium, vit d, glucosamine, trimethylglycine, licorice extract, black radish root, seriphose, melatonin, and some other compounded anti inflammatory supplements. The value of these alone likely exceeds the $18/week.  I manage to stay relatively active and healthy, I work full time plus, and I remain generally close to a 1 or nil on the pain scale most days (was not always as good). Imagine, for those on welfare who are also ill or struggling like I am with ill health. Not only can they not afford healthy supplements, but the food they are eating is making them sicker.

If any of you are unfamiliar with the Food Costing In BC 2015 published by the Provincial Health Services Authority and previous editions of the Cost of Eating in BC by the Dietitians of Canada, I recommend reading these. They essentially cost out the “average monthly cost of a nutritionally adequate, balanced diet in BC based on the National Nutritious Food Basket” in various regions of BC, including Vancouver. “The average monthly cost of a nutritious food basket for a reference family of four in British Columbia in 2015 is $974”. In Vancouver, the cost increases to $1,011.  Most importantly, there are serious negative effects on physical and mental health when people cannot afford a healthy diet and as the Dietitians state “it is timely for further income and disability assistance reform so that more British Columbians can afford sufficient healthy food and meet their nutritional needs”.

The Challenge is not really about how I am going to make it through the week. I will be just fine thank you to a secure job and co-op housing. The Challenge is about raising awareness of the need to raise income assistance levels. The question is what is it going to take to achieve this?

Welfare Food Challenge – Day 2

Started the day as usual with coffee and 2 tbls of butter for healthy fats and calories. Then another lunch of beans, rice, and small handful of veggies to last me the rest of the day. Like yesterday – just one real meal. I was also able to squeeze in a spoonful of cashew butter. But like yesterday, am feeling very hungry as I write this. I am not clearly not getting enough to eat.

Here is my lunch. Looks alright, but remember it’s my only meal of the day.


So what about calorie intake…am I getting enough energy. Apparently I need a little over 2000 calories a day at the current time. I guess if I don’t eat the calories, I start to burn stored fat. Since I am pretty slim, I am not looking to loose weight. I did a simple calculation of my calorie intake today and it was less than half of what I need for a relatively low exercise week. I expect that my energy will start to fade by weeks end.

The Grandview Woodland Food Connection runs a Bulk Food Group. Participants pay $14 for two large bags full of fruits and veggies, which works out to a 40% average savings over retail. We further supplement this food with Greater Vancouver Foodbank donations and Choices Food Market “rescue” food that is organic but slightly blemished, ugly, or near or past best date. Participants leave with alot of food, and for some, this food is the difference between eating reasonable well or needing to go to a food bank.

Participants in this program are all struggling financially, however one defines this. Some are students, some in low wage jobs, on income assistance or disability, a number are pensioners. What is rather shocking is how far participants are traveling to access food through this program. I ask them, “is it worth your time and energy to travel so far”, and without a question, all answer very much so.  Some are coming from Burnaby, Little Mountain, South Vancouver, and the Downtown Eastside. One of our participants has a severe disability and requires a walker. Sometimes she travels by bus, and sometime uses Handidart. She travels from Little Mountain (Main Street) area where she says there is no food as affordable as our bulk food program (even though there are food programs in that area).

My heart really goes out to this woman, who despite her disability, has such difficulty accessing food. And here are many other stories like this.

Raise the Rates Welfare Food Challenge – Day 1

ian-marcuse-headshotI work as a community food developer with the Grandview Woodland Food Connection, a Vancouver Neighbourhood Food Network, whose principal mandate is supporting community members who are struggling to access healthy and affordable food. Our organization is interested in furthering systems change work that addresses the underlying causes of poverty and food insecurity. As part of this work, is the need to build awareness of food insecurity in our communities while exploring the relationships between the lack of food access and the many intersecting social policy areas, including income assistance, housing, health, etc. I see the Welfare Food Challenge as an important campaign to address one of the key policy areas that can help ensure that individuals who are on income assistance receive enough money to access food of their choice in a dignified manner.

Here is my Challenge experience …….Ian Marcuse

Yesterday, I went to the cheapest food store on Commercial Drive and put together a meal plan for the week. My biggest fear is that my energy levels are going to crash and I will not be able to work. My health is my biggest concern and I do not want to have to take time off work if I am feeling too tired. I need to work.

My meal plan is pretty simple – 1 cup of coffee with 1 or 2 tablespoons of butter or coconut oil for breakfast and rice and beans or rice and lentils or rice and hummus with a small handful of steamed veggies and a couple of olives for lunch, which I hope will carry me through the the rest of the day…no dinner…just one meal a day.

I am very aware that ordinarily I am able to eat high quality food and for which I am very grateful. I have also made personal choices that allow me to afford this food – I do not own or drive a car, I rarely fly or ever take expensive vacations, I live in a co-op, and I generally  consume within my modest means. But because of my health concerns (and age of 55), I prioritize healthy eating.

And we know that food insecurity has its greatest impact on one’s health. In my work with the Grandview Woodland Food Connection, I have heard from many program participants, many who suffer various illnesses and who rely on food donations and who also describe getting sicker from the “charity” food they find, much of it high in sugar or refined carbs. Fresh produce, quality protein like fish, meats, and dairy are too expensive for a person on disability or income assistance or fixed pensions or low wage jobs.  I know what ill health is and how precious good food is for me. I also understand how important good food is for everyone, no matter what your life situation. Certainly, those who are struggling the most, deserve this basic human dignity.

Raise the Rates Welfare Food Challenge Preparation

I have decided to participate in the Welfare Food Challenge, not because I am looking for a challenge. In fact, I would much rather avoid challenges in my life right now and feeding myself on only $18 a week sounds like a pretty tough challenge. But we also need to bring attention to the staggering inhumanity of our low income assistance rates, which are a mere $610 a month for an individual.

For more information on the Challenge please visit Raise the Rates

Friends of mine have said, no way are they doing the challenge, and have rightfully acknowledged that feeding oneself on $18 a week is simply not possible, that it is an absurd idea. Not only is the amount too low, but food prices have also increased. I tend to agree that the Challenge is impossible and expect this week to be more of a fasting week as I doubt that I will be able to eat very much at all. I am wondering, how will I get enough protein, enough calories, enough nourishment? How will I sustain enough energy to work? Will I need to book time off work? Will my existing health concerns (I struggle with a chronic inflammatory mystery condition) flare up?  Will I be forced to eat the cheap processed carbs that I need to avoid to remain healthy? I am already anxious about my health.

In two days the Challenge begins. I will try to maintain at least a small amount of healthy protein, likely nuts and seeds, some healthy fats like coconut oil, but since these fats can be expensive and since I still need to maintain my energy for work, I may need to get more of my calories through cheaper carbs like beans and rice. I will still be able to afford a tablespoon of coffee to keep me going, which I calculated at .11 cents a cup. For sure, I will look for as many vegetables as I can afford. Potatoes would be the cheapest, but hopefully I can also find some greens for higher quality nutrients. Maybe I can afford a few tablespoons of the superfood chia or maca powder to throw in my coffee, something to prevent me from crashing. I am not sure that I am prepared. I feel like I need some professional nutritionist advice.

So what is the point then? What will I learn? How will this contribute to meaningful advocacy or policy change?  In my work as a community food developer and working in the area of food access and equity, I often think about the impact of my work, and of others working in this field. Is our work changing anything? How do we change the system that results in poverty and food insecurity? Certainly the Challenge cannot be won, but perhaps it will help to draw attention to the need to increase assistance rates. Perhaps the challenge will deepen my personal understanding and empathy towards those that struggle with poverty every day and to further my awareness of my own privilege of being able to end the challenge whenever I want. These, and more, are a few questions that I have.