At Vancouver meeting welfare diet challengers discuss social assistance boost, and as this reporter learned, hunger's hidden cost.
It was roughly two hours into the Vancouver food policy council’s most well-attended meeting in memory — council co-chair Trish Kelly estimated at least 70 members of the public showed up at City Hall last Wednesday night — and the room was completely and utterly silent, except for the voice of Fraser Stewart.
Stewart was describing what it’s like to live on welfare; how he dumpster dives for organic produce on Granville Island, lives in the kinds of places where one must unplug one small appliance in order to use another, and can forget about hunger most of the day until he comes home to an empty refrigerator.
The audience hung on to his every word.
“I’m asking everyone here to do the welfare challenge,” Stewart concluded. “And if you can’t do it, write a bloody letter.”
For Stewart, the question of how to become food secure comes down to having more money. For him, having more money comes down to higher social assistance rates in the province. And do to that, he figures, elected officials need to feel pressure to do so from the public.
Stewart is part of a local advocacy group called Raise the Rates, which recently challenged citizens to try eating for a week on just $26: the amount that organizers calculated a single person on welfare would have to spend on food.
The campaign garnered a decent amount of press and participants, and the food policy council devoted most of the meeting to presentations from those taking the challenge and discussion on the “right to food” theme (which, presumably, was behind the record attendance).
The meeting seemed to represent a coming together of two spheres of food security in Vancouver; one focused on building capacity for food production in the city, and the other focused on building capacity for equitable food consumption in the city.
What emerged was an understanding from social justice advocates and food policy advocates that the two are allies. The Vancouver food policy council committed to passing its own resolution, potentially with a partner municipal council, supporting a raise in social assistance rates.
“We’re coming up on a provincial election,” said anti-poverty activist Jean Swanson, noting that neither the BC Liberals nor NDP have committed to raising social assistance rates. “They need the pressure.”
One of the challengers, outspoken right-to-food advocate Paul Taylor, pointed out that Vancouver’s food policy charter presents a vision for a just and sustainable food system.
“There’s a lot of emphasis on sustainable,” said Taylor. “But is it just?”
During his presentation, Taylor described how his own experience growing up on welfare shaped his work now on the right to food, which has spanned several decades and provinces. He was working for food charities in Toronto in the ’90s when the Ontario government introduced drastic cuts to welfare. Taylor recalled how, amid the uproar, Ontario’s then-minister of social services David Taboushi published an infamous “welfare shopping list” that included bread without butter and pasta without sauce.
How this challenger fared
The meeting made this reporter feel sheepish. At an editorial meeting the week before, I declared to my colleagues at The Tyee that I would take the welfare challenge and write about it.
“I think I could actually eat pretty well,” I said confidently. “I eat mostly vegetarian. I’ll just make a big batch of beans.”
I lasted about three and a half hours.
The challenge started at midnight, on Oct. 16. At 3 a.m., after several hours of tossing and turning, I was still awake. I hadn’t prepared at all, hadn’t given much thought to how, exactly, I would spend my $26 food budget and was losing sleep over the thought of having nothing for breakfast.
I rose from bed and went downstairs. I reached for my notebook and scanned the list of what I’d eaten the day before, in preparation for the challenge: a latte and breakfast cookie from a fancy Gastown coffee shop in the morning, a bowl of pho in Chinatown for lunch, another coffee in the afternoon, and a three-egg mushroom, cheddar and green onion omelet that I cooked at home for dinner. And over the course of the evening, the occasional spoonful of leftover shepherds pie spooned directly from its Tupperware dish in the fridge. Yes, I am that kind of snacker.
On that sleepless night, I sought solace in the dim light of my refrigerator, breaking one of thefirst rules of the challenge: no eating what’s already in your house. When I got to work that morning, exhausted and hungry, I saw a box of Solly’s cinnamon buns someone had brought in and broke another rule of the challenge: no free food from friends or neighbours. By the end of the day, I had effectively given up. I quit.
I confessed all of this during the break at the council meeting to Karen Giesbrecht, community manager for the Christian Community Food Network. She had considered taking the challenge too, she told me, and felt guilty for not doing so. But it was a busy week, and to have to worry about food on top of everything else was too difficult, she said. I completely understood.
Brent Mansfield, food policy council co-chair, who had undertaken the challenge along with his wife, told me he panicked earlier that day and ate his dinner — a peanut butter sandwich — at four o’clock.
The stress of worry is a hidden cost of food insecurity, pointed out Ted Bruce, executive director for population health at Vancouver Coastal Health, during his presentation to the council. It’s not just the lack of nutrition, but stress — “the pathway to chronic illness,” as he put it — that takes a toll on health.
“There is still a notion that poverty is absolute poverty, and that we don’t have much of that here in Canada,” said Bruce. “In public health, all evidence shows us that poverty is relative. Societies that are unequal, fail.”