Reflections on the Welfare Food Challenge

Over the past week, seven members of our team have been participating in the fifth annual Welfare Food Challenge.

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Using the law as a catalyst for positive social change, Pivot Legal Society works to improve the lives of marginalized communities.

We pledged to feed ourselves for seven days for $18, just like people on income assistance do each and every week. That’s $18 for everything. No dipping into the stockpile of canned food or condiments in our cupboards. No borrowing from friends and family.

All of us came into this challenge healthy and adequately housed with kitchens where we can cook and store food. Despite having every advantage, living off of $18 worth of food for a week has taken a toll on each of us. After just one week of limited access to fresh fruit and vegetables we are already feeling the effects. It’s not just that we weren’t able to eat a balanced diet. We were straight-up hungry.

We know that doing the Welfare Food Challenge for a single week in no way compares to actually surviving on income assistance, but this challenge has still been an eye opening experience for all of us. 
After just one week of trying to live on the amount that welfare provides for food, I am hungry, tired, and struggling with the effects of an insufficient diet. It is terrible to imagine having to live on current social assistance rates for months or years at a time. Access to an adequate standard of living, including food, is a basic human right and there is no way we can say that B.C. is meeting that obligation. 
Katrina Pacey, Executive Director
"What became most obvious during this challenge was the painful reality that while we commiserated with one another in the office about how difficult it was to go a week on such a minuscule food budget, many in our community do so alone and in silence every day." 
Caitlin Shane, Articling Student
I connect with so many people who have been ticketed, displaced, harassed for trying to earn even the tiniest income, usually by panhandling or vending on the street. For people who are housed, I’ve seen people evicted for trying to earn income, for example because they are storing bottles and cans for recycling in their room. If someone manages to earn a little extra, there is always the fear of getting caught and having to repay money or being cut off income assistance. The government has put people in an impossible position: starve or put yourself at risk of getting tickets or losing your home or your income.
DJ Larkin, Housing Justice Lawyer 
"I expected the challenge to be physically demanding (which it was!), but I wasn't prepared for how socially isolated I've felt. Keeping to a welfare budget means being excluded from so many simple social events--tea with friends, dinner dates, Friday drinks. But at least I've been able to talk openly about why I can't join in these activities without any fear of judgment."
Leila Geggie Hurst, Legal Intern
My teenage son participated in the challenge with me. As a parent, I was haunted all week by thoughts of how parents on welfare cope with the relentless stress of feeding children on a paltry budget. I can imagine the anguish of trying to keep your child healthy and the guilt of feeling like you had failed in your duties as a parent. 
Brenda Belak, Sex Work Campaign Lawyer
"This week I learned how poverty, and hunger, touches everything. When you’re hungry, you can’t host your relatives the way you want. You can’t afford to bake a cake from scratch, or have a special birthday meal. You can’t focus, so forget about acing an interview. It is all-consuming."
Madeleine Northcote, Operations Coordinator
One of the hardest things this week has actually been all of the messages of support I received. I keep comparing my experience with the reality of income assistance recipients who, along with hunger and poverty, have to deal with intense stigma. I believe that stigma is at the core of why these punishingly low rates have been allowed to persist in this province.
Darcie Bennett, Director of Strategy

Income assistance rates have been stagnant since 2007. As the cost of essentials like housing, food, utilities, and transportation increase, rates that were always too low have become downright unlivable.  To add insult to injury, many of the income assistance recipients Pivot works with are harassed or ticketed for engaging in survival activities like panhandling and street vending.

Governments must be held to a minimum livable standard when it comes to essential programs like income assistance. That’s why Pivot is calling on all members of the legislature, regardless of political affiliation, to raise income assistance to a livable rate.

Make your voice heard by writing to your MLA today. Raise the Rates has sample letters available to help get you started.