British Columbia

Welfare Food Challenge adjusts to B.C.'s new welfare rates

Could you live on $19 worth of food every week? Raise the Rates rolls out its Welfare Food Challenge.

Could you live on $19 worth of food every week?

Kell Gerlings says even with the $100 rate increase, welfare rates are still too low to live on. (Kell Gerlings)

Raise the Rates' Welfare Food Challenge looks a little different this year.

The initiative — which challenges Metro Vancouver residents to live as though income assistance allowance was their only income for one week — has had to reevaluate its metrics this year, due to the provincial government's $100 increase in welfare rates.

After calculating numerous factors, including personal hygiene costs, the cost of bus fare and the lowest possible cost for rent in the Lower Mainland, Raise the Rates landed on $19 as the amount challengers can spend on food for the week.

"The average rent of an SRO in the Downtown Eastside is about $540 a month now. That's a massive increase," said event organizer Kell Gerlings.

"Nineteen is actually a really generous number."

Under the previous provincial government, monthly welfare rates were $610, which resulted in an $18 limit for the challenge. This year, despite the rate increase, rising rental prices have kept the situation largely the same for people living below the poverty line.

Gerlings said food bought by challengers, so far, have been mostly canned goods, bread, eggs and instant noodle packages.

"One person splurged and bought cheese," said Gerlings on CBC's The Early Edition.

Gerlings said ingenuity is key while participating in the challenge. Finding deals, working for grocery store gift cards, borrowing money and visiting food banks are all regularly used tools.

"It's a matter of knowing the resources that are available to you and not everybody has access to those resources," said Gerlings.

This is the sixth annual Welfare Food Challenge. Gerlings said participants in previous years begin to experience a significant change in their quality of life by the end of the week. Exhaustion, poor work performance and forgetfulness are widely reported.

'It's hard and that is the point'

Gerlings said a common misconception among participants is that better budgeting and decision making can make the challenge easier. She said the purpose of the challenge is for people to realize the extreme difficulty of those living on income assistance, despite proper money management.

"Your looking at this tiny, tiny, tiny pile of food and having to make choices based on that," said Gerling.

"It's hard and that is the point of it. Because it is hard living on welfare ... You can make the best possible choices that you could, and you'll still come up short."

Beyond the nutritionists, dietitians and roughly 100 citizens participating this year, Gerling said many high-profile people are taking the challenge.

Coquitlam Coun. Chris Wilson, Mable Elmore, the parliamentary secretary for poverty reduction and high-ranking members of the Hospital Employees' Union, the BCGEU and B.C. Teachers' Federation are all taking part.

With files from The Early Edition