Could you live off $32 dollars a week for food?
As a prudent planner and control freak I thought I could do this without issue. I spent the weeks leading up to this challenge thinking and re-thinking how I could demonstrate that a proper meal plan and budget could make this more than possible, but I ended up being part of an experience I wasn't at all prepared for.
But first, some things you should know...
Recent statistics (and a CTV news segment that inspired this blog post) reported that over 18,000 people utilize the Saskatoon Food Bank every month, with over half of those people being children. I wanted to find out why that figure was so high. In a casual conversation, someone suggested that in a city of roughly 255,000, as a statistic, 14% of the population living below the poverty line wasn't as bad as some places. However, I looked at it not as a statistic, but as 18,000 individual people... and that seemed like a whole lot of people. People that couldn't be pigeonholed into a certain demographic. Students, seniors, working families, those collecting social assistance or disability, and a variety of people who have just simply fallen on hard times due to any number of circumstances.
I did some digging into the data reported by HungerCount, a comprehensive study of food bank use in Canada, and found that Canadians visited food banks 14,000,000 times in 2014 with an average of 310,461 recipients each month being children. Yikes. Numbers are numbers, but I wanted more information - not just statistics, but a perspective from someone who could address the problem on behalf of the people utilizing the food bank right here in Saskatoon.
I was very lucky to correspond with Deborah Hamp, Director of Operations and Engagement for the Saskatoon Food Bank who was about to provide me with more insight.
I learned that there are four sizes of hampers available depending on how many people the hamper is designed to feed, and that the monetary value can change daily depending on what is available. A food basket is designed to last 2-3 days and can be accessed every 14 days. These baskets can contain soups, bread, lentils, oatmeal, canned protein frozen meat, pasta or rice, fresh produce (when available), and milk for children until 17 or nursing women. Deborah explained that the obvious key issues with the high usage of our food bank are inadequate social assistance rates, supplements for low-income seniors, and other income assitance such as disability. However, a bigger issue still is that wages for many low-income earners cannot keep up with the cost of living.
As I recently heard Bernie Sanders say, "Jobs should lift people of poverty, not keep them in it."
True dat, Bernie. The idea of "working for a living" has never been more untrue for a lot of people in low paying jobs. So what is happening to cause this problem among working people?
Well, think about it. People are working unskilled jobs that can't pay them enough to compete with increasing expenses, so there is consistenly a shortfall. Shortfalls that inevitably lead to crippling personal debt, increased government health care spending, increased social isolation, and increased incidence of mental illness such as depression and anxiety. Listen up people, you would be depressed too if had been eating the same thing for a week, if you didn't know where your next meal was coming from, or how you were going to feed your child a nutrious diet. People are quick to judge though, we've all done it.
So then, how do we elevate the quality of life for Canadians living below the poverty line? Well, HungerCount's findings suggest that affordable housing initatives, investments into education, and to improve support systems for low income families with children. But sadly, this is altogether easier said than done because, just as the people who utilize the food bank are multi-faceted, so are the solutions to each individual sitution. Plus, in a global economy that is sketchy at best - where does the money come from? In my discussion with Deborah Hamp, I then asked how people can help at a personal level, and she said the most powerful way to help begins with education.
So I decided to do just that. I wanted to do something to better educate myself and others about what it's like to experience food insecurity.
I designed a project based on similar challenges taking place all over North America, but adjusted the numbers to reflect the numbers here in Saskatchewan as best I could. I based this calculation on what the Saskatchewan monthly allotment for a single person on assistance would receive monthly, took away half for other necessities (soap, cleaning supplies, medication, toilet paper, feminine hygiene products, etc.) and then divided by 4 to get an estimate of a weekly food budget. I realize that number may vary depending on the other expenses that could occur in a month, and the food budget could end up being slightly or not-so-slightly less depending on an individual's personal expenses. It is also noted that with an entire month's installment of money more savings could be accrued with bulk purchases as opposed to a single week's allotment, but for our purposes, a week's estimate was what we were going to work with. After speaking to a few people that either receive this benefit or work in this industry, I felt this number was fairly accurate and similar to what the other challenges presented in terms of a budget.
I needed some minions for this project so I asked some "modern women" to help me out. I'm so proud of these people for accepting this challenge whole-heartedly, and taking it so seriously with nothing to gain except a greater knowledge about themselves and others. We were very lucky to have each other as a support system via a Facebook group chat, where we could talk about our experience throughout the week. Many people in this situation wouldn't have that kind of support. There were laughs, frustrations, anger, and sadness as we all got a very small glimspe into a life of food insecurity. Our experience was only 7 days, but this is a long-term reality for too many people.
The rules were simple:
- Spend no more than $32 on your food for the week.
- No use of your previously purchased items that can be very pricey and likely to not be in your fridge or pantry. We were to treat it as a worst case scenario that left you starting from scratch; condiments, cooking sprays, oils, coffee, tea, or spices. It all had to be in the budget. We allowed random condiment packages collected from fast food places, because no matter your income - I'm pretty sure everyone has those atrocities laying around, and truly, if you wanted to go so far as to go grab them from somewhere, you could.
- No use of expensive convenience appliances - no Actifrys, Vitamixes or Keurigs,etc.
- Friends could not take you out for lunch, cocktails, or bring you Starbucks. Those living well below the poverty line often experience social isolation due to lack of funds and the challenge attempted to reflect that.
- You could not participate in unlikely workplace situations such as events with expensive dinners or office luncheons.
- Most people have family, so if you were invited for a gathering and offered a meal, you could have it - but you had to be invited and couldn't ask them to do so.
It wasn't easy. Not even a little bit. I actually really recommend everyone try this for a week. It should change your perspective, and if not... well, you're an asshole. Ok, just kidding, but I can't imagine it wouldn't.Meet the Challengers, have a peek at our grocery baskets for the week and what everyone had to say about their experience...
JENNA ROUFOSSE - REALTOR®
I am accustomed to a fairly comfortable lifestyle, which entails my trusty Keurig machine, my Culligan machine, a fridge, pantry and freezer full of food, and dining out on a frequent basis. Due to my job, I spend a significant amount of time wining and dining my sphere, past clients, and new connections.
I went into this challenge thinking – how hard can this be? I was very wrong. My strategy was to purchase as many “filling” items as I could, which included the items below. Needless to say, the change in diet, and for the most part, drastic increase in carbs, and lack of protein and fresh produce, hit my body hard. By the end of the week, I felt very ill, sick to my stomach, and I was both mentally and physically exhausted. I was emotional, very moody, and quick to anger. My motivation and drive to do anything was at an all time low. This is even evident in the diary I kept for this challenge – by the end of the week, my accounts are brief and to the point. I found it difficult to pay attention, focus at work, and I felt cognitively slower to react to everything. I could even feel my confidence diminish slowly as the week progressed. We were asked to weigh ourselves both before and following the challenge, and although my weight did not fluctuate at all, I felt like I had gained at least 10 pounds, and it was affecting me mentally. I just felt unhealthy, and by the 7th day, I could hardly find the motivation to even leave my house. Obviously, I could see how this was affecting my job, which demands a very high level of energy. I also found this challenge difficult as I do much of my prospecting through active meetings with past clients, new connections, and my sphere, which generally occur at coffee, lunches, and/or dinners.
I took a lot away from this challenge. It was incredibly eye opening, and allowed me to see things in an entirely different light. I think that the most important thing that this has taught me is that even though there is “financial help” for those in need, and I use that term lightly after this past week, it is not nearly enough to provide someone with the nutrients and diet that is needed in order to function and live a normal life on a daily basis. I think that the results of this challenge are HUGE – we can see a correlation between diet and motivation, mental, cognitive and physical functions, and the ability to function on a daily basis in its most general sense. If our aim is to help those in need, the current system, standards, and expectations need to be re-evaluated.
MACKENZIE FIRBY - Owner of Two Fifty Two Boutique
When grocery shopping, I usually purchase what I feel like eating with little emphasis on cost. I usually do a small bit of comparison on price but if I really want something I will purchase it regardless of the cost. I belong to many social groups and attend many events where I eat out- I often find that I ate at a restaurant or at an event almost every day of the week. I had not thought about what a luxury these two points were until doing this challenge!
I completed the challenge without cheating. There were many times that I was tempted but knowing that I could “go back to normal” after the challenge kept me going. It is a harsh reality knowing that there are numerous people in our community that this is their diet and nutrition every day.
The first few days of the challenge were ok- I felt quite normal physically and emotionally. It was almost like a diet plan- I didn’t want to cheat. By about Tuesday, Day 3, I started to feel sluggish. I had little to no energy and no drive or focus. By day 4 I had developed a dull headache that would not subside. I was tired of eating the same few items and I was hungry before going to bed. Day 5 and Day 6 came and I was in rough shape. Headache, energy zapped and I was hungry by afternoon and before bed. By the end of the challenge I only had some rice and oatmeal left- no fruits or veggies or protein. In total, I lost 5 pounds on the challenge.
Before doing this challenge, I never thought about the impact of a proper diet and nutrition. It really opened my eyes and has made me more aware of what people face on a daily basis. The tired, sluggish feeling, lack of focus and the jitters were all effects I felt and I am sure that anyone eating like this on a regular basis would feel the same. Going forward I know that I will be much more aware of what I am spending on food and what I am eating. I really feel for those that do not get proper nutrition and I will make every effort to assist those in need whether it be donating to the food bank or by giving a monetary gift to any organization that assists those not able to afford nutritious foods.
CHANTEL HUBER - Co-anchor CTV News Saskatoon
When I was asked to be part of the Food Bank Challenge and live off $32 in food for the week, I thought, ‘sure no problem'. I would just be buying for me and no one can budget better than this gal who’s an expert shopper and can see a sale miles away! So, when I set off to do some shopping for the challenge, I did my research first, as I always do when hunting for a bargain. It wasn’t until I got to the store that I actually had to pull out my phone and use my calculator to make sure I wasn’t adding in my head wrong! I actually had to make multiple trips and to different stores to make my dollars stretch. When I had finally found everything I thought I needed, I went home proud I had stuck to my budget. Then, the week began and reality started to hit.
At first, the hardest thing for me, as trivial as it sounds, was not being able to grab a coffee mid morning or midday at Starbucks or Tim’s. It’s a habit I’ve been accustomed to and it was hard to remember I couldn’t just indulge if I was out or wanted to meet friends or coworkers for a coffee. As the week went on, I felt more hungry and had fewer choices for food. With a busy schedule, it was hard to preplan meals with very few ingredients. By the end of the week, I felt really low energy, tired and irritable and didn’t feel like eating anything I had left. I kept my workout schedule in tact because I wanted to experience what that felt like but also because it helped boost energy levels despite a lack of nutrition. By the end of the week, I started to feel nauseous and was counting the hours until the end of the food challenge. I was really noticing the lack of protein and fresh vegetables, even though everything I bought was relatively healthy. I didn’t buy any junk because it was cheaper.
The biggest thing I took away from doing this, was the realization of just how much food or a lack of it and the proper balance of foods impact your physical and mental state. I always knew of this, but to experience it was a different story. I realized how fortunate I am for what I have. I hope by doing this challenge, it raises awareness for others that hunger is a real issue in our community and if we all find ways to do what we can, whether it’s donating to the food bank, helping serve a hot lunch at a local school or helping someone we know who is struggling, hopefully we can each make a difference.
KAREN MARTIN - Store Manager of Home Outfitters, Saskatoon
The initial shopping experience was a huge shock for me. I had to make decisions between certain foods-a loaf of bread or a box of crackers- I went with the crackers and glad that I did because there were many days when that’s what got me through. There was not enough money for both tea and yogurt, so I went without tea (my little bit of daily caffeine-that I was used to) for the week.
I shopped at Dollarama and Walmart, but realistically if I only had $31 for food, I probably didn’t have bus fare and unless I lived within walking distance to these two places, I would have to buy my groceries at one or the other. Neither place offered the best quality in product-but it was all I could afford.
I started out the week feeling like I could stretch this food out for the week, but as I was having less and less food left, my thinking certainly changed. I didn’t throw out the leaves from the celery-thinking I could fry them and throw them in my soup for anything extra. I started slicing the cheese super thin and rationing it, but then I was starting to feel quite hungry.
I work at a job that requires quite a bit of physical movement, so it definitely was not enough to keep me working to my full capacity. I had headaches, felt bloated and quite frankly a bit depressed about the lack of variety that a strict monetary diet like this gave me. I started to no longer look forward to eating because it was really just something to stop the stomach from feeling so horrible.
Even though it was only for a week, it was definitely an eye opener and brought awareness to what a lot of people in our city must deal with everyday. I strongly believe that in order to help people with life’s basics, we need decent affordable housing. When this market is so out of balance with everything else, there remains nothing for the simple basics of food and water.
KATIE MARTIN - Makeup Artist/Esthetician; Modern Woman Staff & Blogger
I organized this challenge to raise awareness for the Saskatoon Food Bank and to educate our readers about food insecurity. I truly thought with proper planning it wouldn't be that hard. I tried to shop smart with the budget I had to work with, planning for at least 1-2 servings of protein a day, 5 servings of fruits and vegetables, and 2 cups of coffee (albeit instant... barf) per day. The rest I had to go for satiety over my usual choices of complex carbs and ended up with a lot of bread and pasta. I've heard several people argue that "you can buy rice and beans in bulk and eat healthy on a budget". Ok, I wish those people would actually try that. Not only will eating nothing but rice and beans get old fast, but lack of variety in your diet is not only unhealthy due to zero variance in micronutrients, but its super depressing. So, I have to respectfully disagree with those people.
The first few days weren't that bad because I had most of my food to pick and choose from. However, right from the get-go the instant coffee upset my stomach and the margarine I could afford made me gag from the taste... "I Can't Believe Its Not Butter?" Believe it. It isn't. I was desperate for real coffee but I was still in good spirits.
Mid-week I was really starting to get that gross feeling when you eat too much sugar, even though I hadn't had any sweets at all. I wasn't sleeping well, I was more than a little irritable, my emotions were starting to run rampant and I was having a hard time focusing at work. I had started skipping meals due to lack of appealing food despite being physically hungry. Full disclosure alert: I have bi-polar disorder. I rely on routine and consistency, and it never occured to me that this project would affect me so drastically. By Thursday, I was all over the place. I was sleeping about 4 hours a night and when I wasn't mad about nothing, I was near tears over nothing. Friday (Day 6) was one of the worst days I can recall in a long time for not being able to manage my thoughts and moods. But, though my husband begged me to throw in the towel, I told him that there were so many people out there who suffer from mental illness that don't have the option to just throw in the towel. How many people can't succeed mentally because they don't have to means to care for themselves physically? How many children are being told they have a variety of behavioral or attention disorders when perhaps some of these behaviors could (at least partially) be due to a poor quality diet? I truly have no idea, but it definitely raised some questions for me. Nope, I was not throwing in the towel... I was determined to finish the challenge.
Saturday I went to work all day and while I felt physically drained I was in a bit better spirits because I knew it was the last day. By the end I felt defeated, physically and mentally unwell, and had lost 7 pounds despite feeling like I gained 1000. For the sake of giving readers the best account of my experience that I could, I tracked my diet via My Fitness Pal. I found I was eating between 1100-1500 calories a day, 60-70% coming from (not-so-complex) carbs and was below the recommended amount for protein, fat, fiber, many essential vitamins, and drastically below in iron and calcium. I realize that part of my struggle was the shock of going from a nutritious diet to something quite the opposite despite my planning, but nobody should have to treat their body less than optimal because of food insecurity - short or long term. Everyone in our community deserves to have access to a healthy, well-balanced diet. We definitely need more affordable housing to offset the high cost of living, community supports including educating the public about food insecurity, to provide accessible and quality education to people living below the poverty line about proper nutrition and how to prepare healthy meals, and we need to inform the public about how to get involved by donating and volunteering. We are all one community, and hopefully this inspires everyone to do a little bit more.
So there you have it. Please take the time to reflect and be grateful for all the good things in your life and never take them for granted.
Change can begin with helping just one person.
You can find the Saskatoon Food Bank at 202 Ave C S and visit their website at www.saskatoonfoodbank.org for information on their most wanted items for donation or how to volunteer.
Peace out Saskatoon... go be nice to each other.