Ted Bruce was a few days into a one-week challenge to live on a food budget similar to someone on welfare when a sense of stress began to set in.
“About three or four days in, I went oh boy, I might be out of food by day six or seven here,” Bruce recounted in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight. “That’s I think kind of the real, gut-wrenching sense that you have is that I may run out of food.”
For Bruce and other participants in the Welfare Food Challenge, which was organized by the anti-poverty group Raise the Rates, that glimpse of stress only lasted for a few more days. But the kind of chronic stress that low-income people can experience in the face of stretched food budgets and poor nutrition, and the physiological impacts this can have on the body, have the public-health professional concerned.
As the executive director of population health for Vancouver Coastal Health, Bruce said his goal in taking part in the challenge, which wrapped up Tuesday (October 23), was to raise awareness of the degree that poverty contributes to making populations sick.
“We’ve seen lots of studies that show that people in low-income situations, people who live in deprived neighbourhoods, have higher rates of chronic disease, and higher rates of hospitalization,” he explained.
“People in low-income areas, the rate of hospitalization for diabetes is 2.4 times that of people in the higher economic areas. So that’s a startling use of hospital care related to low income.”
For challenge-taker Brent Mansfield, eating a diet based largely on white rice and oatmeal for a week had the greatest impact on his energy levels, leaving him lethargic and with “a foggy head”.
As the co-chair of the citizen’s advisory committee the Vancouver Food Policy Council, Mansfield said the council now hopes to establish a working group to look at issues related to food equity.
The advisory committee has been working with the city on its municipal food strategy, which Mansfield said will look at efforts such as establishing more community gardens, and expanding opportunities for urban agriculture. Mansfield noted that while he wants to see local efforts like city farms expanded, he also believes broader policy changes are needed to address systemic issues that contribute to food poverty.
“Right now, with the social assistance rates and what they’re at, people can’t make good choices, even if they wanted to—and they may not have time or energy to be able to participate in broader things that would develop their own capacity to grow and cook healthy food,” he said in a phone interview. “So we need to be looking at all points of the spectrum.”
Paul Taylor, the executive director of the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House, said that much of the food that’s available on a charitable basis in the area isn’t suited to a range of health needs.
“I work in a community where people are disproportionately affected with a variety of things that compromise their health,” he told the Straight following a news conference at the neighbourhood house on East Hastings Street Tuesday. “The food that’s typically available through a charity model is food that’s high in starch, high in sugar, high in preservatives, overly-packaged, overly-processed.”
“For me the biggest part is that people have money in their wallet, so that they can go out and purchase the food and things that they need to keep them alive,” he added.
Organizers with Raise the Rates renewed their call Tuesday for increases to welfare rates, and for a provincial poverty-reduction strategy.
“Poverty costs money,” Bill Hopwood told reporters. “It costs the health service…it costs education, it costs children who didn’t get enough iron. It affects their whole life.”
The current income assistance rate for a single person expected to work in B.C. is $610 a month. According to the calculation of Raise the Rates, that leaves just over $100 a month for food, after housing, bus tickets and other basic expenses are covered.
The last increase to B.C. income assistance rates was in 2007. In June, the B.C. government announced changes to income and disability assistance, including allowing all expected-to-work welfare clients a $200 monthly earnings exemption, and an $800 monthly earnings exemption for individuals receiving disability assistance.