Vancouver park board commissioner Constance Barnes is among the participants in a challenge next month to eat on welfare rates for a week.
Anti-poverty group Raise the Rates announced the details of its “welfare food challenge” today (September 25), which will see participants spend just $26 for a week’s supply of food.
The challenge will take place from October 16 to 23. Aside from Barnes, the other candidates that have confirmed their participation in the challenge are Paul Taylor, the executive director of the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House, registered dietician Colleen McGuire, Brent Mansfield, the co-chair of the Vancouver Food Policy Council, parent and community organizer Trish Garner, and Ted Bruce, the executive director of population health with Vancouver Coastal Health.
Barnes said she experienced a similar challenge first-hand about 20 years ago, when she and her children were on welfare for a couple of years.
“I was on social assistance when they were young, and it was really hard to feed them,” she told the Straight by phone.
Barnes’ father Emery also accepted a challenge to live on welfare rates for a month in 1986 when he was an MLA.
“It’s 26 years ago and we’re still working on this—we still need to address it,” she said.
“It’s not just people in the Downtown Eastside,” she added. “These are people that are all walks of life that have just really fallen on tough times, places are closing down, all of a sudden you’re in a situation that you’re having to reach out for help.”
Barnes recalls her father losing 30 pounds and looking “gaunt” toward the end of his challenge.
“I remember him being really hungry, I remember going to see him when he had a one-room over Heatley, and I remember bringing him food…and he would not accept it,” recalled Barnes.
As part of the challenge next month, organizers are requiring participants to subsist only on the $26 a week, and not to accept any additional meals from friends or from food banks. The amount was calculated based on what welfare participants have left after paying for accommodation, bus tickets, and other basic expenses. The monthly social assistance rate for a single employable person in B.C. is $610.
Bill Hopwood, an organizer with Raise the Rates, acknowledged that while the welfare food challenge won’t affect participants in the same way as those living on social assistance rates over a long period, he expects them to notice impacts on their attitude and morale.
“People, because they’re hungry, they then don’t function so well, then they make bad decisions, or they go for the job interview and they’re not really there,” he said.
Organizers are challenging other B.C. residents to take part in the experience next month. They plan to announce more participants in the coming weeks.
The food challenge follows NDP MLA Jagrup Brar’s experience of living on the welfare rate for a month in January. Brar accepted an earlier challenge by Raise the Rates to all B.C. MLAs.