Hundreds of people across Metro Vancouver took up the fifth annual Welfare Food Challenge for seven days starting October 16 to experience for themselves what it is like to only live off welfare. The challenge was this: live an entire week on only $18 worth of food. $18 is what Raise The Rates, a coalition of community groups advocating an end to poverty, estimates that an average welfare recipient has to spend on food. The Challenge sought to raise awareness about the plight of those who live off welfare.

The British Columbia government provides only $610 per month in welfare per person. After accounting for housing and personal necessities, only about $76 a month, or under $18 a week, is left for food. Today, the Health Canada food basket, a grocery list of food that has long been used as a metric to measure the affordability of healthy eating, costs between $60 and $80 per week in the Lower Mainland.

Just three years ago, that number was $26 per week. But due to inflation and rising real estate prices and rental costs, that number is now down to $18. The Liberal government has kept the rate at $610 per month since 2007, even while the cost of living has risen astronomically in the Lower Mainland.

The $18 a week that a welfare recipient can spend on food is especially depressing considering that $31 billion (as in $31,000,000,000) worth of food is wasted in Canada every year. Some of the largest culprits are supermarkets.

A recent CBC Marketplace investigation at a Toronto Wal-Mart exposed the vast amount of perfectly edible food items that are wasted, day after day; some items thrown away had “best before” dates years from now. Worse, the investigation found that Toronto Wal-Mart was not the exception, but the rule. Wal-Mart employees throwing away food is common practice across the country.

Among the many who took up the Welfare Food Challenge included Coquitlam councillor Chris Wilson, who expressed his discontent about B.C.’s low welfare rate to Raise The Rates. “Metro Vancouver has the highest cost of living in the country, yet our welfare rates haven’t been increased in almost a decade,” wrote Wilson. “On a human level, I think it’s criminal to expect someone to live on $18 a week for food in this part of the country.”

Another challenger was SFU Masters of Public Health student Cynnimon Rain who voiced her concerns about the health effects of such a cheap diet. “This year with only $18.00 available for food, we are concerned about our mental acuity, physical, and psychological health and well-being. As public health students, we learn how income and food insecurity negatively affects health and well-being,” said Rain.

Others who participated in the challenge included BCTF president Glen Hansman, NDP MP Jenny Kwan from Vancouver East, NDP MLA Spencer Herbert from Vancouver—West End, and newly elected NDP MLA Melanie Mark from Vancouver—Mount Pleasant.

With the provincial election looming, poverty and and its effects are sure to become important issues in the campaign. The NDP has hammered the Liberals on poverty, education, and housing. Perhaps this may lead the Liberals to finally raise the welfare rate for the first time in ten years.