Could you eat for a week on the amount of money a person would receive from Income Assistance? I just watched the documentary Food Stamped, which is about that very subject. The filmmaker, who was a nutrition educator, wanted to try it, to see what a Food Stamp budget was like for her clients. In the US, the Food Stamp or SNAP program provides an average of $1.00 to $1.25 per meal per person.
So, the filmmaker and her spouse pledged to spend no more than $50 for all of their food for a week.
Here’s what the situation is like where I live. It’s a bit of a simplification, but is not far off.
People receiving Income Assistance get two monthly amounts – one for rent and another for “everything else.” For a single adult, the All Other amount is about $238 per month. It has to cover any utilities not included in the rent, plus phone service (if any), transportation, necessary clothing and personal care. Whatever is left over is available for food costs.
The Canadian government issues a tool called the National Nutritious Food Basket to estimate the minimum cost of a healthy diet. I found the figures below here.
For a male aged 25-49, the estimate is $46 a week. A man on Income Assistance would need $199 for the least expensive healthy diet, and would have $39 for everything else that month.
For a female aged 25-49, the estimate is $35 a week. A woman on Income Assistance would need $152 for the least expensive healthy diet, and would have $86 for everything else that month.
Personally, I can pack away as much food as most men – I am active, and neither dainty nor petite!
Health Canada suggests that it would cost the two of us at my house (1 female, 1 male) a total of $81/week for a basic healthy diet. However, it costs more per person to feed a family of 2 than a family of 4, so they recommend adding 10% to compensate, bringing the total to $89.
I need to point out that grocery costs are at least 20-35% higher in Canada than in the US. For example, I compared my city to Charlotte NC (29% lower), Boise ID (32% lower) and Spokane WA (22% lower).
So, if we were in Boise, we’d only need $61 to buy the same foods.
The way I grocery shop, prepare food and eat have changed dramatically over the past few years, but the cost has not! In 2006, I spent $470/month on food for one teenager and myself. In the past 6 months, I have spent $465/month on food for Rom and myself. No change, even though what we eat is quite different! All we have done is absorb the cost of food inflation by eliminating meat, packaged foods, snacks and sweets. (We have been eating a plant-based diet for the past 8 months).
$470/month = $109/week or $54/person
Here’s what a typical day’s food would have looked like for me in 2006:
- Breakfast: bagel, banana, orange juice, coffee
- Morning snack: oatmeal cookies, coffee
- Lunch: salad, toast, yogurt
- Afternoon snack: apple, Twizzlers
- Dinner: breaded chicken strips, oven fries, peas, milk
- Evening snack: pretzels or goldfish crackers, grapes
And here’s what a typical day’s food looks like now:
- Breakfast: cereal, toast, peanut butter, coffee
- Morning snack: muffin, orange, coffee
- Lunch: avocado and tomato sandwich, yogurt
- Afternoon snack: apple, nuts
- Dinner: Vegetarian chilli, whole wheat roll
- Evening snack: none
I would say our diet wasn’t horrible before, but we ate a lot of prepared foods including purchased baked goods, candy, and salty snacks. Our evening meals were usually what I called “kid food” because it seemed like the path of least resistance. It was quick to get on the table at 6 pm.
Here’s the big change: I calculated that I now spend THREE HOURS A DAY on food-related tasks. And that doesn’t even include eating! We make almost everything from scratch. I am literally spending 15-20% of my waking hours to provide two of us with a healthy, Real Food diet!
Our $109/week grocery budget may not seem so much higher than the $89 Food Basket recommendation, but here’s where the differences come in:
- I can spend as much time as I like comparison shopping from newspaper flyers or online. I have an Internet connection!
- I can drive from one store to another for the best deals. I have a car!
- I can stock up on sale items.
- I can buy in bulk.
- I can join Costco.
- I might even have a freezer!
- I will always have a kitchen with a working fridge and stove.
- I will never have to worry about roommates or boarders taking my groceries or leftovers.
- I don’t have to deduct the cost of bus or cab fare from my grocery bill.
- I don’t have to choose between feeling full or being healthy.
- I don’t have to spend 3 days’ food allowance at the Laundromat.
- If I get my period, I don’t have to stop eating for a day to buy maxi pads.
- If my doctor recommends I get blood work for $14, I can still have lunch and dinner that day and the next.
- I never have to eat ramen for a week to get through to Cheque Day.
- I don’t buy strawberries in January, but I could.
- I don’t have to cringe when someone tells me I should make my own yogurt, and milk is $2 a litre.
- I don’t spend three hours a week lining up for free meals, not caring what is served.
- I’ve never been grilled about whether I qualify for benefits.
- I’ve never had to take tomato soup and Cheez Whiz from a food bank.
- I’ve gone out for Pad Thai, Vindaloo, Moussaka, and Dim Sum.
- I don’t have to explain how I’ve become so large when I can’t afford to eat.
- I can choose a recipe from a cookbook that includes fresh figs and goat cheese.
- I eat beans and lentils all the time, but I can flavour them with all the fresh ingredients I like.
I could go on and on.
No matter how much I talk about saving money on groceries, eating better and being healthy, it does not compare in any way to people who question where their next meal will come from, or those who eat the same cheap fillers every day, or those who rely on food banks and soup kitchens.
As the Food Stamped movie points out, it takes an incredible amount of time and education to eat adequately on a low income. And it is very hard to get enough calories from buying only healthy foods on a Food Stamp budget.
I work with low income individuals every day, many with lower education levels, and additional challenges such as physical disabilities, mental health issues, partner violence, and awful housing conditions. I am always amazed by the lengths people go to in order to feed themselves and their families and to learn more about health and wellness.
I am aware of my extreme privilege. I applaud all efforts toward sustainable, healthy, fresh and abundant food for everyone.