Recently I thought about starting a food challenge for the month of March. I wanted to do something based on the Food Stamp or SNAP Challenge in the US. You impose a grocery budget limit for yourself equal to what a SNAP recipient would get, or similar government benefits.
We have a national food comparison tool called the Nutritious Food Basket. It’s a list of 67 basic foods that are the more popular selections from the (old) Canada Food Guide categories. They are mostly whole foods that you cook from scratch. They weren’t chosen as the BEST foods, but they’re foods that are familiar, cheap-ish, often available even in food deserts, and don’t take excessively long to prepare. In other words, they are intended as realistic foods that an average person might eat if they had a low income and had no allergies or special diet needs. Cities and towns across Canada check what it would cost to eat from this food list for a month (4.33 weeks). The cost for your area is used as the baseline price for a healthy diet.
The Food Basket doesn’t include cleaning supplies, paper goods, personal care items, baby supplies or pet food, but 5% is added for spices, seasonings and condiments.
The latest costing for our area was done in 2015 and the numbers are:
- $215.59 Woman 51-70 years
- $279.93 Man 51-70 years
- Multiply by 1.1 because in a household of 2, you can’t economize as much as a larger household can (due to product sizes – sometimes you can’t use up or store the large sizes)
- Total for our household: $545.07
Hold on – that’s more than our actual monthly food budget of $440! Does this mean that “welfare recipients” are getting $105 more for food than we two working people can afford? NO! the Nutritious Food Basket is an indicator of the money low-income people need for healthy eating, not what they actually receive in benefits.
From what I can tell, if Rom and I had no means of earning an income or supporting ourselves, the maximum we’d get from Income Assistance for our family of 2 would be $1120/month. We’d get free bus passes and prescription coverage. An acceptable one-bedroom apartment starts at $800; a scary one starts at $600. If we rented the scary one and paid $440/month for food, we’d have $80 left for everything else (including cleaning and paper supplies, personal care and the occasional hair cut or replacement clothing item). But wait, we might also get a GST rebate of $55 a month. Big money! We might be able to afford a pay-as-you-go cell phone. Our income assistance would end when we turned 65 years old and got the Old Age Pension instead. There is a supplement for people with no other income, so we would then be better off than the “welfare” scenario.
That is what life would be like if we lived on government benefits.
Interestingly, a household of 2 in the US that is eligible for SNAP benefits, is expected to get a month’s worth of food on $353 including their own contributions. That is currently $464 Canadian. Again, a little more than we pay now for food. In my example above, in which we have an income of $1120, we would have to contribute 30% to our own food bill, or $336, and get $17 in SNAP benefits, assuming the government would bother making up that small a difference.
As you can see, it doesn’t make sense for us to do a food challenge that imitates the Nutritious Food Basket or Income Assistance payments; at least not for economic reasons.
Rom and I have dozens of advantages that make it easy for us to save money on groceries and still eat well:
Education (aka Food Literacy) – knowledge of healthy foods, knowledge of nutrition needs, ability to read and assess food labels, ability to calculate and compare item costs, knowledge of how to cook a wide variety of foods from scratch, knowledge of food safety and storage, knowledge of meal planning, how to avoid waste, how to estimate how much food to buy
Ownership of consumer goods – electricity (always paid on time), water (plentiful and cheap), working fridge, stovetop, oven and microwave, numerous small and specific appliances, numerous pots, pans, dishes, utensils and storage containers. Exclusive and unlimited use of all these things 24/7.
A stocked pantry – we have the spices, seasonings, condiments and baking supplies to make almost anything
Storage space – a big kitchen, and room elsewhere in the house for stockpiles, if desired
Transportation – Since we have a car in good working order, licensed and insured and with a full tank of gas, we can pick up groceries whenever we like. We try to limit shopping to once a week, but we don’t have to. We can also drive around to pick up great deals. I try to combine errands or stop on my way home from work, but I always have the option to go get that lower price. If we had to walk to a store, the nearest is 2 km each way. We would only be able to carry so much or pull it in a cart. It would be very hard in snowy or icy weather. In bad weather we’d have to take a bus to another store along a bus route (3.3 km) or take a taxi. Or we would just have to scrimp and wait until the weather improved.
Choice of grocery stores – We have 3 full-service supermarkets and 3 other grocery stores within a 4 km radius of home. Plus a Dollarama and a liquor store! They all have long hours, so there is continuous availability and choice.
Time – We have 35-hour work weeks (40 with the lunch breaks) and each of us works only 5 days a week. We have no child care or elder care responsibilities. Even with our commute times, we still have a couple of hours at the beginning and end of each day for cooking, eating, washing dishes, making work lunches, making meal plans and making grocery lists. We can come home from work and cook a full dinner and eat at 7 and no one is whining or miserable. We can put leftovers in the fridge and they’re still there for the next evening!
Health and wellness – We are healthy and we don’t have to worry about mobility, extreme fatigue, illness, depression and anxiety, and other things that might prevent someone from food shopping, cooking, eating or cleaning. We get uninterrupted sleep, we have good dental care, we can buy OTC meds if we have aches and pains. Neither of us does manual labour. Our employers give us paid sick time. We are well-fed and able to concentrate. When we get irritable, we can have a yummy snack! We don’t have allergies or require special diets. And despite the rising costs of vegetables and nuts, our being vegetarian is still cheaper than not.
And, obviously, we have money – We never have to wait for payday to get groceries. We never run out of money a week before the end of the month. We never have to skip meals. We never have to choose between buying heating oil and buying food. If we don’t like a cheap brand, we can buy a better one. We don’t have to live on cheap processed food like KD or hot dogs or packaged ramen. We have fresh fruit and veg every day.
In summary – we have PRIVILEGE, PRIVILEGE, PRIVILEGE!
Nevertheless, I keep thinking about what the experience of living without abundant good food is like, and what I can do to help others.
So for the month of March, we will try to shop just twice during the month, we will choose just one store, we will try to limit our new food purchases to basic items (no quinoa or pesto or goat cheese) and only use the spices and condiments we already have, we’ll cost out our meals “for information purposes,” and we will try to save $100 and donate it to the Food Bank.
Have you ever experienced a period of poverty and hunger? How did you manage?
Have you ever done a poverty-awareness food challenge?
I had to know what the foods were in the Nutritious Food Basket. Keep in mind, they are typical purchases – not necessarily recommended purchases:
In alphabetical order: apple juice; apples; bananas; baked beans (canned); beef (ground, inside round and steak); bread (white, whole wheat, and buns); broccoli (fresh); cabbage; canola oil; cantaloupe; carrots (fresh); celery; cereals; cheddar cheese; cheese slices; chicken legs; corn (canned); crackers; cucumber; eggs; fish (frozen); grapes; green pepper; ham; iceberg lettuce; lentils (dry); margarine; mayonnaise; milk; mixed vegetables (frozen); mozzarella cheese; mushrooms; oatmeal; onions; orange juice; oranges; pasta; peaches (canned); peanuts; peanut butter; pears (fresh); peas (frozen); pita bread; plain cookies and crackers; pork chops; potatoes; raisins; rice; romaine lettuce; rutabaga/turnip; salad dressing; salmon (canned); strawberries (frozen); string beans (frozen); sweet potatoes; tomatoes (canned and fresh); tuna (canned); vegetable juice; and yogurt
March is Nutrition Month: Check out the new Canada Food Guide!
Sources for this post include: