Why I Ate Beans for a Week
Alternatively: Fighting Poverty in BC with Indigestion
Alternatively: How I Became a Bean
It’s the middle of midterm season at UBC, you’ve forgotten your umbrella on the 99 bus, and have just discovered a new hole in one of your boots. Your socks are wet, you’re freezing cold, you step into the Boulevard Cafe to grab a coffee- the one thing that will make everything alright- but then you remember… you’re on welfare.
Raise the Rates’ Annual Welfare Food Challenge, started Sunday, October 16th, and this year I finally bit the bullet and participated. Raise the Rates is a coalition of community groups and communities concerned with the level of homelessness and poverty in British Columbia (BC). Once a year they challenge people to try and survive on a welfare budget for one week. The goal of this challenge is to get people to experience how difficult impossible it is, and to raise awareness over the struggles British Columbians dependent on welfare face.
A person on welfare receives $610 from the government per month. The Challenge’s website breaks down the individual’s monthly costs:
$10 for personal hygiene This seems like a ridiculously low allowance, considering shampoo and conditioner alone can cost $10. What about soap, deodorant, razors, shaving cream, tampons and pads?
$25 for a cellphone To be eligible for welfare you need to be actively looking for a job. A cellphone is critical for a job search as you need to be contactable. $25 is pretty low for a cellphone plan, and this cost doesn’t even cover the initial purchase of the cell phone.
$479 for rent (plus $20 for damage deposit) Contrary to the $375 that Income Assistance budgets for an individual’s “shelter component”, the monthly cost of the most affordable housing in Vancouver is actually $479. This is the monthly rate of an SRO (Single Occupancy Hotel). For an individual on welfare, an SRO is the only feasible option, considering that the average rent for a studio in East Hastings is $846 according to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
That leaves $76 for groceries, or $18 per week!
No fancy granola this week. No granola at all, in fact. Before the challenge started, I spent some time thinking about how best to allocate my small amount of grocery funds and which grocery stores would be cheapest. I realized this was already unrealistic as people on welfare don’t have time to visit every cheap grocery store in their neighborhood to figure out the most affordable and nutritious foods. They probably shop like I do, at that really expensive Safeway in Point Grey, at 11:55pm, in a mad rush to get back to whatever they need to do before the morning.
Already I’m handling this situation differently. I’m choosing not to shop at expensive grocery stores like Safeway. This is not necessarily representative of the true experience of a welfare recipient. Maybe they are sometimes forced to spend extra at expensive stores, when they are short on time, or are unable to travel further. However, for the purposes of not running out of food in the first 3 days of the challenge, I decided to adopt the role of a thrifty welfare recipient who is willing to spend a little extra time shopping and cooking. We will see if even this kind of person can survive on a welfare budget.
I picked my foods strategically. I wanted the most calories, protein, and healthy fats my eighteen dollars could afford me. 300 million people in the world rely on beans to stave of malnutrition, and rice is a staple food in many cultures due to its affordability and ease of preparation. Many impoverished groups rely on these two foods. For that reason, I planned to eat primarily beans, rice, and, for just a bit of variation, spaghetti. I bought dried black beans because they were far cheaper than canned. I knew that produce would be tough to fit into the budget but was able to afford some discounted zucchinis and bananas that were turning brown.These needed to be eaten by the first half of the week. I bought some flavored instant oatmeal packets. Seeing as I couldn’t afford any sugar (and pilfering cafe sugar packets seemed like cheating) these pre-flavored packets seemed a lot more appealing than plain oatmeal even though the bag of plain oatmeal would have provided more food overall. Finally, I bought one jar of pasta sauce, an emergency can of flavored Heinz beans, and a bag of 6 whole wheat pitas for snacking.
My Week on Welfare
Feeling fly. Too hyped up on the excitement of starting the challenge to be bummed out about the food. The beans took way longer to cook than I expected. I ate 3 of the mushier bananas today.
I am already sick of the beans. Sitting here with my bowl of spaghetti and black beans, I am promising my taste buds that I will not eat another bean for months after this week.The block of cheddar cheese is taunting me from the fridge, begging me to shred it over the pasta. However, cheese is totally out of the question while I am on this budget. Even the tiniest bit of salt or oil would do wonders, but those too were sacrificed in order to afford… the beans. I can see why people on small budgets sometimes use their money to buy unhealthy things like Kraft Dinner and instant meals. If you can’t afford condiments, salt, or spices, then the basic, healthy (tasteless) food items become the bane of your existence.
Today I forgot a fork. I was on campus for several hours and needed to eat the lunch I packed, but most of the cafes on campus charge for plastic forks, and I felt like purchasing one would be breaking the rules. Maybe someone on welfare wouldn’t have 25 cents to spare to purchase a fork. Eventually I found a free plastic fork, but if I hadn’t I would have either had to wait for hours until I got home to eat, or eaten my spaghetti and beans with my hands, which is not very dignified or clean.
Today I spent my remaining $2 on a chocolate bar! Yes, I know what you’re thinking ‘Caledonia, the nutrition to $ ratio on that chocolate bar is not so good’. I know, I know- but I couldn’t eat another bean. I am turning into a bean. Also I have to write an essay where I literally have to write ‘who I am’, so I really needed that chocolate bar.
I don't know what I did wrong but today the beans made me nauseous. I couldn't stomach them so I just skipped lunch altogether. I'm sure if you prepare black beans correctly (with salt!) they taste great, but when I make them they are just like little squishy beetles swimming in swampy black bean juice. Not delicious at all. I think I'm going to have nightmares about beans after this challenge. Lost in the world of existentialism. I ate plain spaghetti noodles for dinner.
Second last day of the challenge!! Also Friiidaay! I realized today that Friday is not that fun when you can’t drink. One tall glass of water for me. Being on welfare must be completely utterly and socially isolating. I felt nervous about going out. What if I became hungry in the middle of the night? I could either pack a bunch of beans (ugh) or come home later to eat.
Also, I was late for class today because I was cooking... you guessed it... beans! The dry beans take a while to cook and I didn't estimate my time wisely. Super inconvenient. Sometimes you have days where you just have to grab something on the go, or at least have snacks at home to take with you. Both of those options are not feasible on a welfare budget.
I’ve started snacking on dry spaghetti noodles, because at least they have texture.
At the beginning of the week I thought the amount of food I had would be more than enough to get me through the week. Calorically it was. I was able to survive on this amount of food, however after I ran out of all the tasty things and was left with just plain black beans, rice, and spaghetti, eating truly sucked.
I found myself wishing that I didn’t have to eat so often. I wished that I could just snap my fingers and ingest the beans without having to taste them. They started to make me feel nauseous. All I wanted was to put a little bit of salt on my plate.
What amazed me about this week was the stark contrast between the first half of the week and the second half. I’m sure the novelty of the challenge and the new food had something to do with it, but I found that having small luxury items like pasta sauce, pita bread, and even mushy bananas made the challenge more bearable. They added a bit of pleasure to my meals. I could sit down at lunch and feel satisfied because my beans on spaghetti actually tasted like something: a bit of sweetness, a bit of salt, a bit of texture. During the second half of the week I didn’t have these things and it was seriously disheartening. I started smelling the foods around me when I was in public places, and noticing strangers’ food. Greasy Chinese leftovers started to look really, really good.
Things I thought would be hard:
- Not having coffee
- Not having chocolate
Things that ended up being hard:
- Having time to cook my meals (dry beans need to soak for 6 hours!)
- Stomaching tasteless, textureless food
- Social interactions. I worried about being hungry when I didn’t bring any home cooked food out with me. My boyfriend and I couldn’t hang out and make meals together, or share food.
The things I am complaining about are totally small and petty compared to the reality people on welfare face. I complain about taste and food’s impact on my social life when other people are going hungry and are worrying about being bad parents.
This challenge does not reveal the long-term consequences of living on a welfare budget. I’m sure that eventually, if I continued eating this way, I would feel the impact of missing out on essential vitamins and minerals that only fruits and vegetables can provide. Additionally, I’m sure at some point I would have cracked and splurged on a luxury item and ended up running out of food as a result. I can’t imagine what that would be like. I was already distracted by not being able to eat good food so I’d get nothing done if I didn’t have food at all. In fact, I know a lot of other challenge participants ran out of food during the week and needed to quit the challenge.
There were so many costs that this challenge did not acknowledge. Some of the costs I did not take into account are: toilet paper, shampoo and conditioner, kitchen utensils, and the tupperware container I packed my lunch in. The budget calculations allocated ten dollars for personal hygiene, PER MONTH. Ten dollars wouldn’t even get you shampoo and conditioner. Also, that ten dollars included laundry. In the last apartment I lived in a round of laundry cost me five dollars. It also only allocated $479 for housing which we all know is totally insane for Vancouver.
A person on welfare receives $610 per month. Raise the Rates is demanding that the government increase this amount to $1500, which is the MBM (Market Basket Measure) for rural BC. MBM is the amount of disposable income people in a particular area need to meet their basic needs. $1500 may seem like a lot, but I challenge you to keep an honest account of everything you buy in a month and see what your true cost of living is.
The Cost of Poverty
Welfare is a controversial topic for some. I’ve met people who believe that if someone lives too comfortably on welfare, they won’t be motivated to change their situation. I personally don’t agree with this view at all, but people are entitled to their opinions. However, if this is your opinion, or if you simply don’t care about the fact that 185,000 people in BC are living like this, you might be interested to learn how the poverty of others might be affecting you.
Poverty costs BC $8 billion dollars per year. This cost is due to increased rates of crime, government expenditure on healthcare, as well as the loss of income tax revenue. A full poverty reduction program would cost around $4 billion per year. Such a plan would involve raising welfare and the minimum wage, building social housing and providing a provincial child care program. BC is the only province in Canada without such a plan. Let’s change that, because no one should have to survive on beans.