Letter from Stephanie Smith, BCGEU President

For me this is a challenge, for thousands of others it’s a reality

Deciding to take the Welfare Food Challenge for a week, I committed to eating only the food I could buy for just $21. It’s an annual event organized by Raise the Rates, a community advocacy group supported by the BC Government Employees’ Union (BCGEU). $21 a week –that’s just $3 a day! Less than the cost of the latte most of us have each morning. I prepared for the challenge by dutifully shopping at Dollarama and Buy-Low, taking home a modest bag of groceries. I have to admit to being a bit proud that I had stretched my budget and planned well. But I soon realized, however, that fresh vegetables and fruits would be a luxury.

I had joined newly elected MP Jenny Kwan, HEU President Victor Elkins, musician Bif Naked and many others in this year’s challenge hoping to raise awareness of the shockingly low social assistance rates in BC. This is a fact witnessed daily by many BCGEU members who work in the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation and in community based health and social services. But it is experienced by thousands of people across the province. And I was about to get a bit of insight into this reality.

On my first day, I attended a meeting where lunch was catered. While colleagues ate a delicious hot meal I dug into my tuna sandwich and half a banana. It made me wonder what it was like to be surrounded by abundance but limited to scarcity. I couldn’t help but think what it must be like to feel hungry while walking past restaurants full of diners and food trucks serving up gourmet hot dogs. I’ve never been a foodie and don’t give much thought to eating when it’s all around me but knowing how I was limited this week made me think all the time about my next meal.

By Friday, just halfway through the challenge, my brain wasn’t working as quickly as I am used to. I was foggy and had a terrible headache. Another major aha moment was when a very dear, newly pregnant friend said she thought she should have done the challenge and I realized how unhealthy trying to eat on $3 a day would be for anyone growing and supporting a new life! As an Early Childhood Educator and knowing what I know about early brain development and prenatal health – it’s actually quite terrifying! According to Health Canada’s 2011–2012 Canadian Community Health Survey, 8.3 per cent of the population of B.C. is moderately or severely food insecure. Higher rates of food insecurity are found in lower income households and among: families headed by single females, Aboriginal Peoples, marginally housed and homeless people, and new immigrants.

Over 175,000 people in BC – 30,000 of them children – rely on welfare and face bare cupboards and fridges. It’s impossible to get your proper nutritional needs met and function properly on these meagre social assistance rates. The rates have not changed in over 8 years and yet the cost of living, especially rent and food, rise each year. Unfortunately, myths about welfare and the people who need it persist. Myths like keeping the rates low encourages people to look for work, that people choose to be on welfare and that we can’t afford to raise the rates. And yet, the BC government has prioritized tax cuts for the wealthy. In fact, it costs society more to permit people to live in poverty than it would to lift them out of it. We need a welfare system that supports people, not punishes them. It’s time for the BC government to raise the rates!

Please sign the petition to raise the rates here.

First published on the BCGEU website: