Trying to eat on $26 a week, as those on social assistance do, is harder than it sounds, says a group of Belmont secondary students who took on the challenge.
“The first two days a lot of us found it easy,” said Chris Moore, who lasted four days. “But after a while, once you run out of food, you start getting hungrier and hungrier.”
“You just have zero energy whatsoever,” said Kaeleigh Gaunt, who made it three days. “Your mood totally goes down and I was starting to get depressed.”
As a part of their social justice course at the school, five students chose to take part in the challenge, organized by Raise the Rates, a coalition of community groups with concerns over poverty.
An able-bodied individual receives $610 per month on social assistance, a rate which has not increased since 2007. Factoring in a bare-bones rent and other essentials, the organization calculates about $26 is left for food per individual, per week.
Organizer Bill Hopwood estimates more than 100 people took part.
“All of them said at the end of the week ‘Thank goodness I only have to do it for a week, I don’t know how people survive on that,’” Hopwood said. “People on welfare are so desperate it’s making it harder to get out of that world.”
Of the first four students who took on the challenge, only one made it through the week, Jaelin Ellis. The fifth student, Kurt Pearce, was in the midst of the challenge at the time of writing.
The students started by combing the grocery store for the cheapest items, and wound up with Heinz Zoodles, a canned pasta. They would eat Zoodles for breakfast, maybe an apple and granola bar at lunch and Zoodles again for dinner.
Teacher Danielle Huculak estimates students got about 500 calories a day. A moderately active teenager is recommend to eat roughly between 2,000 and 2,800 calories a day, depending on gender and weight.
By day three the students had trouble focusing in class and felt weak and ill.
Moore said a hockey practice around day three nearly did him in.
“I wasn’t feeling well before and I got on the ice and fell down and couldn’t really get up for like five minutes,” he said. “I got off the ice. I should have quit that night.”
“I felt like I was going to pass out a few times,” Gaunt said. “I just had to quit because I was too hungry. It’s a hard thing to do.”
Huculak knew the challenge would be difficult and kept a close eye on the students to see how they were doing.
“When I was hearing them talk I said ‘You need to stop. You have permission to stop,’” she said. “The point had been made, so they didn’t need to go the seven days. I think it was a pretty enlightening experience.”
Moore said he lost three pounds during the challenge, Gaunt two pounds and Matthew Pounden, who lasted three days, about four or five pounds.
The experience helped the students realize just how good they have it, with parents who are able to afford regular, balanced meals. They all now believe social assistance does not give enough money for food.
The students plan to write a letter to the government telling of their experience and imploring that social assistance rates be raised.
“It would be a good thing to see the government try and do this and realize that it’s not enough for a person to live off of for a whole week,” Gaunt said. “(It’s) a reality check.”