Welfare Food Challenge: DONE!

After a pretty grueling one week living off $21 week, I couldn’t wait for Thursday, Oct 23 to begin so I could get back to my normal eating patterns. The past 7 days really opened my eyes to the difficulties of eating off such a minimal amount of money, literally an average of $1/meal. I struggled with activities of daily living, fighting terrible hunger pangs and migraines, lacked essential macro AND micro nutrients and was unable to keep up with my physical exercise.

Preparation: 

The weeks before Oct 16th were pretty stressful. I was heavily fixated on that scary number 21 – and after hours of pricing grocery stores and seeking the best deals out there, I really didn’t know how I would be able to keep my tummy full for a week. Was my ++preparation realistic for the common individual on welfare – probably not. I can admit that was a limitation on the realism of the way I organized my challenge. But as a dietitian, I really wanted to see if it was possible to live off $21 for the week while still maintaining some decent nutrition and hoping my meals would taste good. I hunted down coupons, cheap meal recipes, and scanned flyer after flyer to come up with my ridiculously simple (and monotonous) grocery list/meals below.

What I ate:

For $21, I was able to eat from the below section of noms:

  • 3 lb bag of carrots (snagged for a $1 on sale)
  • Spaghetti pasta
  • A cup of dried lentil, a cup of dried kidney beans and a cup of dried black beans
  • One onion
  • 2 large cans of whole tomatoes – I opted for this over fresh tomatoes because of the cost
  • 6 whole grain buns – a bit of a splurge item
  • 7 tea bags
  • 6 bananas
  • 1 cup of rice
  • 1 dozen eggs
  • 1/2lb ground beef
  • 2 bottles of pre-made tomato sauce
  • 1 L milk + 1 L chocolate milk (chocolate milk was on sale for $1 so I splurged again)
  • Box of granola bars (there was a free sample coupon I found)
  • Garlic, a variety of dry spices, and a small amount of sugar

From all this, my meals consisted of a bun/banana/tea+milk OR bun/egg/tea+milk for breakfast and a rotation of dhal/rice, spaghetti/tomato sauce, and chilli/bun or rice (my favourite and most filling meal out of the three!) My snacks were a banana, granola bar and/or carrots. Dessert was chocolate milk and the granola bars (I only had 5 bars so I really had to stretch them out throughout the week!) As you could predict, meals became monotonous and I couldn’t wait to make another of the three entrees as the week passed by just to add some variety to my intakes.. and to keep me distracted for a few hours while I cooked since my tummy was very hungry.

2014-10-15 16.15.08

How I felt: 

Day 1 and 2 were probably the worst. I had the worst headaches I’ve ever had, craved everything I couldn’t eat and was all around grumpy and easily irritated. My first entree was dhal which ended up being the meals that kept me the most hungry – since I couldn’t afford oil/fat, there were minimal amounts in my meals, meaning I became hungry pretty quickly. As the week progressed, my body started to get used to the decreased intakes, my appetite lessened, I had absolutely no food cravings, but I still felt very fatigued. Small strenuous activities, including my 15 minute walks to work each day, made me feel exhausted. My attempt at going to the gym was also a failed idea after feeling light headed only 30 minutes into my usual routine. The overall week’s nutrition depletion also meant I lost a total of 1.8lbs – doesn’t sound like much, but losing that much when you’re only about 110lbs and in a WEEK time span.. can you imagine how much more I would’ve lost if I kept this challenge up longer?

Nutritional Concerns:

The main  concerns that I noted from this challenge included insufficient calories/fat and calcium/vitamin D deficits. I didn’t realize what the calorie content of my meals looked like until I began and ended the challenge and noticed weight loss. Thinking about the fact that I lost weight as a 5’2” female, I can’t imagine how someone with much larger nutritional needs would be able to sustain their nutrition on $21/week. Individuals may also have issues with absorption of fat-soluble vitamins due to the costs of fat. I couldn’t afford to buy any oils/butter with my limited budget meaning I could have issues absorbing those fat-soluble vitamins.. and I was super hungry with those lack of calories. Lastly, milk/alternatives were VERY unaffordable, which meant I was not able to meet my nutritional needs to maintain proper bone health. I initially was only able to afford 1L of milk but got a bit lucky when I was able to snag another liter on sale. I hunted down milk/alternatives throughout the preparation process and couldn’t find affordable milk/yogurts/cheeses/other alternatives – even those yogurts discounted at 50% didn’t fit my budget! Continuing this diet would encourage a copious number of bone health issues.

Although I’m glad I can finally go back to my normal eating patterns, I continue to think of all those individuals who struggle on  daily basis to keep themselves full off $21/week. As an RD(t), I have the knowledge and skills to make the most out of this budgetary limitation – not something everyone has. I hope my experiences raise awareness of the struggles those living on welfare may face on a nutritional standpoint and encourage my fellow nutrition lovers to try the challenge out for themselves and to advocate for ‘raising the rates!’

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