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.


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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