In the winter of 2016 I taught a course called “Canadian Foodways” in the Sociology department at the University of Toronto. One of the learning objectives for this course was to understand how social location impacts food habits. To that end, I created an optional assignment called the “Social Assistance Food Budget Challenge,” which was designed to introduce undergraduate students to food insecurity by having them live on the food budget that a social assistance recipient would live on for one week. My goal in this essay is to explain the impetus for this assignment, describe its design, provide a summary of students’ experiences completing the assignment, and to reflect on its utility as a tool for teaching students about food insecurity.
Canadian Foodways was a fourth-year, seminar-style, course that took place over a 12-week semester. There were 22 students in the class, most of whom were Sociology majors in their third or fourth year of study towards a four-year Bachelor’s degree. Students were introduced to the concept of food insecurity, defined as irregular access to food because of financial constraints, through readings and discussions about food systems, the political-economy of food production, food sovereignty, and anti-poverty approaches. For example, students learned about how food insecurity is indicative of neoliberal social welfare policies that have transferred the burden of food security to the community level from the government. Students also spent a considerable amount of time learning about how charitable food projects, such as food banks, are a stopgap remedy rather than a solution to food insecurity.
All of the students lived in the Greater Toronto Area, where the food insecurity rate consistently hovers between 10-13%; this equates to about 364,000 households impacted by food insecurity. At the university level, it is estimated that 30-46% of Canadian university students are food insecure and that number continues to grow because of tuition fee increases. The University of Toronto has not collected data on student food insecurity but a busy weekly food bank for students provides evidence that food insecurity exists on campus. As such, these students live, work, and study in the context of food insecurity as a real and persistent phenomenon.
The Social Assistance Food Budget Challenge is adapted from the Welfare Food Challenge, a campaign created by British Columbia anti-poverty coalition Raise the Rates. Raise the Rates is led by people who have (current or previous) direct experiences with poverty and food insecurity. The Welfare Food Challenge, created in 2012, is an annual campaign that challenges politicians and celebrities, amongst other British Columbians, to live on a food budget equivalent to what a person on welfare has to spend for a week. Participants blog about their experiences on the Welfare Food Challenge website, for the purpose of raising public awareness about the inadequacy of welfare rates and the harm they cause to both individuals and society.
The Social Assistance Food Budget Challenge assignment required students to first calculate what their budget would be for a week’s worth of food, based on what they would receive on social assistance. Students calculated their food budget as 14% of $681, the monthly Ontario Works benefit for one adult, which equated to $23.84. Using this budget, students needed to create a plan for how and where they would shop for food and what they would be eating. They also needed to research food security resources in their community and write a daily food/reflection journal detailing what they ate and how they were feeling. In order to document their challenge, several students designed blogs (complete with photographs), one created a scrapbook and the others produced written reports.
When creating this assignment, I was concerned for students who might be uncomfortable taking on the challenge (e.g., students with lived experience of poverty or disordered eating). As a result, I offered students several options for their final assignment, including writing a literature review or critical book review. I also added a trigger warning to the assignment instructions along with an invitation to speak to me, for students who were concerned about whether they could or should take on this challenge. About half of the students in the class chose to complete the challenge as their written assignment requirement for the course.
Initially I had reservations about this type of assignment because I feared that it would encourage students into “poverty tourism,” in the same way that Raise the Rates has been criticized for engaging in “poverty voyeurism.” I am in no way suggesting that by engaging in this challenge students will be able to understand the myriad ways that poverty affects people’s lives nor the long term physical and mental impacts of food insecurity. However, the necessity of budgeting and strategizing around meal planning (even if for a week) are tasks that people who are food insecure must engage in. And unlike other effects of poverty (e.g. accumulated health effects), people feel hunger quickly, in regard to both a physiological need for calories and a hunger for foods that give us pleasure. While other in-class, experiential learning activities have been created to teach about hunger (e.g., role-playing about world hunger imbalances), this assignment involves experiential learning outside of the classroom, in order to encourage understanding of how food insecurity is embodied and connected to broader structural issues.
While reading and listening to students’ reflections on the challenge, I was struck by the similarities to research on the lived experience of food insecurity. Students’ foodwork strategies included thrifty shopping practices, eating nutrient-poor food, finding free meals, and going without food. These are strategies that have also been identified as being used by people experiencing food insecurity. Likewise, students quickly experienced health effects related to food insecurity—physical, mental and emotional—including frustration, despair, isolation, stress, alienation, anxiety, and persistent thoughts of food.
Cost was the number one consideration influencing where students shopped and what they bought. This was a drastic change for most, including one student who calculated that he “normally would be spending $152 a week” on food, including “14 meals outside the home.” Most students planned repetitive meals that exhibited little variety (e.g., pasta salads; rice and lentils; bagels and peanut butter) and volume was prioritized over nutrition or quality. Students described having to choose “unhealthier” foods than they normally eat (e.g., white bread, processed cheese slices, hot dogs) or having to forego fresh produce. Several students read grocery flyers for the first time ever and one described trying to incorporate foods from all food groups as “next to impossible” on a $23.84 budget.
During the challenge the students developed ad hoc strategies to stretch their food budgets. Strategies included prolonging the time in between meals, even if they were hungry, or eliminating snacks. One student recounted “getting out of bed later than usual for the sole purpose of being able to eat breakfast later and use less energy.” Students who realized that the food they purchased was not going to last all week resorted to eating smaller portions or drank coffee or water when they were hungry (i.e., fasting). Some students prioritized eating only when they needed to physically exert themselves or to study. For example, one student was a Varsity athlete who decided to limit his eating to before or after workout sessions. He predicted that living on this food budget permanently would end his career because, in his words, “as an athlete I was severely underfed and I could feel my body being less energized.”
Students also had to manage their social relationships with family and friends in order to stick to their budget. This often meant avoiding settings where they normally socialized while spending money on food (e.g., restaurant outings). As a result, students felt isolated from their regular social circles. One student described “solitude” as “my best friend lately apparently. I have gone about my days alone to avoid the pressure of having to ask people for food.” Family and friends would take pity on students because they were hungry, but students tried to avoid this because they felt like they were “begging,” or “mooching.” Students questioned whether “borrowing” food would work as a long term solution or if they would eventually be alienated from their social networks. They also wondered whether people living in poverty would even have the same kinds of social networks (i.e., friends/family with fully-stocked pantries).
Students’ embodied experiences, shared during informal class discussions and in their written work, reflected physical, mental and emotional health challenges. The students described feeling persistent physical yearnings for food. One student said that he “read up on what starvation felt like” and he “could relate.” This same student revealed that he was “tempted to eat potato chips that were left behind on a subway seat.” Students also described feeling physically weaker because of their reduced food consumption, with one realizing that “the weakness that I experience is actually harming my productivity each day.” For several students hunger-fatigue meant that they were too tired to cook, were adding naps to their daily routine or sleeping for longer periods. Further, students felt physically spent because of the time and energy put into looking for cheap meals and groceries. One student calculated that it had taken them “an extra four hours to save $6 on food.” Aside from being energy-depleted, living on a low-calorie, highly-processed, low-fiber diet also triggered recurring health problems for some students, including migraine headaches, gastritis and constipation.
Being on the challenge was also mentally and emotionally difficult for students. Eating became joyless rather quickly, particularly because there was no room in the budget for indulgences or even small treats. On the fourth day one student stated that “eating is not enjoyable for me anymore.” The students were solely eating for sustenance and described their meals as boring, repetitive and monotonous. One student, who had planned to eat lentils and rice for most meals, described being “barely able to choke down” his last few meals and felt like he was developing “a conflicted relationship” with food. He was hungry and wanted to eat but was tired of his limited options. Students also experienced feelings of worry related to losing weight, missing out on important vitamins and minerals, and running out of food. If they miscalculated their meal plan, they did not have additional funds to buy more food, a process one student described as feeling like “walking on a tightrope.”
The students provided vivid examples of how their mental health had been affected. I was particularly moved by one student who took pictures of herself lying helplessly in a depressive state on her living room floor. Another felt increasingly anxious which made her realize how much she normally manages her anxiety with healthy food choices. This same student also described feeling tempted to steal food when she was at the grocery store. Conversely, when students were given food from others they felt ashamed and were concerned that they would be stigmatized if they continued to ask friends for help or to trade food. One student describes eating a meal his grandmother made for him as follows: “I ate with shame. But it tasted so good.” Several students remarked that it would be mentally impossible to continue with the challenge on a permanent basis; they thought the challenge was only bearable because they knew it would be over in a matter of days.
Students’ summary reflections revolved around two key themes: class privilege and individual responsibility. First, students revealed that they became aware of their own privilege in regards to food security. In general, the students had not thought much about food costs before and had sufficient disposable income to spend on spontaneous food cravings. A student described this as being able to “buy whatever I need and want at any time.” Students also became conscious of how much food they had access to both at home and at work. One student, who described her family as “not wealthy by any means,” realized that her fridge, pantry and table are always full, which made her “think about all of the food that they waste and take for granted.” Several students regularly get free food at work, which was a highlight of their week on the challenge. If not for her staff meal at a restaurant, one student suggested that she “would have had to starve for those two dinners.” Ultimately, having a flexible start date for the challenge was also a privilege, one that a student described as “a luxury” not available to food insecure folks.
Second, students’ reflections revolved around how well they had used their $23.84 food budget for the week. Even though the course curriculum covered anti-poverty approaches to food insecurity, the students still individualized the problem of surviving on a small food budget. They were highly self-critical, with one student berating herself for buying too many protein items, which she described as “redundant.” Another scolded herself for not reading a budget cookbook that had been discussed in class, even though we had critiqued solutions like this as inadequate for solving the problem of food security. A few students criticized inadequate social assistance rates, yet still blamed themselves for not shopping wisely enough. Nonetheless though, the challenge did make several students reflect on their political affiliations, Canada’s social welfare system, and whether a guaranteed basic income or a $15 minimum wage could solve food insecurity.
Based on my first experience assigning the Social Assistance Food Budget Challenge, I have several recommendations for other course instructors who might want to incorporate a social assistance food budget challenge as part of a food studies course. I think that these recommendations will push the assignment further out of the “poverty tourism” trap, and more towards solving the social problem of food insecurity.
Firstly, I would add a research component to this assignment that requires students to understand the intersection of food insecurity with: capitalism, housing affordability, neoliberal ideology, farm subsidies or basic income. I hope that this would encourage students to focus more on applying their knowledge towards potential solutions to food insecurity, in line with the typical experiential learning process.
Secondly, I would administer a survey to students, before and after taking the challenge, that measures understandings of and attitudes to poverty, social assistance and food insecurity. The purpose of this survey would be to gauge the impact of the challenge in regards to whether this type of assignment can contribute to reducing stigma and deepening awareness of social inequality.
Thirdly, I would add a group debriefing session to our class schedule in order to compare students’ experiences and help them process what they learned. This may be beneficial for gauging emotional responses that did not come across in writing.
Finally I would ask students to create and/or engage in a political campaign in response to food insecurity (e.g., Raise the Rates’ campaign to increase social assistance rates). While students did demonstrate empathy and an understanding of the inability to embody ideal neoliberal citizenship on a social assistance food budget, it is important to take political action in order to make social and structural changes towards reducing inequality.
In the future I would keep the Social Assistance Food Budget Challenge as an optional assignment, complete with a trigger warning, but a student who grew up in poverty did attempt the challenge and provided an interesting contrast to the other students. This student, who had lived on social assistance, started the challenge but did not find it “challenging.” She explained that she already used a variety of strategies to get free or low-cost food, and in fact had shared some of those with the class during discussions (e.g., taking leftover food home from volunteer events; avoiding restaurants). As a result, this student decided to stop the challenge after a few days and selected an alternate assignment. Unlike this student, others who abstained told me they could not function on a limited amount of food. Having the option to eat abundantly is another example of class privilege. Overall this assignment has inspired me to continue incorporating experiential learning activities into food sociology classes to help students make these kinds of connections between their personal foodways and larger political structures.
Alexandra Rodney is a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto, Department of Sociology. Her dissertation examines how health, authority and femininity are discursively constructed in women’s healthy living media. She has published work about food and gender in Poetics, Food, Culture & Society and Sociology.