As a registered dietitian, Erica Kang knows what it takes to eat a healthy, balanced diet, but this week she didn't consume nearly enough calories and was short many vitamins and nutrients.
Kang didn't slack off her regular eating routine because she wanted a break nor was she on the latest diet craze, instead she took part in the Welfare Food Challenge to both raise awareness about low social assistance rates in B.C. as well as learn what's it's like to live on a food budget of just $26 a week.
"Even for somebody trained, with five years of schooling, I wasn't able to manage what was an adequate diet for my needs," Kang said after completing the challenge this week.
The $26 budget is derived from what the average welfare recipient has left to spend on food once other essentials like housing, transportation and communication costs are deducted from their monthly living allowance.
"As a dietitian, I often counsel people who are financially challenged," Kang said. "I thought this would be a good way to step into their shoes and see what it was like to have such a limited budget to spend on food."
The week started with a trip to the grocery store, which Kang said took 45 minutes despite buying just a handful of items. She kept crisscrossing the store, trying to seek out the best deals, while at the same time getting a nutritional bang for her buck.
Produce turned out to be the biggest challenge as Kang weighed the benefits of buying fresh, frozen or canned goods. She had to make some sacrifices, like buying a baguette rather than a loaf of whole wheat bread due to cost.
Rather than getting processed or convenience food, she focused on buying staple products like rice, beans, milk and vegetables.
Once she got her food home and began to plan out meals for the week, she soon began to worry if she would have enough to get her through the week.
"At first it was all worry and after that it was all hunger," she said. "It's hard to concentrate when you don't have as much food as you normally have."
Kang said she often had food cravings, but only once acted on them, buying 30 grams of cheese powder for her pasta.
Kang had to eat small portion sizes to make the most of the food she had and avoid running out. She analyzed what she ate and concluded she was consuming just 1500 calories a day when she should be averaging more than 2300. She was also lacking in potassium, iron, vitamin D and vitamin E.
"I was never satiated," she said. "I never felt I was nourishing myself properly."
In addition to feeling hungry all the time and losing close to five pounds, Kang said eating fewer calories also resulted in sleep problems and low energy. She said it was a challenge to exercise and she had to factor in more time to bike to work because she was riding slower than usual.
There were also social and emotional difficulties that stemmed from the experiment, including feeling isolated at social events.
"Food plays such a huge role in social interactions," Kang said. "On the weekend, that was really eye-opening for me because every single social event I went to involved food and I kept having to refuse."
Kang found the beans and lentils she bought provided the best nutrient value at a low price and allowed her to meet her recommended daily intake for fibre - but she does has a few regrets about the purchasing decisions she made.
"Yogurt was one I wouldn't buy again," she said. "I got the cheapest yogurt and it was on sale, a generic brand that was low sugar and low fat, so I hardly got any calories from it."
In retrospect she may have also purchased fewer oranges and more bananas, which may have freed up funds for other items.
Kang chronicled her journey on social media, which she said helped raise awareness for the cause of raising social assistance rates. She also had many in-person conversations with friends and colleagues about what it was like to live on $26 a week and plans on continuing to spread the message.
As for whether it's possible to find the perfect diet that would allow someone to get all the nutrients they need while living on such a small weekly stipend, Kang is unsure.
"I think it's kind of like a Rubik's Cube, it would take a long time to come up with a perfect list of grocery items," she said.