As sure as day follows night, if the subject of food is mentioned at all, it will inevitably touch on the debate between processed and cooked from fresh food in the UK today. And unless you know everyone in the discussion well and get side tracked into swapping recipes or discussing one’s favourite deli, someone will take the chance to opine on how poor people just need to try harder, be less lazy, just read the labels and realise you can buy a week’s veg for two quid if you’re a good enough member of society. These people are at best out of touch and at worst, running our country.
They are also idiots and liars. What you eat may have an impact on your dietary fibre, but it has bugger all to do with your moral fibre. It’s patronising and reductive to suggest otherwise and to focus on the actions of an individual, rather than those of the food industry, helps no one and hinders many, while causing massive divisions in society. But what would I know? I’m a nice middle class food blogger who grew up on homemade yoghurt and makes their own bacon. Surely I’m part of the problem?
I’m also poor. Not in a pretend can’t afford to split the bill including cocktails for a friend’s birthday or using Orange Wednesday vouchers for Pizza Express way. I’m properly poor. Due to ill health that stretches back to my early teens, I’m currently unable to work and live on benefits. Thanks to the welfare state (for which I could not be more grateful) I have the basic amount of money to live on each week and do just that. I can afford to live and eat well enough to write about it once a week simply due to careful budgeting, being a good and resourceful cook, having time and the generosity of friends and family who shout me lunch and bring wine to dinner. If you buy one Starbucks medium latte a day, picking up a muffin even once, you spend the same in a week as my entire food budget for 7 days. I think this qualifies me to talk about cooking and eating on a long term low income rather than a summer between uni where you have to make money stretch.
It’s not just about the cost of your food budget. It’s about the value of your food budget. So yes, you could pootle off to your local butcher (if they still exist) for some beef shin that costs about £2 for 2 people, but how much is the added cost of cooking it? A couple of hours in the oven all adds up when money is tight and that budget meal eats in your resources elsewhere. Sometimes that’s doable. You can do a bag of baked spuds at the same time and if you’re on quarterly bills there’s time to put cash aside before the Big Six put the costs up again. But if you’re on a prepayment meter for the electricity and you need to wash your hair and the kids’ school uniforms before the money runs out, then microwaving some hot dogs seems like a much better idea.
Poverty is a long term problem. Rarely do you wake up overnight lifted completely from it, but all the battles against it are short term offensives against a war. On a tight budget, it’s damned difficult to bulk buy as a budgeting idea because although it saves cash in the end, it relies on you having the money upfront for a 5 kilo bag of rice in the first place. I could probably do it now, but back in the days when I shared a house with 5 other people in my low paid working days, I simply had nowhere to put it all. I’d have had to use it as a pillow.
Because that’s the thing the know-it-alls forget. Most poor people aren’t just sitting around doing nothing all day. They are the under 25s who get less in benefits, tax credits and wages, they are minimum wage part time workers with two jobs, carers, lone parents, jobseekers churning out application after application, pensioners and people with health conditions and disablities who can’t do everything all the time. They can’t always get to out of town hypermarkets to avail themselves of Tesco Value ranges because there are no buses there or a cab costs a fiver each way or you have to push a pram alongside a dual carriageway or petrol has gone up in cost or online isn’t possible. And the local shops, the Spars and Sainsbury’s Locals and co don’t stock the basic ranges. The pay off for being within walking distance is pre-sliced cheese and tiny bags of fruit that’s five times the price of a multi-pack of crisps.
But hang on, aren’t you a one woman cheerleader for markets? Shop there and all is saved (literally)? I’d encourage anyone to shop at a market if they can. But I’m also aware that Brixton Market is the exception rather than the rule and not everyone can pop up the road and get 7 limes or 2 avocados for a quid, partly because not everyone can physically carry their shopping home and because markets keep hours not very compatible with working life and even where they do exist, they are under pressure from gentrification and development, so most people will be dependent on supermarkets.
You’d think that supermarkets would simplify things hugely. However for years my closest supermarket was an Iceland, yet slightly ironically, I only had a tiny freezer compartment so could only hold one bag of veg at a time (always peas!) Rented accomodation rarely has the kind of freezer space big enough to lose your leftovers in. And that’s if you aren’t scared of leftovers. Supermarkets and manufacturers after the food safety scares of the 80s, have rightly tightened up on dates etc, but have also seen a sales opportunity and now bags of spuds say they have a shelf life of 4 days. And if the humble spud self destructs in that time, what will meat do? So people throw leftovers away in fear while making my granny turn in her grave at the food waste.
This is where education would be valuable. Teaching us to trust our senses and get a feel of our food that’s been stunted for many through lack of cooking lessons and the prewrapped portioning of food these days. What isn’t needed is people with privilege telling those without what they are doing ‘wrong’ or that they don’t budget well enough. Most poor people I know can price stuff to the penny and many, myself included, run their entire household on less than £100 a week. The problem isn’t the budgeting, it’s the size of the budget, especially as food prices rise along with everything else.
Mine has increased recently. Everything is more expensive and as well due to my health, I’ve had to adopt a low fibre diet to stop it worsening. Pulses are out and meat and carbs like pasta are in. I do wonder what it does to my long term health. I cook everything from scratch and eat less to save money, but I’m heavier than I’d like. But not being hungry at night and not running out of money each week trump my concerns about 10 years from now.
It’s the here and now that consumes you. Having to make food so central in life gives it a power it shouldn’t have and can make you crave things you shouldn’t, meaning you do pick up that biscuit multibuy because you need a treat and food is the cheapest one going if you’re broke. It also makes you feel like everyone else and what you eat becomes imbued with emotion. You can’t afford to go out or get a bottle of wine or rent a DVD, but you can have that £1 doughnut bag…
Then someone will tell you that if you made your own snack food, you could have even more for your money and on some things I agree. Since I’m lucky enough to have a microwave, popping my own corn literally costs pennies a bowl and the only other equipment I need is a paper bag. Unfortunately creating more than that in a kitchen costs money for the implements required. Even if you stick to the basics people suggest for a student just leaving home, it costs money to have pots and pans and plates and that can be hard to source upfront. When I applied for a grant after I was homeless, the Department of Work and Pension’s Social Fund (soon to be abolished in April 2013 under new Coalition reforms to welfare) declared that cooking equipment was non essential and I had to choose between it and curtains.
Even though I went with the drapes, I’ve added to my kitchen cupboards as I can, asking for Christmas and birthdays presents and haunting kitchen supply stores in the market and the sales so I can cook more when I want. But that’s because I love cooking and I find it helpful to structure my week around feeding myself when I’m well enough. If I hated cooking and thought I was bad at it and had to choose never to have a birthday present I really wanted again or spend time in the kitchen instead of reading my kids a bedtime story, I’d do fish fingers and waffles for tea most nights too. People pick their priorities. I don’t mind not cleaning the bath as often as I should, but I keep my energy for feeding myself. There’s nothing wrong with cutting the odd corner, but there is something wrong to me with scoffing at low income houses for eating frozen pizza while equally tired time stretched middle income households order a Firezza.
I do think it’s good to mix your meals up so that not everything is processed or cooked by someone else and this is where I really admire the work people like Jamie Oliver and the Ministry of Food have done reminding people that even simple meals like omelettes, sardines on toast or a stir-fry count as good solid steps when you’re learning your kitchen capabilities (or can’t face much washing up.) We’re in a weird situation where we no longer practically teach people to cook but we show them how to prepare a three course feast on TV, leading many people to believe what advertisers tell them and think cooking is really really hard and even worth trying as they are bound to fail.
Cooking is a skill, and like any skill, it improves with practise. I started learning to cook about 15 years ago and the difference now between my hesitant steps then is enormous. Actually, the difference between my early blog posts just under 3 years ago and my cooking now is astronomical. I do believe anyone can probably learn to whip up enough meals to tide them over for a week, but when you’re on a budget that doesn’t allow for failure, a screw up like my famous salt fish and leek noodles means either eating inedible food (always a great learning experience for kids) or going without. This is also a risk with fresh food and its annoying habit of going off. It’s much easier to stock up food you peel a lid back from or just call in at the takeaway on the way home. Convenience is king.
And it’s not new, there has always been a certain amount of convenience. The rich used to pay rosy cheeked ladies in starched aprons to cook their meals and the poor used to buy theirs from street stalls or cook food in central ovens that reduced the amount of work around food preparation. Or they just died of malnutrition or developed rickets and suffered the consequences differently to today. The East End of London fuelled its slums on chips and the rest of pre war Britain seemed to survive on bread and dripping. There has never been a time when the poor masses ate well all the time as George Orwell outlines better than I ever could in The Road to Wigan Pier.
In a perfect world, we’d all come home at 5pm to whip up a plate of lentils and kale, cut down on hydrogenated fats and refined sugars, take 30 minutes exercise and eat an apple before bed. But we don’t live in a perfect world and while we all know pulses and green veg are good for us, we’re given conflicted information about fat (animal fat is evil! French Paradox! Atkins! Dukan!) and sugars (fruit=good! High Fructose=very very bad! Agave is healthy! Go stevia!). The NHS tells us to fill up on carbohydrates which are often nutritionally lacking and often thought to be a cause of the obesity epidemic. Adverts tell us that fruit acids erode our teeth enamel and to drink smoothies, but cut down on fruit juice. Every week brings a new cancer causing or cancer busting ingredient. Keeping up properly and not just believing what food manufacturers tell us is a full time business and there’s no money to make in saying ‘if someone’s granny was eating it, you should too.’
It’s just not that simple. Everybody is doing at least one thing right in the major responsibilities of life. It might be teaching your kids great manners and reading skills, doing well at work, going to the gym 3 times a week, looking after your elderly auntie or feeding yourself a healthy balanced diet. But no one is doing it all perfectly and without effort. Something has to give. I know food is vital and you are what you eat, but it’s also the one occasion when you’re pushed for time that you can cut corners with relative ease and probably enjoy yourself.
I’d love it if everyone in the UK put back one crappy meal choice a week and ate something more balanced or less processed instead, but I’d also love it if unicorns actually existed, so I’ll settle for just not judging and actively sneering at or mocking people who have very different lives to me, some of which I can’t tell just by looking. I’ll also try and rein in the one upmanship of just how many meals I can get out of a chicken before I become the first person to meet an early end solely because of my healthy diet when someone loses patience with me.