foodbank list

Live Below the Line

foodbank list

It’s that time of year again when Twitter does Live Below the Line (and spends the three weeks before emailing me to ask if I have any tips for them.) I’m actually pretty short on tips, but I’m very very full of opinions on the subject and I’m pretty sure none of them are what you expect from someone who writes on food poverty.

I really don’t like the campaign and thus won’t be taking part, this year or anything other year. I’ve spent the last 15 years working toward not having to count every penny I spend on food and I find it upsetting to be asked to go back to it even for a day or two. I think at best, the campaign is feelgood charity and at worst, it’s poverty tourism. I think you’d be better to be more engaged with the issues for another 360 days of the year and donate the cost of a coffee or muffin every day or every other day than do the 5 day challenge. That’s not say that individuals don’t do fantastic things with it, but that I dislike the tone of the campaign itself.

I find the Live Below the Line website a bit of a masterclass in excitably vague promises, telling us about the extreme poverty 1.2 billion people across the world live in. There’s no mention of why this is from war, migration, capitalism, corruption, lack of women’s rights or over population. There’s mention of the charities they partner with to direct the fundraising, but very little explanation of how this will be done unless you go to every single charity’s website and dig for it. I’d prefer a few more facts myself.

I’m aware that anything that raises awareness for issues is valuable for orgs and the £5 for 5 days strapline does that but I find it actually dodges most of the issues associated with food poverty by picking 5 days over 7 days. This allows people to do it Monday to Friday in the office with lots of support and make an event of it. I can imagine it could even be quite fun doing it this way which is nice.

Which is exactly what food poverty isn’t. It’s not nice. It’s frightening and shitty and isolating. It excludes you from society and it shames and stigmatises you and your family. It has no end in sight and it’s not something you can easily discuss with people. I’m not suggesting Live Below the Line mimics the neverending vibe of poverty and like the Hotel California once you join, you can never leave, but I do think a lot more could be achieved by making it 7 days instead.

It’s not fun to have strictly budget all your meals, hoping that nothing will go off before you were expecting it or that the offers you were relying on have sold out, but it’s the moments when you have to forgo socialising because of your food budget that really hurts. You can’t go out for birthday drinks, make your kid a cake, meet friends for coffee, go to their house for dinner because you need to bring wine and you can’t invite people to yours because they probably expect more than toast and custard creams for their tea. A 7 day challenge would show a little bit more of that social aspect of poverty.

You’re probably thinking this is nitpicking and fairly irrelevant in the UK, not like those people who live on £1 per day in far flung foreign lands, but sadly it’s not. Food poverty in the UK is on the rise and with the massive increase in benefit sanctions, cuts and delays, zero hour contracts and wage freezes, more and more people here routinely only have just over £1 per day for food.

A 24 year old on Job Seeker’s Allowance gets £57.35 per week. From that if they live in rented accomodation, they will have pay any Housing Benefit top ups since the Broad Rental Market Rates (or the amount per week per area) were reduced, leading to an average shortfall of £10 per week. They then pay gas, electric, water, phone, broadband (essential for jobseeking now) and council tax since Council Tax Benefit was scrapped for working age adults in 2013 (as an aside my bill went up by £44 a month overnight). Then they need to pay for transport as job seeking rules now mean that many people have to attend the Job Centre everyday to fulfil their 30 hour per week Job Seekers Agreement. There’s also the costs of toiletries and personal items such as loo roll or sanitary products, hair cuts, clothes (gotta look smart for job seeking) and any outstanding debts. Then you get to food.

The BBC suggested that on this budget the maximum amount someone could spend is £12 per week on food which is £1.71 per day. That could be manageable with a minimum of discomfort if you live near a large supermarket or market where you can shop around and access a good variety of options without having to pay additional costs to do so. At this amount, every penny matters, both with buying and preparing the food and even buying a can of Coke once a week becomes a luxury.

Living on a small food budget constantly affects your physical and mental health. Hot meals become something you only have occasionally. Fruit and vegetables are luxuries. You get tired and cold easily yet you can’t sleep well. Your brain doesn’t function at full capacity. If you already have health problems, they get worse. You can’t accomodate food intolerances. Depression seeps in. You feel you have to defend and justify yourself constantly as someone tells you yet another way to budget better, ignoring the fact you can’t budget bugger all.

As I’ve mentioned before there is a reason you live in food poverty and I find it uncomfortable that the Live Below the Line campaign doesn’t acknowledge the fact the issue exists in the UK. I feel that by focusing attention outside our own country, it actually makes it harder to draw attention to the needless increase in poverty here.

You’ve all seen the figures in the last week or two about the Trussell Trust’s food banks feeding 1 million people in the last year and the riposte that it might not have as many as that because it could have been that the same person or family was referred the maximum 3 times. No matter what way we phrase it, that means that some households are getting poorer and poorer and all that happens is we squabble over semantics.

Welfare advisors, charity workers and benefit claimants warned that these thing would happen when the Welfare Reform Act 2012 went through. Policies such as the welfare cap, bedroom tax, removal of the Social Fund and delays in the introduction of Personal Independence Payment didn’t happen by accident. They were deliberately created by the coalition government and they have pushed the most vulnerable into greater poverty and insecurity in a way that smacks of ideology over even austerity.

And as one of those people, the worst thing is that no one is really talking about it. People who describe themselves as poverty campaigners never mention the disabled who are being hit disproportionately hard by the current cuts and changes. The media focuses on the few families in 100k housing or with enough kids for each day of the month. Programmes like Question Time barely ask about welfare even when the Secretary for State is on it. And when the subject does get mentioned, it’s entirely about in terms of fraud. Not about working poverty increasing hugely or the attempts to dismantle social security as a safety net.

One of my best friends had two brain haemorrhages last March. He’s currently homeless and still waiting for any benefits to come through. He applied for PIP last May and so far Atos has cancelled his assessment for it 5 times. Another friend has been sanctioned on JSA because of a glitch with the Universal Jobmatch site. She’s disabled but claiming JSA instead of Employment Support Allowance because the delay on ESA payments after application is running at 13 weeks. That’s more than 3 months to get any money at all. It took 14 months for me to get put in the correct group on ESA and awarded the money I was owed.

I know it’s unfair to take out my frustrations and fears as a disabled person in the UK in 2015 on the Live Below the Line campaign and I’m not saying that people in poverty elsewhere should be ignored, but I do find it galling that many people who will do this campaign and enjoy the kudos that comes with going without for a few days will ignore the fact that people who live in their community face it daily. Live Below the Line has become the acceptable way to care about food poverty and allow many people to do very little long term.

How many people asking for sponsorship on this will know if the cleaners in their office get the Living Wage? How many bothered to look and see what main political parties’ policies are on social security two weeks away from the election? How many contribute to a food bank or wrote to their MP about fuel poverty? How many watch those programmes that demonise benefit claimants and then laughs about ‘scroungers’ afterwards on social media? How many read papers like the Daily Mail that propagate the myth that most sickness benefits are claimed fraudulently but say it’s ok because they just read the showbiz sections?

By all means, do Live Below the Line (and I know some very fine people doing it) but please don’t assume that five days of mild discomfort teaches you very much about the reality of many people’s lives. As I said, you’d be better off donating regularly from your daily budget, but really everyone would be better off if we put pressure on our elected representatives to create a fairer society and stop expecting poor people to solve their own problems. Never did the phrase ‘charity begins at home’ have quite as much resonance.

(The image at the top is a Trussell Trust food bank list for 3 days food.)

Inside the A&C Deli, Brixton

Save Our Shops

Inside the A&C Deli, BrixtonThey say a workman is only as good as his tools and while I think natural talent and practise play a part too, there’s a lot of truth in that statement. And for people who cook, their tools are the ingredients they use. Great food doesn’t always need specialist equipment but it does need something to create it with, preferably better quality ingredients.

We’ve all tried to cook a meal and been thwarted by our ingredients: the bacon that spewed out white water and refused to crisp at all, the tomatoes that were woolly and flavourless, the pulses that simply wouldn’t soften. Often it’s less about the price of the products and more about where they come from. Those tomatoes might have been Finest or Taste the Difference and still been nothing more than red water while the bag of cheap chickpeas from the corner shop might have been been more velvety than the branded ones.

Learning how and where to shop for your food is as important a part of learning to cook as how to prepare the ingredients once you get them home, but is an element that rarely gets talked about beyond a certain amount of showing off these days. I had a Ladybird book as a child that probably seems incredibly quaint now with a mummy and housewife popping to her greengrocer, butcher, baker and probably candlestick maker. But it acknowledged the link between where the food is farmed and where it is cooked. Good shops matter. Read more

garlic oil

Slow Cooker Fodmap Friendly Garlic Oil

garlic oil

Today is a great day for me. It’s the day I get to combine my two food obsessions and talk about slow cookers and FODMAPs. Basically this is a birthday present to myself. North/South Food is five years old this week and I haven’t had time to make a cake to celebrate, so writing a piece about my two favourite subjects will do instead!

I’ve given a little bit of background on Fodmaps before on this post, but if you don’t have time to read back, I’ll give you a crash course here too (bearing in mind my level of scientific knowledge wouldn’t even make it onto a L’Oreal advert voiceover.) They are a relatively recent discovery and research and knowledge into them is ever evolving so don’t take my word as gospel rather than an overview.

FODMAPs as an acronym stands for Fermentable Oligo-saccharides Di-saccharides Mono-saccharides And Polyols which are basically a selection of short chain carbohydrates encompassing certain sugars and types of fibre found in foods. They include:

  • lactose in dairy products
  • fructose in fruits, juices, honey and agave syrup
  • polyols such sorbitol which is found in dried fruit and wine and used as an articial sweetener
  • fructans found in onions, garlic, prebiotics and Jerusalem artichokes
  • galacto-oligosaccharides found in legumes and beans
  • galactans found in wheat, rye and barley

Read more

IMG_4015

A Slow Cooker Salon

IMG_4015

If I could sing or didn’t hate The Sound of Music so much I’ve never managed more than 23 minutes of it in one dose, I’d be tempted to give you an early 2015 burst of some of my favourite things but instead I’ve decided to make a New Year’s Resolution that includes them.

I spent New Year with one of my favourite people. We lazed on the sofa drinking tea and watching Graham Norton in the run up to midnight and talked about our achievements and aspirations of the past and future for hours afterwards. Next day we ate fennel roasted pork belly and drank Prosecco to whet the appetites of the new year even though I burned the potatoes that were to replace the traditional lentils I’d run out of.

In one of our many conversations, she mentioned this wonderful piece on Serious Eats about Friday Night Meatballs and all that sharing food with people you’ve welcomed into your house entails. I thought it was a charming idea but didn’t get round to reading the article until a few days later and seeing all that it had to say beyond the simple power of meatballs.

For a long time because of both physical and mental health problems, I’ve felt like I’ve been waiting for my life start again, as if there would be a magical arbitrary tipping point when I could do things again. I’m not quite sure if I was expecting an actual Fairy Godmother to wave a wand or putting my faith in something else, but reading about Friday Night Meatballs I realised something striking: if I want there to be a moment like that in my life, no one else is going to produce it. I have to do it myself.

And so I decided to do one of my least favourite things in order to be able to do some of my most favourite things. I’d take the risk (eek) of hosting an open house Slow Cooker Salon so that I could meet people and feed those people the food I cooked. Spontaneity scares me so I’m going to set a few rules and see how it goes.

On the last Sunday of the month, I’m going to cook something simple and easy to eat in my slow cooker and I’m going to open an invitation to eat that dish in my flat to up to 10 people. They can be people I know offline, online, via Twitter, friends of friends, who knows. Obviously I’m not going to put my address online and say come on over, so people will need to email me to say they’d like to come and I’ll give them details and directions.

I’m going to start with meatballs in honour of the the idea that inspired this. I’m aware of people having dietary requirements so if anyone who is coming is veggie or gluten free or whatever, let me know and I can tweak things to accommodate them. On other occasions I’ll be keen to cook things that I can’t tweak to suit everyone but I’ll give lots of info in advance so people can decide if it suits them to come to that lunch.

And of course, if you’d really like to come but aren’t sure if you can eat what I’m making, feel free to bring something with you. In fact, anyone who fancies bringing something should. A gathering of people can be an excellent chance to finally bake or cook that creation that makes 12 portions and try it out on a different audience to usual. Or if your love of food extends to eating it, not making it, then bring some wine or buy something someone else has made. There will be no standing on ceremony here.

In fact, there were will be a lot of sitting on mismatching chairs (including the garden ones brought inside) and eating with uncoordinated cutlery and plates. There will probably even be plastic glasses. My entertaining is usually one or two people for a meal or a floor picnic of an afternoon tea so expect something that’s an unholy alliance of both in my living room. For this reason, it will have to be child free. My house is definitely not kid proofed or big enough to cope with small people alongside big people with big appetites. It’ll be a late lunch from about 2pm to allow for my faffing and your travelling.

It won’t be fancy, but it will be fun (and if it isn’t, we’ll simply never speak of this idea again, pretend it didn’t happen and carry on as normal…) So if you feel like trying something new to with food or making friends this year, contact me on the form below, and hopefully see you on January 25th!

Sign up!

sage cooker

Christmas Gift Ideas

sage cooker

Christmas is just round the corner and because few things please me more than Christmas shopping, I’m going to give you all suggestions to keep the fun alive since I’ve finished all mine already. This is a mix of things I own, want or generally recommend but hopefully with a bit more insight than the average Amazon review.

First up is my new toy: the Sage by Heston Blumenthal Risotto Plus. Previously known as the Multi Cooker, this is a slow cooker with bells on. As well the usual high and low settings as a slow cooker, it is also a rice cooker, steamer and risotto maker. You can ever sear and saute directly which is a boon for those who like to brown things before they slow cook.

I was a bit sceptical about the risotto setting so it was the first thing I tried. I made a chicken and mushroom risotto and was pleasantly surprised by the results, especially as the instruction booklet is vague to say the least. There’s no hint of how long making the risotto will take so it was all a bit of a magical mystery tour with carnoroli rice. I was very surprised that it only took about 25 minutes so was very glad I’d also tried the saute function out on the mirepoix and the chicken or it might have gone horribly wrong with raw chicken and crunchy carrots. I think I’d also recommend that you don’t rest the risotto as advised in the booklet as that made it rather too soft for my liking. But all in all, it was good enough to please an Italian friend of mine.

Buoyed by the excitement of successful risotto, I tried out all the other functions over the next day or two. Once I got used to the fact the high and low slow cooker settings have a set timing function rather than the freewheeling I’ve been using on my non digital slow cookers, I was very happy with that side of it. I really really loved the fact this is a rice cooker as well since mine gave up the ghost a few years ago and I couldn’t justify the cost in replacing it despite eating a lot of rice.

I liked the idea of the steamer insert as I think it means I’ll be able to do my standby meal of steamed fish and vegetables with rice with a minimum of effort even when I’m really not well which is the multi cooked icing on the cake with this. I think it’s a great investment if like me you’re a slow cooking fiend with a taste for rice and steamed veg and an aversion to washing up although I must make it clear I’d didn’t pay for mine. It was sent to me courtesy of the company.

I’d give it 10/10 if it wasn’t for the rather lacking booklet. I’m not sure how accurate the recipes are considering they suggest cooking kidney beans from dried in there which is highly dangerous, but since I could recommend you an excellent slow cooker cookbook, I’ll give it 9/10.

Also on the slow cooker front, I was recently introduced to cake tin liners by the fantastic BakingQueen74 which are the perfect gift for anyone who enjoys slow cooking cakes as they mean you can avoid the tell tale oval shape of the crock. Like everything else in my life, I went to Ebay for mine and got a good selection at an excellent price.

Speaking of baking, my first book choice has to be fellow Ebury author Ruby Tandoh with her fantastic book Crumb. I loved her on the Great British Bake Off and felt she was treated harshly by many people at the time. I’ve baked quite a few things from her Guardian column and enjoyed them all. I like her writing style and her recipes and hope to see more from her in the future.

I’m also keen for more from the fantastic Diana Henry. Her book A Change of Appetite is about to become my go to to while I readjust to watching my fat levels again but with none of the misery and deprivation of previous gallbladder related diets. The good news is that this is Diana’s eighth book so I can simply go back and buy some of the others to satisfy my lust for beautiful photography and great food.

I’m very much hoping there will be a second (and third) book from Mimi Aye after how much I’ve enjoyed Noodle! this year. I have always been absolutely terrible at cooking noodles and after a year of eating almost nothing but instant ramen when I was extremely poor and had no kitchen, I’d fallen out of love with them until I got this book. The Fish Ball Noodle soup has become a massive favourite and I can’t wait to try some of the Burmese dishes in the future as Mimi writes particularly well about the cuisine of her heritage. My days of cooking noodles badly are over after her guidance! Mimi has signed copies at her site currently.

Entirely coincidentally my other two book recommendations are also by women. Meera Sodha’s Made in India is a a glorious book that thoroughly deserves its nomination for the Andre Simon Award. I was lucky to eat Meera’s cooking at a dinner at The Draper’s Arms a few months ago and it was one of my favourite meals of the year.

I also heartily recommend Salmagundi by Sally Butcher. Some of you might know her from the wonderful Peckham based shop Persepolis or you may have seen her previous books including Veggiestan and Persia in Peckham. Sally’s books are especially good for getting you out of a rut of what to do with seasonal veg which can become a bit repetitive at times despite being so delicious.

If you already have all those books or fancy something slightly different, don’t forget about magazines as a great source of food writing and photography. My choice of the year is Toast with their beautiful annual edition but I’ve also been enjoying The Gourmand and Cherry Bombe.

And don’t forget that Recipes from Brixton Village is still available from all good retailers and independent bookshops. I’ll also be signing copies through Herne Hill Books on Saturday 13th at the Christmas Fair.