Food for thought

by Miss South on November 19, 2012

Close-up of lentils in the pan

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 whst 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 becsuse 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 snackfood, 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.

{ 137 comments… read them below or add one }

Lee November 24, 2012 at 7:05 am
Miss South November 24, 2012 at 9:30 am

Thanks for the heads up Lee, that is a great piece. Will link to it in the piece so it’s easier to find than right down here in the comments jungle…

Juliet November 26, 2012 at 12:14 pm

Hi. Great blog. And the comments are really interesting too. We run a social enterprise company which teaches people how to cook good, tasty, seasonal, healthy food from scratch on a budget (Mr North has taken photos of one of our cooks in action), and we work with some very disadvantaged and marginalised groups, and this has given me some serious food for thought (if you’ll excuse the pun) It’s made me realise we need to think twice before we recommend that people buy cheap but tasty cuts of meat to turn into a satisfying stew, when they might not be able to afford to put the oven on, to keep telling everyone how pasta, potoatoes etc cook just as well, when you turn the hob off once they’ve come to the boil (such a great tip as it also means you don’t even have to watch for the pan boiling over any more). Some of this stuff we’ve already thought about, we know that not everyone even has a hob to cook on, or any pans, or a fridge, but we need to keep thinking creatively about how people can still feed themselves well (if they want to) on not much money, and with not much equipment, and using as little fuel as possible.
And like you said, these skills need practice, it doesn’t just happen overnight, so please bring back compulsory cooking in secondary school, and teach them useful, practical stuff like 10 things you can do with an egg, how to turn wilting veg into a feast, quick curries from scratch, quick lentil dahl & chappatis for 50p, tomato based and cream based pasta sauces… they don’t actually need to know how to bake a cake but if they’re interested they can find out..

anonymous December 15, 2012 at 11:04 pm I had malnutrition and had to treat it, I started to do this, but havent had time to do much with it. Kind of about the same thing.

anonymous December 15, 2012 at 11:05 pm

And you cant treat malnutrition with a food bank, nor are they accessible to most, or even a stop gap solution or bridge. They take headlines away from poverty being deliberately created and the cost of teh nutrition crisis emerging is huge. I am lucky, I live near a market, there are actual food deserts in this country dominated by supermarkets.

M.K. Hajdin December 15, 2012 at 11:59 pm

What a refreshing and thoughtful take on the situation.

I’m also in a situation where buying fresh food is difficult and I can’t always manage it. I’m sick of people assigning moral value to food, and particularly sick of privileged folk pushing sanctimonious self-deprivation on the rest of us.

Miss South December 16, 2012 at 10:15 am

I just wish people would realise their experience isn’t universal. As a childfree, non driver without a job, it isn’t a massive stretch for me to realise lots of people have kids and/or drive a car and go to work. I am always slightly baffled that others can’t picture that other people’s lives/homes/incomes/geography etc might vary to their’s…it lies at the heart of the them and us thing here.

And yes, agree about food banks. If they were literally the food equivalent of an overdraft and you got your 3 days worth and were back to ‘normal’ the fact the quality and nutrition offered is poor would be less important, but while they can only be accessed up to 3 times a year, the people using them are not returning to stablity after their use and thus poor nutrition is a big worry…

Clare January 20, 2013 at 8:10 pm

I live and work in Glasgow. I’m not poor anymore (I’m not rich either – just not continually skint anymore) – but I have been poor and I haven’t forgotten it.
I thank my lucky stars at intervals – and try and keep in mind that it is luck more than judgement that changed things for me.
My home is in the middle of an area that has a high density of Asian folk, so there’s a brilliant selection of shops for buying spices, rice, lentils, veg etc dramatically cheaper than a supermarket. Lucky me.
My favourite buy are 5kg bags of onions for between £2 and £3, depending on the time of year. Our nearby Sainsbury’s local sells 3 in a net for 99p. Maths degree not required to work out that that’s a rip off.

Where I work though, is in the Gorbals. A trip to the post office is enough to remind you of what poverty felt like, in case you were close to forgetting. People withdrawing benefits are budgeting ruthlessly with cards for fuels and saving stamps. The only supermarket within walking distance for the people who live locally is a medium size (caring sharing?) co op. It’s improved marginally since it’s days as Somerfield – when it was genuinely despair-mongering. It’s brighter and cleaner now and a little better stocked. But it is frighteningly expensive.
Like most people, I use the nearest shop to work to pick up top up items – but I can choose not to if I need to.
But not everybody using it is so lucky. The shop has a captive audience of people who live in the housing scheme. Many of them will have no access to a car and the nearest big supermarket is a bus ride away – which will set you back around £3. I’m still a penny conscious shopper and I know what I pay in Morrisons and my local Halal store – where I can get (in addition to those onions) a litre of bio-yoghurt for £1.49, oranges for 20p each, herbs for 49p, garlic, chillies and ginger for pennies.

The co op has almost all their fresh produce pre-packed, so you can’t buy the amount you need. Trying to buy the ingredients to make a salad will set you back well over a fiver – which if you’re just feeding yourself for lunch means committing to salad for several days (by which time it will be wilting).

Bread, milk and meat are all well marked up compared to my local store and if you fancy something slightly exotic you’d better be prepared to mortgage your home. I buy coconut milk in the local shop for between 60 and 70p. The last time I checked in the co op it was £1.80. That’s three times the cost.

Worse still, for a while, they removed the scales in the veg section. I was so outraged, I called the co op and complained and it was quickly reinstated. If you’re counting every penny then you weigh what you’re buying to give yourself an estimate. To remove that facility in a store that serves such an impoverished community is criminal and it’s only going to discourage people who don’t want a fright at the till, from buying loose produce.

I genuinely don’t see why supermarkets are permitted to charge different prices in different locations.
It’s one of the most pernicious habits of these corporate overlords. And lets face it, that’s up against some competition.

Miss South January 20, 2013 at 10:53 pm

Clare: your comment is worth a piece in the paper itself. And it shows me that although I think I know a bit about this subject, I still have a lot to learn. I’ve never thought about how important a set of scales would be in a shop when budgeting like that as I tend to buy by item as there’s just me. Also I have this stunning market near by so am spoiled rotten.

It’s interesting what you say about ‘exotic’ food. Brixton market is heavily Caribbean and I occasionally tut when I can’t find things like swede or parsnips and kale, but then I think how tough it must be if you’ve moved here and don’t recognise those foods or know how to cook them and your staples are marked up to be eye wateringly expensive (if you can get them at all). You’d reach for ‘safe’ stuff that doesn’t need cooking or just eat a lot of rice.

I agree that the fact supermarkets can pick and choose prices is disgusting. I’m going to suggest that real estate in the Gorbals costs less than Bearsden so they can’t claim ‘costs’ surely? I wish someone, journalists or MPs would speak up about this instead of blaming the poor for being fat/lazy/unmotivated etc and letting the real culprits away with it…

jane January 21, 2013 at 12:28 am

hello, miss south – i just found your blog through your observer articles. congratulations, btw!

i have to send you my deepest thanks for writing about being poor – you’ve exposed many of the sad, dark corners, which those not in need fail to see. we read and hear only damning of the poor – we’re slackers and idiots. but in actuality, we’re creative, hardworking, and spirited – how else could we make it through this kind of life? i wish that everyone in government had to live a year on benefits, especially with the restrictions of chronic illness. but til that day comes – ha – more articles like yours will lessen the load for us. thank you!

anna January 21, 2013 at 12:48 am


This is a great blog! Great idea to combine eating well with eating for less. My parents were southern Italians whom grew up in significant poverty in the 1930′s and 40′s. Over in Southern Italy, they have a concept known as ‘La Cucina Povera’ (which translates as ‘The Cooking of the Poor’) – this way of cooking offers very simple, reasonably nutritious and inexpensive meals that I have grown up with and still eat today. I can usually eat a hearty bowl of pasta for less than 50p. The main pantry staples of la cucina povera are pasta, rice, canned tomatoes (the Asian stores usually have good quality tomatoes between 25p – 35p each), pulses (such as chick peas, butter beans, black-eyed beans etc – again check out the Asian stores, as well a cheap dried pulses, they also often do great deals on tins e.g. my local store does 4 tines of beans/peas for £1), olive oil, garlic (again the Asian stores often do a great deal on garlic, so much better than the supermarkets) and herbs. My favorites pastas are pasta with boiled broccoli, seasoned with garlic fried in olive oil and black pepper (you can also add a pinch of chilli flakes if you want a little kick) , and pasta with simply butter beans or chickpeas, and just a knob of butter and/or a little olive oil (I made this once for an english friend and she couldn’t believe how tasty she found it). Another is pasta with cauliflower, a knob of melted butter, then sprinkled with a little grated cheese and black pepper. These take 5 mins to prepare and 10 mins to cook – so no faff! To give a balanced meal, Italians usually have some sort of lettuce / salad product (i.e. cucumber or tomato – whatever is in season / going cheap) dressed simply with salt, olive oil and vinegar and a small piece of meat – I often have a small piece of fried liver as its cheaper than a piece of meat. Or a fritatta (which is like an omelette, but often with added ‘bits’ – usually whatever is on hand at that time, e.g. onion or ham or green peas or mushroom etc.).

Proper homemade Napoli style pizza (i.e. very thin base) is also very cheap, you just need bread flour, salt, dried yeast and water, then just tinned tomatoes and mozzarella (the 44p packs in Aldi is usually good enough for two small pizzas – Italians don’t bury their pizza’s in cheese by the way, they just scatter a few slices on here and there) and dried herbs – and that’s it. Costs about £1.50 for two pizzas.

Other tips for eating on a budget I’d recommend include checking out budget stores such as Home Bargains and B&M stores – both do branded foods at a fraction of the cost in supermarkets – e.g. 500g packs of Napolina pasta for less than 50p, Filippo Berio Olive Oil for £1.99).

Also the Polish or Slovakian shops are also good – especially for superior tasting hams and sausages for half the price of the supermarkets.

Clare January 21, 2013 at 9:32 am

Indeed – but that is always their excuse – small stores are less economical to run so prices have to be higher. Personally I’m deeply unconvinced by that – it’s far too easy an excuse and belies the complex mathematical realities that drive supermarkets’ decision making.

The supermarkets’ price differences between different stores are one of those things that just make me grind my teeth in anger. I’m not a mindless critic of supermarkets. I think in many ways they’ve done some great things. They’ve certainly widened the food horizons of the nation and when they get behind a good cause – like fairtrade or animal welfare then overnight they reach an audience that couldn’t be achieved otherwise.
But on this particular thing they seem blinkered into behaviour that is nothing short of vicious.
I’m pretty sure that other businesses don’t routinely change the costs in this way. Most businesses work on a cost system which is based across their business model. Surely it makes more sense to charge one price across your shops?
If you raise the price by 1p in your megalopolis warehouse branch where you sell 20 times as much as the local store, rather than raising it by 20p in the store that serves the poorest, then you’ll likely sell more at the local store, making it ultimately more viable anyway.
People on the fringes spend pretty much all their money – that’s why the best economic stimulation comes from giving money to the poorest – who will spend it quickly and locally. (Quick, someone explain this to the chancellor!)
Reducing the prices in the smaller stores would lead to a higher turnover in those stores and less waste.
And lets face it, the people who can drive to the large store probably won’t notice the penny and certainly won’t change their shopping habits because of it.

Miss South January 21, 2013 at 11:06 am

Clare: you should be pitching this to the Observer yourself! Such good clear knowledgeable comments.

I totally agree about the fact that poorer people spend their money more and locally and I cannot understand why more people don’t realise the boost that benefits give to the economy. I’m also wondering in light of the food waste debate the other week, does anyone keep figures on much waste at source happens in these smaller stores where people can’t afford to buy stuff? I never see proper reductions in my local Tesco Express, maybe 25p off something that was overpriced by a pound anyway. And never any Basic/Value stuff except on highly processed stuff, not like the plain yoghurt or cream cheese I can get in a big branch. And anything ‘ethnic’ is eye gougingly expensive.

I also worry though encouraging supermarkets in lower economic areas threatens small local businesses and encourages their bullying tactics. Better to have independents open who can move with the community or even a market, but sadly with a government so wedded to big chains, I’m wishing wistfully on that one!

Clare January 21, 2013 at 11:47 am

I agree with you – the independents can be cheaper and it’s worth encouraging them. The quality and price of rice, spices etc from my local shop beats anything in a supermarket. But by the same token, a lot of ‘local’ shops are also very expensive. In the case of local independent newsagent / convenience type stores, they are buying from Cash and Carries that often charge marginally more than supermarkets do. I know this because I use cash and carries too and while they can be fantastic for bulk purchases of some things, they can be false economies sometimes too. Especially when you come away and realise you’ve yet again purchased a box of 48 packets of crisps that you didn’t want or need….

One of the areas where I notice routinely higher prices at cash and carries than supermarkets, in on alcohol. Which suggests another rather pernicious line of behaviour. I like a drink as much as the next person (assuming the next person also lives in Glasgow) but I’m aware of my own weakness to finish what’s open and to open what’s in the house. Alcohol is a lot cheaper than it used to be and I assume supermarkets are deliberately holding down their pricing. Their motivations for that are almost certainly suspect.
But if they can make a decision to hold down the price of booze, why can’t they hold down the price of Veg?

As much as I love local and independent retailers, they can also be total rip-offs too – especially when they serve a community that is deprived of access to an alternative. My mother in law lives in a large village in rural Cumbria. It is ill served by public transport and she is in her eighties. She has assistance from relatives but she is a feisty and pragmatic lady who relishes taking care of herself. There is a good butchers and a chemist that doubles as a green-grocer – both of which provide good local stuff at good prices but the only general store has a monopoly which it ruthlessly takes advantage of. And the price of basics there is scandalous and the choice dismal. Arkwright would be proud of the attitude. In this instance, I can’t help but think that a little Co-op or Sainsbury’s would make this chap buck up his ideas a bit.

There is no easy answer to any of this of course but I think a campaign for a simple bit of legislation that regulated pricing across chains like this might be a start though. After all, we’ve made them display how long ‘sale’ items were charged at the higher price. Maybe we should insist that where an item is sold for less by the same retailer at another store, that they are made to display the lowest price they sell it at, next to the price they’re charging at that branch.

Carla January 21, 2013 at 11:51 am

Hi Miss South. I’m yet another person who found you through you Observer article, and just wanted to thank you so much for this post, and for your blog – it’s so clear, so concise and to the point.

I really appreciated seeing your recipes, especially following the ‘food for four for a fiver’ feature, which didn’t take into the prices of seasoning and herbs. Although I’m in full-time employment, I am still on a very tight budget, but I am much better off than I was a year ago, or two years ago, or for most of my childhood. So, it’s really refreshing to see someone talk about food, and the choices we make about it, in an honest and *compassionate* way.

You’ve really inspired me to keep up the blogging (and think more carefully about my own assumptions). Thank you.

Clare January 21, 2013 at 3:58 pm

Miss South,
I read your piece in the Observer yesterday and then looked up your blog. What an absolute gem it is. I am from NI and reading about wheaten bread, potato bread, bacon sandwiches, soup etc etc takes me straight back to my mother and grandmothers kitchen. Coming from NI has given me a different perspective on food to many of my English friends. To me soup was always homemade. There were always tins in the cupboard with tray bakes(, (Mananies bars were my favourite), barmbrack and if we were lucky a coffee and walnut cake. In the autumn we picked blackberries and one of my favourite places was the cupboard under the stairs at my Granny”s house where she stored her kilner jars of bottled plums, peaches and pears. Reading Me North”s spiced beef recipe reminded me of when I wanted to cook it from Jane Grigson”s English Food. I couldn’t as it was during the troubles in the early 70′s and there was no way I could procure saltpetre .
Apart from bringing back NI memories, you talk movingly and practically about shopping and eating when you are poor. Thrift is built into my shopping and cooking and I love a food bargain., is that also a NI thing? Anyway, I am going to give myself a treat this eve and read through more of your posts. Thank you for a brilliant blog.

Audrey January 22, 2013 at 2:45 pm

Thank you for a truly interesting, intelligent and humbling read. You have converted another middle class foodie. I recognise in myself a tendency to make blanket statements about ‘people’ buying better quality food and cooking more and often am judgemental about others people’s food choices. No more.

Miss South January 22, 2013 at 3:43 pm

Jane: thank you for your comment. It’s been a real honour to give other people in the same boat a chance to have somewhere to talk about this kind of thing without being shouted down or blamed. I don’t like to wish ill on people but there are a few politicians I’d put a pox on these days….

Miss South January 22, 2013 at 3:49 pm

Anna: some really great tips here. My latest find has been Polish shops, especially for the meats and for the ‘on our holidays’ feel of buying things you think you recognise. I’ve occasionally got good bits and bobs in the various pound shops but you can’t be sure if stuff will be there regularly. I think my best find has been bags of orzo for 99p. Perfect for soup! I will keep an eye out for oil thanks to you!

Miss South January 22, 2013 at 3:56 pm

Clare: did you see Dispatches last night? I think it showed what you’ve been saying here very clearly. I agree that the independents aren’t a magic cure and that’s why we need debate and clear exposure of these tactics to get proper progress made rather than the current obsession with one size fitting all as the answer to a complicated problem like this.

Miss South January 22, 2013 at 4:28 pm

Clare: your comment made me so happy! I’ve been dying to talk traybakes with someone since we started but no one gets it quite the same way as us Norn Iron ones. Just thinking about blackberry picking took me right back to childhood and the smell of my granny’s pantry and the open fire in the living room when you’d kicked your wellies off after brambling and sloe picking.

We had spiced beef again at Christmas and laughed about the saltpetre thing. I now get mine on Amazon but see they don’t ship to BT postcodes. hope you enjoy the blog and please come and talk food bargains any time. It’s definitely our thing!

PS: I plan to make pineapple creams soon….

Miss South January 22, 2013 at 4:36 pm

Audrey: don’t worry, we all do a bit of judging. I don’t think you can stop yourself completely but if you can question why then that’s important. Also, i’m a big fan of your site and have to say that some of the stuff you talk about has helped me become more relaxed about what I eat and moved me away from the processed packaged stuff that plays with the mind. But that’s a whole another subject i might want to tackle at some point!

David January 23, 2013 at 10:49 am

Being poor does make it difficult to manage to eat well as every penny has to count. Spare a thought for poor people with special dietary needs such as coeliac disease, an autoimmune condition in which the body attacks its own tissues in response to the ingestion of gluten, a protein found in many foods including wheat, barley, oats and rye. These form much of the dietary intake of most people and are very difficult to avoid. Adhering strictly to a gluten free diet is the only treatment. A crumb or two of gluten will result in severe symptoms and damage to digestive organs which will take months to heal. The problem of eating well is more difficult for poorer coeliacs as their free from foods are on average between four and seven times more expensive than their normal equivalents. There are prescribable products but these have been cut back as commercial ones have become available, forcing them to pay more. Food banks are limited in what they can offer coeliacs too. Most tend to cook with fresh ingredients to eat well and safely as then they have more control over what they ingest. Fresh ingredients can cost more and if you are poor that is hard. They don’t even have the option of considering a visit to the local pizza shop, the local Chinese restaurant or fish and chip shop now and again as most are unsuitable due to their products’ ingredients and cross contamination. Those are the perils of daily life for all coeliacs in general but it is harder again for less well off ones. Where it levels out for them is in hospital where the provision is nothing short of appalling and sometimes non existent. Finally thanks for the enjoyable and interesting blog.

On the positive side your food blog is very attractive to coeliacs. If not all of the recipes are suitable, many offer useful ideas to adapt and that is very welcome thanks.

Liisa January 24, 2013 at 2:10 am

Thank you, x

Anne January 24, 2013 at 4:54 pm

Brilliant article, honest and non-judgemental, as it should be.

Food budgeting has been a rollercoaster for me over the past few years with salary reductions and ill health. Fortunately mostly back to normal now but always there in the back of my mind.

I was on JSA a few years back which barely covered my petrol to work, fortunately I have taught myself to cook and adore lentils but wonder how others survive at times.

OldGreyBeard January 28, 2013 at 8:46 am

Dear Miss South,
I found your blog via The Observer article and have enjoyed reading it. I am very impressed by the way in which you maintain coherence and rage without descending into a rant.
It is very easy to reach snap judgements about other peoples’ choices and they are not necessarily wrong but really what is the point? As far as I can see it’s to blame the victim by saying they’ve only got themselves to blame so I don’t need to think further about how they got into that situation or could get out of it.
My own thinking about food has evolved quite a bit over the last few years, initially driven by environmental, health & ethical concerns. Economics was added to that rather abruptly when I was made redundant and spent three years unemployed or underemployed.
I have to say that the whole Job Centre experience was quite a surprise as I hadn’t been unemployed since the late 1970s. Basically the attitude seemed to be “it’s your fault you’re unemployed and what are you going to do about it”. Rather like saying to the passengers on the Titanic that it was their fault the ship was sinking and it was up to them to save themselves. I saw quit a few bewildered looking men in their forties come in and say “I’ve never signed on before”.
Substitute the word fat/unhealthy etc for unemployed and you get the attitude recently expressed by that Government Minister whose name I can’t be bothered to look up as they are so often here today and gone tomorrow.
My top tip as regards food is to understand your local food environment by which I mean shops and other outlets and sources as well as your capacity for storing stuff. For example, there are no Asian shops where I live but there is a good street market, this being a medium sized market town, with a monthly Framers Market (with Asian stalls). We have a range of supermarkets from Aldi to Waitrose. One of the best resources we have is a pick your own farm. You do need a car to get to it but it really is excellent value plus a day out for children. For example onions are a third the price of the supermarket and I have got into the habit of picking several sacks to see us through the Winter. I am fortunate in having an even temperatured basement which is ideal for storage when the junk is removed.
Interestingly the pick your own is very popular with Asian families who pick enormous amount of stuff.
My final top tip is to grow some of your own stuff if you at all can even if it’s only Rosemary in a pot. If you join your local Horticultural Society or Allotment Association there is often a seed scheme which gives up to 50% discounts. However, I have read a great many times that an allotment is the key to cheap, fresh veg all year round. Well I have an allotment as my garden is too small and I would say that having a veg patch in the garden is more practical for most people. An allotment is very hard work, particularly when you first get it, and is difficult to fit with a full time job. My own allotment only got fully dug when I was unemployed. And then there are all those courgettes to eat… On the plus side you then seamlessly move into making pickles, chutneys and so on.

Miss South January 28, 2013 at 10:18 am

Old Grey Beard: what a brilliant comment! I wonder if the way food is sold to us as something mainly thought of as fuel and health-providing (eg: antioxidants in blueberries are the selling point, not the fact they’re delicious) makes people more judgemental of other people’s baskets? Like when you did better in a test at school than someone else and you pointed it out to show it off, even though the person you ‘beat’ might have understood it better than you who learned it by rote? It also has the effect of absolving the government, supermarkets and industry that create a situation where choice is often an illusion.

I’m not surprised to hear that the Job Centre were so unhelpful. They seem to be staffed by people who believe that secretly everyone in the UK would give up paid work to be shouted at and only get £71 a week no matter what they’re offered and it definitely influences how they relate to people….

Great tips on knowing your local shops. I am always surprised by how cheap my local Farmers’ Market is compared to most London ones. Good offers on meat and veg as well as cute artisan chutneys and unpasteurised cheeses, but most people assume you’d need a mortgage. Definitely worth going and having a look at things to make decisions clearly. Read this great post today showing how looking at the price of things first can help you gain confidence shopping outside the big 4. Great tips for a country that has lost its shopping skills.

OldGreyBeard January 28, 2013 at 12:37 pm

You’re quite right, Farmers Markets are not necessarily expensive. The stalls where I am are almost free to hire and many of the producers are genuinely local and often farmers as well.

We also have an excellent butcher’s which again is not expensive on a like for like basis. At least you know where the stuff has come from and you get just the amount you want rather than a pre-measured bit. Plus they stock the full range of stuff from brisket to silverside.

I am more and more conscious that cheap processed food is often cheap for a bad reason and keep telling my daughter that we should eat less of better. At the moment we (or mostly my partner TBH. I do about 1/3 of the meals) have the time to prepare a lot of meals from scratch and since we can afford to experiment a bit at the moment I’m learning how to make pickles & jams etc.

I do agree that we seem to have become de-skilled and turned into sort of battery people munching at the processed food trough and this applies across the social classes. Convenience foods do have their place but the baby seems to have been thrown out with the bathwater rather.

Odd to think of homecooking, shopping other than in a supermarket and growing your own as radical acts!

Miss South January 28, 2013 at 2:24 pm

Grey Beard: it’s perception isn’t it? All that supermarket advertising about price does work, especially when you consider that a butcher of Farmers’ Market will stock cuts of meat, types of veg or fish T*sco doesn’t so it doesn’t feel as if it’s a like by like comparison so you stick with the familiar as risk is frightening. And I’m always scared the butcher will laugh at me if I order wrong and can’t afford it…

I agree that we should eat less of better. And I hope that today’s teenagers choose to rebel by making jam and flogging it covertly at parties and music festivals!

Leonie Greene February 2, 2013 at 12:02 am

I was moved to tears by the Miss South Observer piece.As i said to my friend, you read all these abstract articles aboutsocial justice and poverty, yet this article told me more than a year’s Observers. It was also very movingbecause of the sincerity and determination to extract maximum pleasure from such meagre resources.i found Miss South’s dignity and determination very touching. She also writes so well.i felt strongly someone so talented should not be scraping by like this and felt quite angry about it.i brought another copy of the Observer for my mum who once was penniless and survived on very little. I would like to send miss South a hamper of treats to cook with, so if there is a way to do so please let me know!my email provided.

Marianne February 18, 2013 at 9:05 pm

Dear Miss South,

I love your blog, it’s real. I found it through The Observer a couple of weeks ago. I only buy the newspaper once a month on Food Monthly week! I lost my job just over a year ago, and have gone from above average income to zero income now. I am the Jobseeker churning out the applications that you mention! They’ve even stopped my JSA now, as I have been unemployed for more than 6 months. I am very lucky to have saved during the fat years, so my son and I are now living on borrowing through the lean years – ha ha!

Luckily, we are semi-vegetarian, we love Fish! And we shop at Lidl. Do you have a Lidl near you? I know there’s one in Clapham…maybe a bit far from Brixton? They do great basics: oats, chocolate, lentils, cheese, smoked fish, and the veg is the best around – tomatoes that really smell of erhem, tomato. it’s quality food, you rarely get a humdigger as you do in the other supermarkets.

I actually love the whole budgeting, eating frugally, cooking from scratch, and then cooking up & eating up the left overs. Yum!

My favourite food dish du jour is : Rice & Dhal. Just love it. You can make it spicy or bland, gloopy or dry. And I just love rice. So tasty, steaming hot – just on it’s own.

We are lucky enough to live on the south Coast, and lucky enough to have a fantastic ethnic supermarket here in Brighton, called Taj, where I stock up on packets of spices at great prices. We also have a great market at London Road, where we can can stock up on veg and eggs… However, I live right opposite a Tesco Express. We have 16 of these now in Brighton & Hove, which I believe has only 2/3 population of Brixton! And don’t get me started on the subject of the horse-meat scandal! I am just so relieved that we are semi-vegetarian, and cook from scratch each day, because I have the time, at the moment (I will find a job soon; get an Interview, even, would be nice), and I do believe it is cheaper than buying ready-made. Ooo, the whole Food debate is really opening up! I can’t wait for your updates!

I have just recently started a blog too, as some of my friends suggested I record some of the hilarious (& tragic!) experiences that I am currently experiencing…I will cover some food issues, but it’s a light-hearted look at the minutae of my life at the mo…

Kindest regards,
Single, unemployed, application churning, rice & dhal eating, semi-vegetarian, mother-of-one….

Miss South February 23, 2013 at 4:27 pm

Hi Marianne,

Lovely to hear from you! So sorry to hear you’re in job hunting hell. Too many people are that bind right now and getting very little support or sympathy and I wanted to extend some solidarity by giving you all a shout out!

You are made me pine for the year I lived ‘in’ Brighton (I was at the University of Sussex, so stuck all the way out in Falmer, but we’ll call it Brighton). I loved Taj supermarket you mentioned and impulse purchasing pulses and spices at Infinity Foods and the same Chinese place you blog about. I used to get frozen dumplings there for quick dinners when I got home from work instead of takeaways. I didn’t socialise much that year due to the costs and travel of living on campus so I had a bit of food budget give! Never managed to get down to the seafront for fresh fish though!

I also live slap bang opposite a Tesco Express and limit how much I shop only nipping in for emergencies like not being well enough to walk into Brixton to Lidl or the market. It’s expensive, unfriendly, everything too packaged and darned expensive for poor quality, but oh so handy and takes card rather than just cash which is underrated when shopping! I prefer my local grocer which sells all kind of weird and wonderful things I don’t know how to cook which encourages me to experiment!

I’m tempted to get a trolley like yours and branch out though. She’s a beauty for a proper shopping trip!


Jenny July 31, 2013 at 10:02 am

Hi Miss South, I looked up your blog after hearing The Food Programme. I was moved by your intelligence and clarity. I have never had to live on a low income so your writing gives me some insight into the issues you face.
I just wanted to add something I have developed which might be if interest although I can see that the outlay is high. If this is a well known technique, forgive me, I thought I’d invented it.
It is; a wide mouthed vacuum flask. I made a very thick cover from it and stuffed it with polystyrene balls. The flask just fits inside. Boil a pint of milk and add a third of a cup of pudding rice, sugar to taste and a couple if cardom pods. Close the lid put into the bag, leave upside down for about 7 hours. Inside is a very yummy rice pudding
I have started to experiment with casseroles but I have not got very far with that.

Miss South July 31, 2013 at 12:43 pm

Jenny, thank you for your kind words. and I love that idea. My local ‘pound’ shop had thermos flasks for £1.99 last year (yes, I know…) and that sounds like great fun on a budget or not. Perfect for kids too. Let me know how you get on with casseroles!

Valerie Thompson August 3, 2013 at 8:13 am

Hi – just wanted to say I (belatedly) stumbled across this post ‘Food for Thought’ from Nov 2012 and it’s superb. It doesn’t rant, but the piece runs through so many points – lack of food education, the lure of cheap food (yep, I’ve scoffed my fair share of biscuits). It’s easy to say ‘eat cheap by making veggie soup’ for instance. I could do that because I can afford veg, there’s a nearby shop selling it & my health allows me to carry a heavy bag. I’ve got a food processor to cut preparation time. I’ve got a hefty saucepan I can use, my gas isn’t limited by a prepayment meter, and I don’t have young children demanding my time. But it’s a whole different world if you’re exhausted by a low paid job, the supermarket’s a bus ride away, you’ve hardly any kitchenware and no money to top up the meter. If the local store’s selling soup at 2 cans for £1 it can seem like a bargain, and it’s quick & filling.
I agree about Jamie’s Ministry of Food. In spite of all the stick he gets Jamie Oliver seems to genuinely care about passing on basic cooking skills, for which I applaud him.
Great article, I’ll certainly return to your blog.
Best wishes

Sall August 29, 2013 at 10:09 pm

I love this piece.
I’ve just discovered you today thanks to Jack Monroe, and will be following with interest. My eyes have been opened to food poverty this week thanks to you and Jack. Going to bed with a bit of perspective tonight, and more gratitude than normal for a full stomach.

Miss South September 1, 2013 at 10:05 am

Sall: thank you! Glad to know we’re helping. Don’t want to feel like I’m nagging…

Nash: What a lovely comment. And some lovely recipes on your blog!

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