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 }

Sven Rufus November 20, 2012 at 12:58 pm

This is excellent. Really pulled me up this morning to look at my own attitudes. I started off with a ‘Yeah, been there, done that’ kind of a mindset – remembering my days of extreme food budgeting, thinking that meant I understood it all already. I thought that having my own experiences of that which, although now thankfully quite distant in time, still feel quite fresh and raw, meant that the ideas you talk about couldn’t possibly be aimed at me – but to my discomfort, found that I have been falling into some of the traps you highlight. Not snobbishness I hope, but certainly a lack of realism in some of the things I have thought, if not openly expressed or argued.

I had my own strategies to cope and I do feel quite pleased with how I managed to keep a ‘good’ diet going through the leanest years, but I have no right to think that those strategies would work for others, and certainly no right to judge. I do lay a lot of the blame for problems with our national diet squarely at the door of the food industry, but even this now I see as an oversimplification, and I am going to have to rethink exactly how nuanced the whole subject is.

Really grateful to you for having written this, and helped me to look again at the subject.

Miss South November 20, 2012 at 1:27 pm

Sven: glad to have been of some help. I’ve actually had a real wake up call myself reading the comments as I’ve been naive about ‘just teach them’ and the problem is solved. I also caught myself judging when I went to Tesco on Sunday morning followed by the Farmers’ Market on the way home, so I know it’s easily done.

I’ve picked up a few good tips about budgeting etc in the last day and it would be brilliant if there was a resource that offered ideas, options, suggestions etc for those who want them. I’ve only ever found such things on Mumsnet before. Wonder if anyone knows of anywhere I could link to?

Gert November 20, 2012 at 1:41 pm

There’s the Money Saving Expert Forum, but I have to confess that I find it as frustrating as I find it useful. As with Mumsnet it often comes up in searches – sometimes for unexpected items – but I think I would find it soul-destroying to read it on a regular basis! From my dipping into it, it’s very much about BOGOFs at supermarkets, or triumph at achieving a ‘value’ item cheaper than a ‘normal’ one without considering the relative content (whihc matters far more in some cases than it does in others). I may be judging it too harshly, though!

jemima101 November 20, 2012 at 3:38 pm

I meant to ask if I can reblog this ?

Miss South November 20, 2012 at 3:41 pm

Please feel free to. I’d really like people to see these comments especially which have been brilliant, yours included!

Kavey November 20, 2012 at 4:42 pm

Oh, what an absolutely excellent post. You manage to deliver a hard-hitting message without resorting to hyperbole or shrill hectoring or personal drama and that’s no easy feat, I think.

I’ve seen a number of articles with similar subject matter in the last few weeks and not a single one has communicated as clearly and helpfully as yours. And you’ve made a number of points and explanations of issues that I’d never thought of or seen discussed before.

I think human nature is judgemental and it’s down to all of us to try and keep a lid on it, to show some compassion and some understanding to others, and to try and mind our own bloody business if all we can do is criticise. I know I’ve made judgements before, though I try hard not to do so. Your post makes me want to do better, and be better, and if you can motivate people to want to be better, you’ve cracked something few writers ever manage.

Miss South November 20, 2012 at 4:50 pm

I am so relieved to hear this isn’t hectoring. I was genuinely worried that it was just nagging by another name or a way to make food bloggers hate me! I think there is room for everyone, I love reading blogs even if the person is making foie gras burgers dipped in gold leaf because I like the distraction and aspiration and challenge that gives me. I also love getting personal recommendations for whether products, places or recipes are worth it and find it helps me streamline my shopping and sometimes curtail my impulse shopping urges for something better.

Meeting people and building relationships around food has taken a lot of the pressure off that I mention in the post and been really beneficial and I feel enormously lucky to have that.

Sioned-Mair Richards November 20, 2012 at 5:05 pm

This is better than anything George Orwell ever wrote. I know he “got it” about tastiness but I do wonder whether he ever had to cook! This was just a brilliant blog. Thank you.

Camilla @FabFood4All November 20, 2012 at 5:13 pm

I appreciate your view points and think many of today’s problems (of which there are many) come from a lack of basic cookery skills being taught in schools today. So even if there were cheap raw ingredient available unless you know what to do with them you have a problem! I see young women buying jar upon jar of sauce in the supermarket when a tin of tomatoes and a few dried herbs and garlic would be a far cheaper option and not take any longer to cook.

Miss South November 20, 2012 at 5:18 pm

Camilla: I take your point, but I also see lots of young men doing the same. Neither gender have been educated and enabled to make those decisions as adults. I feel everyone should be taught to cook rather than domestic cooking being seen as women’s work as it was in the past.

Sioned: I write awful books about animals on farms though. George can rest easily on all scores!

Miss South November 20, 2012 at 5:22 pm

Oooh, I always forget about MSE. I think it’s how ugly the site is. I agree it can be useful at times. Inspired me to buy a pork shank in Morrisons a while back that made a very cheap, easy, plentiful stew, but yes, due to the constraints we’ve been discussing, it mainly helps people focus on buying the kind of processed food and deals the supermarkets allow for. Not the forum or users’ fault, but shows how hard it is to get past the issues.

Camilla @FabFood4All November 20, 2012 at 5:39 pm

I have a lot to thank the Money Saving Expert Forum for as someone put a thread on there for my Organic Steak Box giveaway and I’ve never had so many visitors to my site, it’s also a sign of the times we are in!

Lee November 20, 2012 at 5:46 pm

What an excellent read! I used to work in Crisis Loans for DWP, a position which I found tested my vaguely leftist principles on a daily basis. An applicant once came in asking for £10 for a takeaway to tide him over til the next day when his benefits were due, as the tins of soup he had in the house wouldn’t “hit the spot”…

Just to play devil’s advocate, do you think there is any situation in which it is acceptable to moralist about other’s food choices? I refer to yesterday’s guardian, in which a working family claimed not to be able to afford nutritionally good food for themselves. “We’ve only got the most basic SKY package” said one…

Miss South November 20, 2012 at 6:06 pm

I cannot imagine a job more challenging than the Crisis Loan department. In my volunteer job I occasionally have to deal with them and I dread it. It’s a land beyond. I can imagine some very very bizarre requests, but then again when I worked in Chelsea and Notting Hill and Selfridges, my leftist principles were just as challenged by the rampant entitlement of the very wealthy who often thought I was there to be their minion. I think people who sound bratty and awful exist in all walks of life but the poorer ones are judged more for it. And much as I like soup, if you’ve been eating it for 2 weeks, I can see someone chancing their arm for a kebab…

That Guardian article really challenged me to talk the talk. I found it, gut reaction, hard to see children going without nutritionally good food over a Sky package but then I thought about it. That Sky deal was £24 a month which is £6 per week which is £1.50 per person more in the food budget which isn’t much. And by being able to stay in and watch movies or sport, it might help the family avoid expensive day trips or playdates or socialising when they’d have to buy non budgeted for food and makes it easier for them to stick to the budget long term. I think everyone is entitled to some pleasures in life and being too strict makes it harder to live frugally all the time. But I also thought the dad was being pretty selfish that his desire came before everything else and that in that circumstance, it’s not fair to penalise the kids. On the whole, I felt that if that £24 was a source of enjoyment,entertainment and bonding for a family of 4 at a time when there’s very little fun in their life, it’s probably more valuable right now than fruit juice or a few extra carrots and a cauli.

But I might be biased. I buy booze when I have spare money even though it’s not strictly necessary for life.

jemima101 November 20, 2012 at 6:40 pm

That point ignores the meat of what Miss South has to say, how do you know the person buying the jar of sauce isnt shattered, depressed, suffering from chronic illness of just too ground down to care?

Lee November 20, 2012 at 6:52 pm

I think you’re really onto something here. Something that really struck me when working in the dole was
a) the extent to which the Jobcentre Plus (ie the state/taxpayer) expects people to open their lives up for scrutiny in order to qualify for whatever benefits they’re entitled (entitled!) to and
b) how so many of the claimants (sorry, customers) I saw regarded this as unexceptional.
Crisis Loan applicants had to account for every single pound of whatever benefits they had received in the last payment period in order to stand a chance of receiving a loan to cover food. If they had receipts, so much the better. How many of us employed folk could recall what every pound of our last wage was spent on? Why do we hold benefit claimants to a higher standard? Are we really still that concerned to draw a line between the deserving and underserving poor? Being on benefits often involves, I think, an opening out of the self to a level of scrutiny that would shock a lot of people (and it really did, on the rare occasions non-benefit claimants applied for a crisis loan). When you’re on benefits, your life, tastes, habits and proclivities become, in a very weird and real way, public property.
But then, why should the state/taxpayer have to foot the bill when parents spend in a way that would commonly be seen as irresponsible? I had plenty of crisis loan claimants with apparently no food for their kids, who happily admitted hundreds of pounds of benefit money had been spent on Christmas presents. Good luck getting people to vote for that.
I thought I might figure some of this stuff out during my time working at DWP. I probably left, after a couple of years, more confused that ever.

Thanks again for a great and thought-provoking article.

Lesley November 20, 2012 at 6:58 pm

There’s plenty of research showing that in poorer areas the shops don’t sell cheap fruit and vegetables. You’re so right about the accessibility and the cost of cooking from scratch being things that most people don’t take into account. Pulses are great but take a lot of cooking. And after a while, I suspect, most people just give up and fall into line.

Is it Crohn’s that you have? Must make it even harder.

Miss South November 20, 2012 at 7:14 pm

It’s a tough one isn’t it.

why should the state/taxpayer have to foot the bill when parents spend in a way that would commonly be seen as irresponsible

As you say, it’s perception. A parent might have spent a couple of hundred quid on Christmas because they want their kid to have one decent day in the year or because it’s too embarrassing to admit you’re broke when the whole wider family’s eyes are on you and your kid will remember an empty stocking for years to come. It would of course be better if they stuck to their budget and gave one small toy, a satsuma and had a chicken instead, but Christmas is about memories and love and the temptation to splurge must be huge. It’s especially tough to think how long term those consequences will be hen you live week to week. Add in the savage payday loan industry and love has suddenly become stupidity. But then again the middle class families funding the Heston approved Christmas on their credit cards or equity release schemes helped create a situation where the state/taxpayer had to foot the bill too…

I get frustrated by this myself and then I remember along with a lack of food education in this country, we have a total lack of financial education too. Even when I did APR and compound interest at school, they weren’t in context of borrowing money or taking out a mortgage. I’ve learned to budget but it’s taken me the whole 12 years i’ve lived away from home to not feel like I’m entirely winging it. I found mistakes much easier to get over when I was earning. And yes, the bank manager never asked me to justify a single purchase (thank god!)

Miss South November 20, 2012 at 7:25 pm

I’m not entirely sure what my innards are up to just yet. I’m still being investigated, but yup, going low fibre is making it tough. I eat a lot of eggs. I really really miss cabbage. Lentils have become an enormous treat and I can’t eat garlic and onions so am re-exploring a lot of traditional British food which is actually proving to be fun.

But when I’m flaring up or my fatigue levels are through the roof, it’s oven chips, pasta n’sauce, biscuits, cup a soup, packet couscous, presliced cheese sandwiches, microwaveable rice, dry cereal (oatcakes and hummous in a previous life) or a packet of crisps. I try to batch cook when I’m more well and eat those spoils when sickly, but I run out, forget or quite simply, feel so self pitying and peaky that sometimes only comforting food that cossets you with fat, salt, sugar and high umami will do. Everything else is unappealing. I want the food to feed my emotions and even before my digestive issues, kidney beans or kohlrabi failed to do so.

vicky November 20, 2012 at 7:51 pm

Fantastic article, thanks. Comments under guardian articles on nutrition poverty these last few days have turned my stomach. So much judgment, so little understanding of the lives of others. Demonisation of the poor from all sides of the political spectrum these days, it seems. This was a much needed antidote.

Camilla @FabFood4All November 20, 2012 at 7:52 pm

Because I was watching these 2 young mums discussing their meals and they looked very happy but all the meals they mentioned involved jars of sauce – it’s just a for instance. If I’d seen men I’d have mentioned them and no I didn’t miss the point of the artical (I could add so much in that direction but I think it’s already been covered) just thought I’d add a sub-level to the debate as I’m a huge advocate of Home Economics and am bitterly dissappointed in the lack of survival skills (of which cooking is a major one) that are taught in our schools. I have a niece who apparently can’t even make coffee at the age of 28!

Miss South November 20, 2012 at 7:56 pm

Sorry, I just wanted to point out that often people say ‘young women should do X’ and forget that they aren’t holding young men to the same standard, but it might have sounded a bit like poking holes.

Totally agree Home Economics need bringing to the forefront again. TV chefs could do with a lesson or two themselves actually!

Camilla @FabFood4All November 20, 2012 at 8:09 pm

Hi, I wasn’t actually picking you up on anything it was the person who was saying about the women could have had a hard day, were tired etc and that I’d missed the point of your great post! As I’m replying through e-mail mode it probably got filed under the wrong comment! Anyway we are singing from the same hyme sheet:-)

Laura@howtocookgoodfood November 20, 2012 at 9:53 pm

Hello again,
I just love the power of your post. It really has made an impact and yes to your comment on my comment about education, which is all good as long as the cuts aren’t going to take away from those who really need help. But, you are right, I think it it already happening sadly.
Anyway you have voice and it is being heard, I hope
by those that are in government too.
Let’s all teach the kids and well done to you! x

Evidence Matters (@EvidenceMatters) November 20, 2012 at 9:59 pm

There’s a lot of good advice on MSE albeit it’s tricky to find at times: it’s worth looking at some of their own indices for budget meals such as the Complete Menu Plans Collection as well as an offshoot put together by MSErs which is Cheap Family Recipes (feeds 4 people for approx £110 per month).

jemima101 November 20, 2012 at 10:08 pm

All of these helpful sites ignore the heart of this, people simply often don’t have the “spoons” to do these very worthy things.

The Lone Gourmet November 21, 2012 at 12:16 am

Wow, a lot of comments since I last left one myself. One thing I’ve picked up from the comments is the references to snobbery and class. I spoke on a panel just a few weeks ago in Manchester about food and feeding ourselves in a world with a burgeoning population (the debate focused around issues such as food security, insect-based diets, food miles and imports from developing countries, grain for meat production versus grain for grain for sake…).

Because my blog and Twitter bio make a passing jokey reference (ok, not entirely) to me declaring war on ready meals, one person from the floor felt I was passing judgement on her – this was someone I didn’t know so couldn’t possibly pass judgement on. Shne made the point that sometimes she didn’t want to cook and just to shove a ready meal in the oven. And that’s fine. I may lament the fact she doesn’t possess much practical skill at cooking, which she mentioned, but it’s not for me to judge her food choices, only to hope she’s making informed choices and is not in food poverty.

My war on ready meals is personal – I won’t buy them or eat them (there’s a post on my blog about the one time I was forced to live on ready meals for 3 days!) but I’m a spoonie too and much as I love to cook and blow my cash on eating well instead of frittering it on magazines, make-up and clothes, I’m not always able to cook for myself. I batch cook and freeze casseroles and curries for those days so I can microwave myself a hot meal, or – shock horror – I get a takeaway delivered. So even with the very best of intentions and high standards I can’t live up to them! Not every day. This is why I won’t judge anyone on what they buy to eat or cook. I know that for most, they don’t have the choices I have and they are making their own tough choices every day.

That Guardian piece – I also caught myself questioning the “most basic Sky package” but stopped myself. For the same reason – it might be the one bit of pleasure they have in an otherwise dire situation. Ultimately I felt sad and angry that they were struggling like this and having to literally count every last penny on a shopping trip and it made me grateful all over again that I have access to cheap fresh food at a market on my doorstep and sufficient income that I’m not torn between paying the leccy bill and going hungry, or filling my belly and getting into debt with the utility company.

Also just wanted to say how lovely it was to hear about the initiatives in Brixton. I lived there 20-odd years ago and was involved with the old anarchist centre on Railton Road – we used to bin-dive at New Covent Garden at dawn every Friday, fill our rucksacks and then cook with the spoils. We made a 3-course veggie meal every evening at the centre, open to anyone who turned up as long as the portions lasted and we’d charge a quid to cover the cost of the electricity. So glad others are carrying on that tradition!

underthebluegumtree November 21, 2012 at 1:50 pm

Well, what can I say that hasn’t already been said. A totally awesome piece of writing that has challenged many of my own prejudices. Undoubtedly the best blog post I have ever read and much, much more informative and eloquent than the current media articles doing the rounds. Thank you for sharing.

Jen @ BlueKitchenBakes November 21, 2012 at 2:24 pm

I just want to say thank you for such a thought provoking post, I only came across your blog today via the Foodies100 Ten at Ten round up and I’m glad I clicked through to this. I don’t think I really have much more to add as you have covered the issue so well. I do think that education is key though. I’m in my mid 20s and I think cooking in schools started to wane not long after I did my compulsory lessons between the ages of 11 and 14. I know that my younger brothers didn’t do anywhere near as much cooking in food technology classes as I did and they are only 2 and 5 years younger than me. So this must mean that for a lot of young parents they may have had very little or no experience of cooking from scratch especially if their parents were not confident cooks.

Stephen Coltrane November 21, 2012 at 4:41 pm

Glad I made the time to read this (someone directed me to it via Twitter). Beautifully written, simple but thought-provoking. I’m one of those smug and comfortable middle-class types and, even though I do my best to remind myself how lucky I am, it takes something like this to remind me *properly*. Thank you.

Choclette November 22, 2012 at 1:47 pm

What an excellent post. Everything you say is so true and it’s very good to be reminded of the realities of being poor. Although I grew up in a very limited income household, I had a mother whose top priority was food so I was really lucky to have raw milk, homemade yogurt, fresh vegetables and lots of lentils. One of my big bug bears is the smug attitudes to “grow your own” (and I know I lapse into smugness myself from time to time). Whilst I think trying to grow as much of your own food as possible is a great thing and indeed we do grow some fruit and veg, it is just not possible or practical for most to do so. Storage is a big issue. If you live in a tiny space, where do you keep your sacks of spuds? If you don’t have a freezer what do you do with your surpluses, if you don’t have a large pan and somewhere to keep lots of empty and full jars, how do you do any preserving? You are right to raise the importance of not being judgemental, it is all too easy and even easier to forget just how lucky some of us are, me included.

Amanda November 22, 2012 at 2:19 pm

Very interesting and eye-opening! I’ve been a keen cook since my teens, and obsessed with healthy eating, but I’ve become a lot less ‘judgy’ about processed food since having children of my own. Before I had them, I was fully in the ‘turkey twizzlers are the devil’s work’ camp, but since having an average of 3 hours unbroken sleep a night for 2 years now (the first child was a good sleeper, the second one not) I’ve relaxed my attitude quite a bit. It’s a time/convenience rather than budgetry issue for us (for which I am very grateful, having read the article) but my rule is that I cook them one ‘proper’ main meal a day from scratch (eg veggie pasta bake, lasagne, shepherd’s pie, fish pie – all the pies, in fact) and don’t worry too much about the other one, so if it’s a processed orange cheese sarnie on sliced white (which my 3-year old loves) or chicken nuggets, so be it. Breakfast is always scrambled eggs on toast as we are all obsessed with that (and keep chickens.) That said, I’ve never fed them a turkey swizzler – or a potato waffle, but they really are the devil’s work. I had to go to hospital after burning my mouth really badly on one a few years. True fact!

Miss South November 22, 2012 at 2:19 pm

It’s great to hear some other ‘spoonies’ sharing their strategies for the bad days. I always feel a bit guilty doing convenience foods when I’m bad as I know eating crap food is unlikely to give my body what it needs, but I guess better to something than nothing!

There are tonnes of wonderful food initiatives going on in Brixton. There’s also a community cafe I’ve heard about through this with a greenhouse project and lone parents and elderly people’s lunch club in my local park, plus some other stuff I’m hearing wind of. I’m so glad to hear it’s a tradition in Brixton despite its recent gentrification and shiny new look! Subversive tastes better!

Miss South November 22, 2012 at 2:30 pm

Underthebluegumtree: thank you!

Jemima: yup, taps into the Tory insistence that people don’t want to work when they can’t work

Evidence Matters: thank you for the links. Very useful and bookmarked!

Jen: education is key. It doesn’t take very long for one set of kids to not be taught cooking and then pass it down a generation. The start of convenience foods in the 70s opened a massive can of worms…

Stephen: thank you.

Miss South November 22, 2012 at 2:37 pm

Choclette: great points about growing your own. I’ve written here about how I adore growing my own. It has improved my mental health and made me more engaged with food and I’d recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who can. But it’s not an option for everyone. My biggest pet peeve is that it’s almost impossible to buy one bag of soil or compost in the UK if you don’t drive. None of the garden centres, B&Q type places or major supermarkets will deliver it and with all the will in the world you cannot get a grow bag on the bus…

The closest place to me that sells soil to even grow a few tubs of herbs is about £20 in a cab. So you’re about £35 down with plants, seeds, pots and soil before you can start saving on herbs or fresh toms or cut and come again lettuce. That’s not inconsiderable. You could buy a slow cooker instead and save all year.

And yes, space and storage. Tricky in the modern rabbit hutch style flat in the UK. I give eternal thanks for having cupboards and an amazing pound shop with tupperware at good prices!

Miss South November 22, 2012 at 2:44 pm

Amanda: that sounds like a pretty sensible way of doing it. I have to say I’ve become an eggs for breakfast person and they are such a good start to the day. Much more economical and filling than cereal, but sadly demonised over the years of cholesterol fears so some what out of fashion!

I have to shamefully admit that the one processed fake food I love are potato waffles. I occasionally buy them and have them for breakfast with a fried egg on top. I have now destroyed my reputation completely…

Amanda November 22, 2012 at 2:49 pm

It’s interesting what you say about growing your own. I do that too – I absolutely love it, and the pros (not least the pride in actually producing a crop, however feeble) definitely outweigh the cons, but when you add up how much it costs you in terms of time, seeds/seedlings, the crops that don’t work at all, fertiliser, tools and insect zappers etc, it probably is cheaper just to buy veg from the supermarket.

Miss South November 22, 2012 at 3:05 pm

You might be the person who finally gets me to kick my waffle habit! I bet your kids will never think to eat one after that tale!

I agree that on a cost basis it probably doesn’t save money to grow your own unless you pick things carefully. Rosemary, bay leaves and mint all save tonnes of money once you get going as they keep going. Lettuce, pea shoots, sprouted beans and kale also good compared to supermarket costs especially as you can try new sorts. Most other stuff financially isn’t worth it if that’s the only consideration, but the joy of trying new types of produce and the pride in saying ‘I grew that’ is worth its weight in gold if you can.

Although I’m on no mission to tell everyone to grown their own. Because then they’ll know how little talent it takes me and cease to be stupidly impressed!

The Lone Gourmet November 22, 2012 at 3:56 pm

I would love to be able to grow at least some things myself – a little herb garden would be awesome, if nothing else. My flat’s pretty small and my kitchen is an interior one so there’s no windowsill to have a few pots on. I could apply for an allotment but I lack the storage space for the harvestings and the paraphernalia for preserving. A friend abroad recently sent me a packet of seeds for a salad leaf that’s hard to buy here so I’m going to have to do a spot of guerrilla gardening in the grounds round my block of flats!

Miss South November 22, 2012 at 4:04 pm

I am all about the guerrilla gardening! I commandeered a flowerbed out the front of my flat from the council and was amazed to see how much I could grow without anyone else pinching it or trashing it. It warmed my cockles rather.

My kitchen is an interior one too which means I’ve had to say bye bye to basil. It just dies immediately. Sob.

You should see if you can find someone who has an allotment you could timeshare? Take just a corner or do a little bit of work occasionally in return for a manageable amount of their surplus?

Christine November 22, 2012 at 7:53 pm

What a great blog post – read through it myself nodding my head and muttering, “exactly”. You’ve totally nailed it in terms of communicating the reality of living on a real budget and “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 work in communities of multiple deprivation and it really p*sses me off when I hear friends, who own their own homes, have two cars, have magazine and wine club subscriptions complain about how “poor” they are. One couple I know were moaning that they wouldn’t be able to afford a winter holiday this year. A WINTER holiday. They’ve already had a January holiday, a city break, two weeks in a villa in Spain and a music festival to enjoy. And yet they consider themselves poor because they can’t afford a winter holiday?!?! Many politicians and Food Tsars (hate that title) are the same. Waxing lyrical about growing your own veg and making a whole chicken stretch a week. They don’t have a flipping clue. All of them should be made to read your blog post then apologise to the rest of us (including me, a working mum) for patronising us and making us feel guilty for buying ready made pasta sauce to feed to our kids!

Joanna November 22, 2012 at 8:06 pm

I am so glad you have written this post. I was getting so depressed/anxious reading the comments on the Guardian breadline articles. What you say makes a lot of sense and hopefully will get hundreds of readers. Thank you for being so articulate. I want to say it was a pleasure to read, but that sounds a bit odd given the subject matter – but it was just that.

Miss South November 22, 2012 at 8:20 pm

While I would obviously prefer to be hale and hearty and earning money, living on a budget has taught me the value of things in a way I didn’t have when I was a teenager. Things have been very financially tight for me before but right now I have a breathing space that I appreciate beyond belief and I think I’m a better person for it.

But I don’t think poverty is an enriching experience for most people. I think it’s horrible and grim and testing and the problem is that it runs people down through exhaustion to the point where they don’t have a voice so those food tsars and politicians step in. Add in those people who are actually quite well off but simply the poorest people in their social sphere thinking that’s poverty and you get a very skewed discussion about the subject. I felt nervous writing this because I wouldn’t dream of telling a low income working family with a couple of kids and only a branch of, say Asda nearby how to feed themselves on a budget. Unless sucking eggs is a new delicacy?

Miss South November 22, 2012 at 8:28 pm

Thank you. Those Guardian commenters (of which I am one) tipped me over the edge. I bet their smugness also keeps them warm instead of resorting to those terrible fossil fuels or anything…

Love your blog by the way. I wish I’d read your marmalade cake tips before I destroyed that Nigel Slater recipe myself!

Rhizowen November 22, 2012 at 9:14 pm

I came across your post on Twitter via @Choclette8. I’m glad I did. It is easy to criticise others for their poor (appropriate word in this instance) dietary choices, without any understanding of their situation. Not all of us have an Aga, a greenhouse and an allotment. Not all of us own our own homes. Not all of us have a cooker. The poor remain largely invisible, except as the focus of occasional underclass hysteria from Middle Englanders. Cultural relativism is a well-established concept in anthropological studies. Perhaps the same approach should be adopted by those moralizing about the failure of poor people to feed themselves properly.

The Lone Gourmet November 23, 2012 at 1:08 am

Ms S, thanks because I now feel really inspired to start digging guerrilla seed holes in the grounds of my block! And I think I will ask around about an allotment share. I owe you rabbit stew (with prunes if you desire) when you are next my way.

Also, I have to agree that poverty is relentlessly grinding. I still recall the days in my own spells of it the endless traipsing on foot (fortunately before I was a spoonie) to find cheap(er) things I could buy and still eat well without living endlessly on things on toast.

I am chortling about the winter holiday people. There was an article in the Guardian in September about poverty – lots of interviews with people across the social spectrum on how poor they *considered* themselves to be (because as Rhizowen has so eloquently pointed out it’s all relative) – I got infuriated at the number of middle classers whining about not being able to keep up mortgage payments on a £2 million home and how they’d cut back by axing pony classes for Toby or whatever. I’d like to see them live on £57 a week, which is (I think, unless it’s been increased recently) what a single person on Job Seeker’s Allowance gets. (By comparison, I get around £68 a week in Disability Living Allowance, which is non-means tested, and I work fulltime.) It’s so long since I lived on dole alone – I know I would struggle today. Back then I did cash in hand stuff, like many, to top it up. But even though I’m better off at present I still can’t afford more than a week’s holiday a year. In September, I had my first proper week’s holiday for 2.5 years. So I get really angry at these people whining about their poverty because they really do not have a clue what real poverty is and mostly they are still feeding themselves very well – granted they’ve probably downsized from Ocado to Sainsbury’s but still…

Miss South November 23, 2012 at 9:40 am

I was really nervous about the guerilla gardening, but my local councillor called one day to canvas votes and loved that I had and then my neighbours did the same (although they have immaculate flowerbeds and shrubs) and I currently have weeds. I need to get my finger out next year!

I know what you mean about relative poverty but I will say if you were doing well and set your stall accordingly and then things change, it’s still terrifying and stressful to think you might lose your family house and feel as you’ve failed by losing everything you’ve worked for. But I remember that article and the lack of self awareness was immense and there is a bigger safety net in that situation than when my landlord refused to take Housing Benefit because she didn’t like the idea and I ended up homeless.

It takes time to learn to live on a budget but it does make my eyes roll when you hear some people say ‘we’ve had to start looking at prices’ as if they’ve suddenly become poor. But what worries me is that they think benefits are too high and want them cut when yes, someone under 25 has to live on £57 a week Job Seekers’ Allowance and in some cases top up their Housing Benefit. When I lived on that, I just didn’t eat most of the time and when I did it was chips or fried chicken and chips or 10p instant noodles and cup a soup which only need a kettle, not a cooker. Poor quality food with empty calories and no prep, just like what you get at a Food Bank these days if you get a referral…

jemima101 November 23, 2012 at 11:17 am

There are some massive problems with food banks and underlying assumptions being made. Via my church I saw the advice given out by a local one to those looking to donate, people were asked to avoid unusual or foreign food that poor people might be unfamiliar with! The list of suggested foods were all heavily processed and low in nutrition. My friend questioned the maker of the list as to why these were preferred and was told this is what these kind of people like.

This is of course purely anecdotal, but in asking around I have not found a single food bank that provides staples such as potatoes and rice or fresh vegetables.

The Lone Gourmet November 23, 2012 at 11:46 am

Most food banks want only tinned or packaged foods simply because storage of fresh produce of any sort is difficult. Most don’t have any refrigeration so parcel recipients don’t get fruit, veg, meat and dairy for that reason.

Some, however, are able to do same-day redistribution of sell-by supermarket fresh food that would otherwise go to waste.

Good article here on how they work:

I’m not suggesting that anecdote isn’t true – I suspect particularly among some church operations there’s a certain amount of middle class snobbery at play.

Miss South November 23, 2012 at 12:30 pm

Jemima, some great points there about food banks. Personally I have no issue with churches etc collecting for Harvest or Christmas and distributing food, but I am very uncomfortable with the buck being passed to food banks and allowing them to fill the gaps left by council cuts, welfare changes and lack of charity provision. Plus the Trussell Trust charges churches quite a lot to open a food bank which has some ethical issues for me…

And then yes, there’s the issue of the actual food. Very poor quality, low nutrition in many ways, but the whole thing has to be weighed up with how long the food bank has to store it (will spuds sprout in that time?), do people have the resources to cook it and does it need additional extras to make it edible such as herbs or spices? I know some food banks won’t accept things like Weetabix becasue they use up so much milk compared to say cornflakes.

I agree that there’s an issue with snobbery and making assumptions. I think also some food banks are almost penalising people for using them by giving them such crap food as if everyone would rather have handouts than buy their own and need discouraged. It’s just one reason why they aren’t the answer to the problem.

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