foodbank list

Live Below the Line

foodbank list

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A week’s worth of shopping….

Some key groceries for a weekly shop

First of all: thank you! Thank you to everyone who emailed, commented, Tweeted, followed, pinned and got in touch after the Observer Food Monthly piece. We were overwhelmed by the amount of debate, discussion and support it received. We’ve found some amazing new blogs, talked to some great people and had a wonderful time. Even the notorious Comment is Free was positive!

So to say thanks properly I thought I’d give you a sneak peek to the bits of the original article that didn’t make the final cut at Food Monthly. Not content with taking over the entire magazine, I did in fact write more than you saw and while I’m thrilled to have had so much published, a little bit did get lost in the edit. A few people asked if I was using organic for my recipes because it didn’t seem right that they came to £20 per head for that many dishes, but in fact there was a lot more food in my basket and I’m going to give you a cut-out and keep guide to see where I bought food for this week and began building a storecupboard for future ones.

I costed out my basket using Sainsbury’s online as I wanted to use a baseline that the largest number of people across the UK could have and an online ‘big four’ supermarket was the best for that. Not everyone can reach an Aldi, Lidl or a proper market, and online shopping removed regional variations. Using a discount retailer, local greengrocer, market or getting reduced products at a supermarket can help you cut the budget. Remember it’s a guideline, not a diktat.

I allowed for a bare minimum of storecupboard items: salt, pepper, one chilli product (powder, hot sauce, Tabasco, your choice), smoked paprika, one dried green herb of your choice, Worcestershire sauce and mustard powder. The fresh herbs and ground ginger mentioned were optional as was the parmesan and olive oil. I didn’t include butter in the basket as it’s an essential to me, nor  did I include milk as the amount you buy depends on your tea and coffee consumption.

We’ve listed everything you need to buy to do the 7 day menu I wrote for OFM, and in the future I’ll be giving you some more ideas for using the store cupboard items you’ve built up from here.

P.S. At the bottom of the post is a version you can print out if you’d like – it’s just the ingredients list in black and white, with space for your own notes. It prints two copies of the list per sheet of A4 paper, so one printout can be used over a couple of weeks.

Fruit and veg

Bananas – Basics Fairtrade  x8 £1.15

Potatoes – white 2.5kg              £1.95

Leeks 1kg                                      £2.59

Beetroot – Vacuum pack            £0.70

Celery – untrimmed                    £0.90

Carrots – loose 1kg                     £0.90

Onions – 1kg bag                         £1.10

Apples – Basics bag                    £0.82

Parsnips – loose x2                    £0.48

Savoy Cabbage                            £0.80

Swede (turnip)                            £0.90

Garlic (2x bulbs)                        £0.46

Mushrooms – sliced 1kg           £2.50



Garden Peas  – frozen bag 910g      £1.60

White fish fillets – Basics 520g      £2.00
Tinned and dried goods

Butterbeans – 400g tin                         £0.69

Kidney beans – Basics 400g tin         £0.27

Chopped tomatoes – 400g Basics       £0.35

Condensed milk 379g                           £0.99

Lemon juice 250ml                               £0.59

Creamed coconut 200g                       £0.99

Semolina 500g                                     £0.89

Pearl Barley 500g                               £0.55

Porridge Oats 1kg                               £1.29

Popping corn 500g                            £1.09

Rice – Long grain rice 1kg               £1.39

Plain flour – Basics 1.5kg                £0.65

Ryvita 250g                                        £0.99


Meat, fish and dairy

Chicken – whole approx. 1.75kg              £5.00

Low fat Natural yoghurt – Basics              £0.65

Eggs – 12 free-range                                     £2.65

Double Cream 600ml                                  £1.68

Total:                                                            £39.95

If you wanted to buy the store cupboard essentials from Sainsbury’s I’ve included what they would cost below:

Store cupboard essentials

Worcestershire sauce 150ml    £1.19

Mustard powder 57g                  £1.35

Olive oil 500ml                           £2.00 (offer price)

Smoked paprika 50g                  £1.19

Ground ginger 32g                     £0.59

Bay leaves 10g                          £0.60

Fresh tarragon 20g                    £0.80

Tabasco sauce 57g                   £1.69

Sea Salt 350g                             £0.55

Black peppercorns 100g           £1.78

Butter – own brand 250g            £1.50

Total:                                                               £12.16

It shocked me when I costed this out. For me, these are the absolute bare basics of a herb, spice and condiments cupboard and with the exception of the fresh tarragon, they’d all last for ages, but they add another 30% onto the cost of your shop just to get some flavour into those fresh foods you’ve bought. You could save some serious cash here by shopping around if you can. Asian grocers or ‘ethnic’ supermarkets will usually have bags of peppercorns, bayleaves and ginger at twice the size and half the price. Bottles of hot sauce will be cheaper than big brand name Tabasco but everyone likes a different heat so it’s hard to advise what to buy. Olive oil often crops up in pound shops or on offer. Smoked paprika is often cheaper in delis in the cute little tins when you look at price by gram. But if you can only get to a supermarket, products like this really add cost to your shopping.

You’ll use nearly all the fresh vegetables in the course of the week, but should have some of the frozen ones left. Other items like the flour, porridge oats, pearl barley, coconut, rice and popping corn will last for ages and form the basis of following weeks’ meals and snacks. I’ll be talking you through the ways the meals came together and how with a bit of planning you don’t have to be tied to a cooker all week but still enjoy your food and your spare time on a budget. In the meantime, what are your number one herbs, spices or flavourings? Could you give up cumin? Is soy sauce essential? Go without garlic?

Click here to get a PDF version of the shopping list

grocery list

Food for thought

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.

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