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.

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.

139 replies
  1. Kathryn
    Kathryn says:

    I really admire your honesty in this piece; it is so compellingly written and such food for thought. Sometimes we all need a reality check like this. Thank you for sharing.

  2. thelittleloaf
    thelittleloaf says:

    This is an absolutely brilliant piece of writing. I have to admit I’m guilty of a lot of what you mention above – I sometimes spend silly amounts of money on ingredients, justifying it because food is so important to me and I’m happy to spend money on some amazing fish or expensive chocolate rather than a new dress. But some people don’t have the luxury of making decisions either or. I hope a lot of people will read this – it really is powerful food for thought.

  3. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    The Little Loaf: I have never heard you judge or criticise someone’s food decisions and one of the things I love about your writing is the sheer passion for food and the enthusiasm you pass on to other people. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that because one person can’t afford sea bass, no one else should buy it. I think the more people who spend money on good food and use retailers, the more normal it becomes generally and available. And you know what, when I’ve got spare money myself, it goes on food somehow, especially eating out when I can! No judgement here!

    Kathryn: thank you!

  4. Ailbhe
    Ailbhe says:

    Really great post Missy S. Very passionate and moving and above all, true. I feel society recently has begun to, once again, search for easy targets to blame.

  5. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Gert: I could learn a thing or two from your brevity…

    Debora: Thank you!

    Ailbhe: I agree that there is scapegoating going on and I guess I just wanted to show it isn’t always just not trying or caring.

  6. jemima101
    jemima101 says:

    A really great, thoughtful piece that I wish every Tory who suggested it is easy to manage on a budget would read. I have just got back from my monthly trip to lidl, we also fit in home bargains and Iceland. We have a chest freezer, and now I have all the rice, pasta, dry goods, ect I need to feed a family of 4 for a month.

    This is only possible because of the kind friend who drives the 30 mile round trip, our freezer(a gift from someone whose kids had left home) and the fact I love cooking. 30 pizzas or ready meals would take a lot less effort, planning, time, and of course would be delivered by the large chains.

    It is the day to day, the working out how to make the money stretch that can use up peoples energy.

  7. Jules
    Jules says:

    Fabulous passionate post. I did just write a long reply, but they decided I couldn’t write as well about this subject as you do. I work with families on the breadline and see first hand the impact of food poverty. There is a good deal of people within the food blogging circuit who could do with reading this post to get a reality check.

  8. Sophie
    Sophie says:

    What a fantastic post. There is a huge need for proper food education in this country. Some people can work wonders with small food budgets. My boyfriend and I feed ourselves on £35 a week – which is a lot for some – but we cook everything from scratch and make meals stretch out to lunches as well. There’s a false economy in thinking it’s cheaper to buy packets of pasta n sauce than create a meal from scatch, and not just in the financial sense. Thank you for writing this post up!

  9. Erin
    Erin says:

    Wow. This is fantastic and so thoughtfully written. It’s so true for the US, too. People are blamed for feeding their families unhealthy food, but when you’re on a limited income it is near impossible to do. It’s so hard for middle and upper class families to understand the decisions that lower income families have to make.

  10. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Jemima: excellent comment! So glad you left it as I realised I was dangerously close to speaking for families. I can budget for me brilliantly, but I wouldn’t dream of telling working parents with all the challenges of feeding kids how to do it because I have no clue!

    I tend to shop mainly in the local market because it’s cheap, it’s close and it gets me out of the house, but I also do an online shop once every 5-6 weeks for my big treat of sparkling water (17p a bottle at Sainsbury’s Basics) as the delivery charge is less than a taxi home. Nearly everything is Basics or offers and I’m not going to lie, I eat well. But I have a lot of time on my hands, good literacy skills, am surrounded by people who care about food and have many advantages such relatively low energy costs and a freezer all for me!

    You sound like you’re winning the battle against the day to day right now, but thank you for adding your perspective. Times are very worrying right now…

  11. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Jules: actually a few conversations with you triggered off some of these thoughts, so thanks for that. In my volunteer job, I now help people with food parcels and referrals to food banks. And that gave me a reality check. Fear, stigma, learning to cope with changed circumstances can make food poverty a very lonely place. I’m not knocking all food bloggers, but I just wanted to try and put another viewpoint especially coming up to Christmas…

  12. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Erin: I worry that the UK is going more and more the way of the US with food deserts and a real class distinction writ large. Our benefits changes are causing real fear and worry and on top of that, people are being blamed for believing the very expensive and persuasive campaigns from big food industry. It’s cruel…

  13. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Sophie, lovely blog btw! I agree that education is the secret weapon here. I come across a lot of people who have moved to the UK and don’t know how to cook ‘British’ food so rely on very expensive imported food and I keep thinking how a few cookery lessons could change their lives and improve their finances, but there’s none out there. And that’s aside from the fact hardly anyone gets taught cooking in our schools which is a wasted opportunity! I think that’s one place blogs can be a real help as they often explain and enthuse about food in a visual way.

  14. Laura@howtocookgoodfood
    Laura@howtocookgoodfood says:

    This is a really powerful message and one that has so much of interest to me. I work for the local council teaching young under privileged mums how to cook. I wish I could teach more but the funding is limited and actually it is really hard to get people to sign up and participate so often courses are cancelled because not enough people have registered. It is frustrating and I think that by the time people have reached a certain age, it is just to ate to get them interested when all the confidence has been knocked out of them.
    So, I am keen to get food education back into schools so that kids can learn how to cook well within their means. You make so many good points and like you, I can cook but for those that can’t the easy option will always be the temptation of the ready meal unless we get them all banned!

  15. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Laura, you must be psychic as well as a good cook. I was just saying how valuable such courses would be to people to Sophie (The Cake Hunter) as she made the point about how vital education is!

    I’ve written here before about actually learning to cook by watching Ainsley Harriot on Ready Steady Cook even though my parents cooked from scratch and I watched them. The germ of interest didn’t strike until I was about 19, not helped by the hectoring tones of HE lessons that told me I’d never bag a good husband unless I could bake and understand the Food Pyramid. Education needs intution and fun as well to make cooking a focus. I just worry how likely that is with the perfect storm of benefits cuts, council cuts and food industry pressure…

  16. The Lone Gourmet
    The Lone Gourmet says:

    Awesome post – passionate, honest and shot through with many hard truths. I’ve been in food poverty in the past and know how difficult it is, in every way – cost, nutrition, available choices. It makes me grateful that I can afford to eat well, that I work from home and can nip out to the daily market on my doorstep in working hours and that I have two supermarkets next to the market (one a discounter) so I can really pick and choose what to buy. Despite bringing in an ok salary I still eat fairly frugally – I can get 6 meals out of a chicken (and stock!), I buy cheap stewing cuts at the butcher and can get enough fruit and veg for a week for £7-8 at the market.

    I’ve not forgotten the days when I could only afford Pot Noodle and my nearest Spar sold NO fruit and veg at all – like Ms South, I grew up in a household where everything was made from scratch, my ma was a good cook and we ate very well, even on a tight budget so I never expected to have not one but three spells of food poverty in earlier years.

    I know 2 people currently feeding themselves on £1 a day and skipping meals because their benefits simply don’t cover the cost of food. It’s shocking that we also need food banks when we are the 7th richest nation on the planet. And I do feel guilty when I blow £20 at artisan markets on gourmet treats (as I did last week) because while I can afford it, I know too many people that will never have that luxury. It’s only going to get worse as more benefit cuts are on the way and food prices are continuing to rise…

  17. grania
    grania says:

    Such a powerful and poignant piece of writing, and an eye opener too. You wouldn’t know from the wonderful things you make that you make that you were on such a tight budget either. It’s an incredible challenge to eat well and healthily on a limited budget and it’s a challenge that is getting harder and harder. I’m not badly off, but even on mine and my husband’s income, I’ve noticed that I have increasingly been making things that will last us a week and are cheap to make as the cost of food goes up and up and I get huge kicks out of saying things like “this meal cost us 50p a head!”

    It is a serious problem in the long run though, and it is twofold: not everyone on low/no incomes has your fantastic knowledge, understanding of and passion for food, and can manage to make a small amount of money go a long way, and it genuinely is cheaper sometimes just to fill up on nutritionally unsound crap (which will likely cause greater health issues in the long run). Being able to eat properly, sensibly and inexpensively should be a birthright not an unattainable luxury.

  18. Christina McMc
    Christina McMc says:

    Excellent piece of writing, Miss S, and something that I feel a lot of people should read. I’m lucky enough now to be able to afford to spend ludicrous amounts of money on ingredients and meals out, but I can remember the times when I was so poor that every penny counted, and I’d often buy food from supermarkets at the end of the day as I knew it would be discounted. It’s easy to preach at others from an ivory tower when you have no idea of their personal circumstances. Where I live in Bootle, we don’t have markets. We have three supermarkets, a butchers and a greengrocers (and the butchers & greengrocers close at 4.30pm). If you work, you’ve no choice but to buy your stuff from the supermarket, regardless of whether you’d like to choose differently.

    Like Laura, I’d love to see more food education in schools – moving away from ‘food technology’ (urgh) to showing young people how to choose and cook the right ingredients for nutritious, wholesome meals. But people need to stop preaching to the middle classes – who already know this stuff – and actually put their money where their mouths are. And stop judging people for whom shopping at Iceland may be their only chance to put food on the table some nights.

  19. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    The Lone Gourmet: I think there’s room for both artisan treats and day to day budgeting. I have a basic budget for everything but aim to have some disposable income each month and it often goes on food related things, even if it’s just treating myself to duck eggs on toast every so often at my favourite cafe or a piece of hand produced cheese.

    I actually feel quite guilty at times because my stars are currently aligned a bit like yours to be comfortable food wise and I meet others who are struggling and going hungry rather than admit they are especially if they don’t fit the ‘acceptable view’ of poverty like being on the streets. Food banks are a band aid at best and a total humiliation for most people. They also provide very poor quality food that is no different to the Spar with no fruit or veg which helps reinforce a message of ‘deserving’ vs ‘undeserving’ while MPs get subsidised food and drink at Westminster and £400 a month expenses on groceries alone (which is more than a whole month’s total Job Seekers’ Allowance…)

  20. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Christina, reading the comments today is a) giving me a big head and b) showing the depth of people’s relationship to the issue. Nearly everyone who has commented can relate to having been poor as they started out on adulthood or seeing others less well equipped or feeling the pinch even on incomes you’d think would have a buffer.

    So why is this debate always being reduced to the idea of laziness? Why aren’t our politicians and town planners and healthcare commissioners taking note of the nuance? (Apart from it being so much more satisfying to be sanctimonious and blame other people than change things!) Supermarkets to me have a social duty and shouldn’t just be making money off people but no one stands up to them. Tesco is the largest employer outside the NHS in the UK and drives the problem by paying its staff so little they need Working Tax Credits and Housing Benefit to survive while eradicating the opportunities people have to economise and choose.

  21. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Grania: thank you! I can totally relate to the ’50p a head’ frisson when you make a really really good soup or something. The satisfaction can be immense, but the feeling of failure if you don’t manage it and buy a Meal Deal instead is equally huge.

    I agree that good food should be a right not a luxury and I think this is a great example of the personal being political. I’m just concerned that the whole issue is being polarised when it’s been eye opening for me today to see people I thought of as comfortable seeing the effects of rising food prices so noticeably. I also don’t think our economy can take it if we all have to tighten our belts just a little bit more just to eat…

  22. The Lone Gourmet
    The Lone Gourmet says:

    Christina, I still do raid the bargain fridge when in Asda to see what’s hit its sell-by date – I often pick up meat to freeze this way.

    What really makes me very angry, apart from the scandal of needing food banks, is that all the big supermarket chains regularly pour bleach over their food waste to stop dumpster divers from having it or instead of distributing it to charities to feed the homeless. There are some individual supermarket branches that don’t destroy perfectly edible food and do make the effort to pass it on where it can make a real difference but they are few and far between. It is absolutely disgusting that this practice even happens, never mid how widespread it is.

    And don’t get me started on our freeloading MPs, who eat from our taxes with one hand while slashing benefits from the poor…

  23. Rachel K
    Rachel K says:

    I forgot to say, that you’ve highlighted what doesn’t often get mentioned – that when you are truly poor that food because the thing that all things revolve around. You think about it all the time – not because you are greedy but because you are wondering about how you are going to last the week or fortnight . . . I do know, because I have been in the same situation. But Ms S, it does sound as if you are doing all the right things. The only other thing I can think of is perhaps to share the bulk buying with friends – I do that with some staples (rice! spuds!) but it does mean being organised . . . bah!

  24. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Rachel: thank you! You are so right about how when you can least afford it, food becomes all you can think about. I wonder if also there is some truth in craving comforting foods at that point to cheer you up and your mind tells you to eat crisps, not Ryvita?

    Really like your bulk buy idea especially for things like big bags of herbs and spices which even in ‘ethnic’ grocers can really add a huge amount to your food bill and lose their oomph quickly, making them quite wasteful unless you are going to put chilli or ground ginger in every single meal. I also find that bulk buying can be pricey in that you need something to store perishables in and jars and tupperware still cost money even in a pound shop. And if you skip that step, you get mice…

  25. Gert
    Gert says:

    Regarding the teaching cooking at school, a friend who is a teacher, but not of ‘food tech’, once said that it’s difficult to do it in a way that properly reflects various cultural backgrounds. I’m sorry I didn’t get her to expand, because I think, up to a point, basic skills are interchangeable; also, of course, everyone benefits from trying other cultures’ food. However, I can see that it’s a potential minefield that schools might not want to deal with.

    I did cookery O-level at school, and we were expected to provide our own ingredients; not just at the optional stage in Yr 10 & 11 but also when compulsory in Yr 7-9. If this is still the case, this can be a burden for poor families; if not, a big call on school budgets.

  26. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Gert: really interesting points I hadn’t really considered. I guess, naively I was seeing food as universal. I think there’s room there for kids to be taught better about where food comes from and how identify things like types of fruit or cuts of meat that could reduce the need to always provide your own ingredients.

    I actually can’t remember what the deal was when Home Economics was compulsory for me until age 14. I’ll have to ask my mum. Weirdly we weren’t allowed to eat anything we cooked in class straightaway. We were expected to take it home to give to our parents. I have horrific memories of carrying a tupperware of ratatouille round for 8 hours and then getting roughly the same reaction the cat does when it brings a mouse in because it was almost as appetising by then. Much better to have sat down and eaten our own achievements together at school!

  27. Katherine
    Katherine says:

    I’m curious about your comment about the US food deserts and class distinction. The “poor” in America receive a generous amount of food stamps–they are eating very, very well.

  28. jemima101
    jemima101 says:

    “I did cookery O-level at school, and we were expected to provide our own ingredients; not just at the optional stage in Yr 10 & 11 but also when compulsory in Yr 7-9. If this is still the case, this can be a burden for poor families; if not, a big call on school budgets.”


    This is still the case, my 2 children have always cooked with me, and take over the cooking one night a week (they are 8 and 12) The eldest has compulsory food tech, great I thought, however when the recipes are things like green thai curry, I have to provide the ingredients, and aren’t enough to feed all of us, then I do have to sigh.

    However it comes back to energy and knowledge again, I made rice and hot and sour soup. There used to be some great sure start schemes, empowering parents to not see cooking as frightening and using cheap in season ingredients, I would love to know what has happened to them.

  29. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    The average amount a poor person in the US receives in food stamps is $31.50 per week or £19.80 equivalent. This is about the same amount as the government in the UK calculates a single childless person needs to live on.

    Surprisingly for Wikipedia, this article on the US Food Stamps and the SNAP programme is excellent, but this sentence leapt out

    Another contributing factor to overweight and obesity issues in SNAP participants may be the lack of access participants have to healthy options because low-income areas are often served only by mini-marts with limited and generally unhealthy selections of food

    Food deserts are a well known phenomenon in America, primarily affecting inner city areas where there are no major supermarket chains, forcing people to rely on bodegas and local stores with low levels of fresh food available. This is also a problem in remote rural areas too where it is difficult to physically access places that sell food and accept food stamps. 46.7 million Americans use food stamps currently or 1 in 5 of the population.

    Are you suggesting that a fifth of the US population doesn’t bother trying because food stamps are so great? They aren’t starving, but they aren’t eating rare sweetmeats all day either. It’s just not as black and white as you suggest…

  30. Katherine
    Katherine says:

    $31.50 is almost half of my food budget for my family of 7 per week. A family of 4 in America is receiving at least $125 a week in food stamps–yes, they are eating very well. Or, the potential to eat well is there. It is always interesting to be in line behind someone with a cart full of pre-packaged and frozen foods, then see that they pay with a food stamp card–and, frustrating when we cannot have a watermelon because it doesn’t fit in with the budget, yet the person in front of me has two (in their full-to-the-brim cart), and pays with food stamps.

    When I taught at a low income elementary school for several years, we always made sure the children ate their (free) meals because many would return the next day very hungry, as their parent(s) would not make supper. These are families who were on food stamps *and* their children received free breakfast and lunch. If only the problem “were” lack of fresh foods–it is not…

    More and more places of business are accepting food stamps in America. It drives up the costs of groceries for those of us who earn our own food budgets because the grocers know (as do most Americans–you’ll be hard-pressed to find an American complaining about the amount of food stamps they are receiving) that the people paying with food stamps can afford it and the grocers get more of that government $ in their own pockets. Oh, and you’d think that in that case, food stamp users might use coupons to make their food stamps go further? Some might, but it is ot the norm at all.

  31. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Congratulations for ignoring all the points I made about why people choose pre-packaged foods or can’t cook from scratch and making it all about your superior skills. You don’t know why that person puts those things in their cart: does buying a watermelon mean they aren’t caring for a sick relative, are disabled themselves, working nights, dealing with childcare, travelling long distances to work, struggling to cope, not able to pay for electric to cook food from scratch, don’t have pots and pans or are a single parents who chooses to spend time with their kids doing schoolwork rather than chop veggies?

    You’re doing the judgemental thing I wrote the post to try and encourage people to think outside of. And on the one hand you’re annoyed a poor person dares feed their child fruit and the next you’re criticising them for not trying hard enough. Why don’t you explain coupons to me as we don’t have them in the UK and I’ll show you the Daily Mail? Because you’d fit right in there.

  32. Katherine
    Katherine says:

    Wow. You must have read my post with a bias. I’m all up for discussion, but avoid sarcasm–it is very disrespectful.

  33. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Actually what I find disrespectful is to come onto a blog talking about people stigmatise the poor with a thinly veiled agenda and stigmatise the poor further while disregarding the details of the posts and the many many people who commented to share similar experiences. There was nothing in your post that hinted at discussion, just judgement.

    There are hundreds of places you can recount those stories on the net. This was offered up as a place for people to talk about situations that are usually hidden. Please don’t lecture me about communication.

  34. Fan
    Fan says:

    This is a very compelling post on such an important issue. Every single sentence rings bells of truth! Since I moved to London, I’ve always been surprised by the extent to which the perception of what is good food and what isn’t, is unhelpfully influenced by perceptions of class – and yes, those patronising messages are at best unhelpful and at worst completely disempowering, when in fact, the practical and financial barriers to eating well are real.
    I also very much appreciate your point about the value of simple cooking, and the problem with TV programmes showing a culinary world that is so far removed from the reality of many people. I’m currently working on a project which is partly about developing people’s cooking skills and confidence in the kitchen, and you’re so right, starting from where people are at is key. Thank you!

  35. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Fan: I’ve just seen you are connected to Brixton People’s Kitchen! I’ve been dying to come down and see it for myself because I have been hearing such great things about it. I did some of the Invisible Food Walks with Ceri Buck and loved those for how they connected people and place and food without any judgement or pre-conception. I think both the walks and BPK recognise the social aspect of food that food poverty strips away.

    It’s hard to share a meal when you aren’t sure if there is enough to go round or if you are embarrassed to have people see you eat certain things and that causes people to withdraw into secretive and unhelpful eating habits. Sitting down and breaking bread together is so healthy in so many ways. Hope to see you soon!

  36. Sharmila
    Sharmila says:

    This is a really great and informative post. It’s the conflation of food and class that really gets my goat a lot of the time, and the age old issue of how as humans we are so quick to judge, and lay that judgement solely at the door of the individual, believing they are completely in control of all of their actions and decisions, with no thought to the specific social and other factors they are living under. It’s the same thinking that drives people to say “well, why were they playing outside alone?” when a child abduction is reported in the news.

    Re: the way in which food tech is taught in schools. I remember my best friend, who is a teacher in an inner London secondary school, telling me about her colleague who was the food tech teacher. They had to provide ingredients for the classes as about 3/4 of the kids’ families would not have been able to afford to bring ingredients in. On her class budget, all she could really afford to get in was flour and other basics, which just resulted in them being able to make biscuits and suchlike for most classes. When there is no money on both sides of the equation, it is pretty challenging to be able to teach cooking skills that could help kids later in life (I know this isn’t the situation in all schools, but I’d hazard a guess that it’s the situation in quite a few).

  37. shelley
    shelley says:

    We have weeks where the kids eat ‘normally’ and my husband and i eat beans on toast or tomatoes on toast or egg on toast……..sigh……this is the reality of being a lowish/middle income family in the UK today ….husband works 60 hours a week i lost my job due to ill health and receive no benefits as husband earns just slightly too much and sometimes food is a choice not a right and every week we have a budget,a list and a calculator to go shopping! really enjoyed this blog post x

  38. Fan
    Fan says:

    Thanks, and yes, come and see us! Our next event is on December 16th, at C.A.F.E in Loughborough Junction. I’ve been brought up to believe that food is one of the most effective way of bringing people together, but I’m also learning that for some people it can be a bit intimidating. I think that Ceri really does a great job at being as inclusive as possible.

  39. Alison
    Alison says:

    I’m almost lost for words… A truly amazing piece of writing that actually had me in tears. Thank you for sharing your views so eloquently, I only wish more people would see this reality.

  40. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    I think there’s a natural tendency to judge as a way of legitimising your own actions and I understand that. Some might say I’m being judgy of middle class food bloggers here. But I think when it becomes dangerous is when you allow those feelings to dictate government like is happening at the moment. The Tories especially have jumped on the bandwagon New Labour started to demonise benefit claimants as scroungers, and pitting them against ‘hard working families’ and using that to dismantle the welfare state and the NHS while whistling innocently.

    That’s really interesting about the food tech lessons. I’m now wondering if there is any kind of charity that helps raise money or gather spare food for cooking lessons in schools, because as you say, it’s impossible to do it without any budget. I am off to try and find out…

  41. Christine Lindop
    Christine Lindop says:

    What a thoughtful and thoughtprovoking post. You’ve made it possible to look behind the curtain and see what things are really like. Thank you for these insights.

    I think something that has crept into our modern relationship with food is fear. Often the reaction of people to a food they don’t recognise is alarm rather than curiosity. It’s yet another thing that restricts people’s possibilities.

    I’m glad to have stumbled upon your posts – look forward to more.

  42. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    I’ve been fascinated to read the comments which have opened my eyes to lots of things I hadn’t considered…

    I totally agree about fear. We over think food so much now. Is it organic, does it have antioxidants, is it a superfood, what are the food miles, are the fats hydrogenated, what animal welfare standard, is glucose-fructose syrup really the same as High Fructose Corn Syrup, is it juice or juice drink, why am I meant to eat yoghurt with cultures in? It’s terrifying. There is so much choice and such high stakes that the spectre of failure is high. I think people seek ‘safe foods’ that don’t seem to trip them up when they are uncertain. I know I’m nervous about buying certain things that are new to me at times.

  43. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Get ready to have an even bigger swoon over the multi-tasking brilliance of Prue Leith then! Through her site I’ve found the School Food Trust and the Focus on Food campaign so far…

    I’m off to have a look over a cuppa and see if my cooking food/obsessively labelling the freezer/101 ways with frozen spinach skills would be at all useful here. I’m feeling a campaign coming on.

  44. Sven Rufus
    Sven Rufus says:

    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.

  45. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    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?

  46. Gert
    Gert says:

    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!

  47. Miss South
    Miss South says:

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

  48. Kavey
    Kavey says:

    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.

  49. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    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.

  50. Sioned-Mair Richards
    Sioned-Mair Richards says:

    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.

  51. Camilla @FabFood4All
    Camilla @FabFood4All says:

    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.

  52. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    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!

  53. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    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.

  54. Camilla @FabFood4All
    Camilla @FabFood4All says:

    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!

  55. Lee
    Lee says:

    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…

  56. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    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.

  57. jemima101
    jemima101 says:

    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?

  58. Lee
    Lee says:

    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.

  59. Lesley
    Lesley says:

    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.

  60. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    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!)

  61. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    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.

  62. vicky
    vicky says:

    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.

  63. Camilla @FabFood4All
    Camilla @FabFood4All says:

    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!

  64. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    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!

  65. Camilla @FabFood4All
    Camilla @FabFood4All says:

    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:-)

  66. Laura@howtocookgoodfood
    Laura@howtocookgoodfood says:

    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

  67. The Lone Gourmet
    The Lone Gourmet says:

    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!

  68. underthebluegumtree
    underthebluegumtree says:

    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.

  69. Jen @ BlueKitchenBakes
    Jen @ BlueKitchenBakes says:

    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.

  70. Stephen Coltrane
    Stephen Coltrane says:

    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.

  71. Choclette
    Choclette says:

    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.

  72. Amanda
    Amanda says:

    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!

  73. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    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!

  74. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    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.

  75. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    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!

  76. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    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…

  77. Amanda
    Amanda says:

    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.

  78. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    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!

  79. The Lone Gourmet
    The Lone Gourmet says:

    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!

  80. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    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?

  81. Christine
    Christine says:

    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!

  82. Joanna
    Joanna says:

    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.

  83. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    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?

  84. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    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!

  85. Rhizowen
    Rhizowen says:

    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.

  86. The Lone Gourmet
    The Lone Gourmet says:

    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…

  87. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    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…

  88. jemima101
    jemima101 says:

    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.

  89. The Lone Gourmet
    The Lone Gourmet says:

    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.

  90. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    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.

  91. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    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…

  92. Juliet
    Juliet says:

    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..

  93. anonymous
    anonymous says:

    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.

  94. M.K. Hajdin
    M.K. Hajdin says:

    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.

  95. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    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…

  96. Clare
    Clare says:

    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.

  97. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    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…

  98. jane
    jane says:

    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!

  99. anna
    anna says:


    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.

  100. Clare
    Clare says:

    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.

  101. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    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!

  102. Clare
    Clare says:

    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.

  103. Carla
    Carla says:

    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.

  104. Clare
    Clare says:

    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.

  105. Audrey
    Audrey says:

    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.

  106. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    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….

  107. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    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!

  108. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    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.

  109. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    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….

  110. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    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!

  111. David
    David says:

    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.

  112. Anne
    Anne says:

    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.

  113. OldGreyBeard
    OldGreyBeard says:

    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.

  114. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    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.

  115. OldGreyBeard
    OldGreyBeard says:

    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!

  116. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    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!

  117. Leonie Greene
    Leonie Greene says:

    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.

  118. Marianne
    Marianne says:

    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….

  119. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    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!


  120. Jenny
    Jenny says:

    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.

  121. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    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!

  122. Valerie Thompson
    Valerie Thompson says:

    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

  123. Sall
    Sall says:

    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.

  124. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    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!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] to blaming poor people for just not trying hard enough. Now, I think I’ve covered this before here and I have no great urge to rehash the points (although I’m poor and I do know that a hash […]

  2. […] of someone who understands why it isn’t as simple as buying 10kg bags of rice and lentils. Food for Thought won me a Young British Foodies Award last year and A Letter to Jamie Oliver went properly viral […]

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