Sorry, this is a long ‘un.
There has been a ‘perfect storm’ of late in the UK; I get the impression that it’s the same across much of Europe and the US. High-unemployment plus rising energy bills plus rising transport costs (public and private) plus high rents and mortgage payments plus benefit-cuts plus stagnating wages now meets rising food costs in the UK. A recent article in the Guardian newspaper provided the following breakdown in grocery costs:
“Over the past five years, the retail price of processed food has risen 36%, including a 15% rise in the year to 2012. Fruit prices have risen by 34% since 2007, and vegetables by 22%.”*
Whilst I’m fortunate that I like cooking and I’ve always been able to spare enough of my income for proper food and fresh vegetables, I’ve also experienced some of the factors that can make eating properly, well, and cheaply, difficult for some sectors of the population.
Rented flats where the electricity is via key-cards, available only from the landlord and at a cost per card that he sets, rather than being able to choose an independent electricity-supplier offering a competitive and affordable tariff. Slow-cooked nutritious stews of cheap meat-cuts and vegetables? Weelllll, you could but the lights might go out instead, and you don’t know when the landlord will next be around to buy cards from. Soak and then thoroughly boil cheap, protein-filled pulses and lentils? Fabulous idea, but it’s cold outside tonight and you really, really don’t want the electric heater to run out of juice.
No space for a freezer, even a small one. Want to take advantage of any marked-down bread or vegetables? Made a big batch of casserole or stew? Better eat it reeeaaaalll fast, got no way of storing it for more than a few days.
Not got a car? Shame. Even in an area where there is decent distribution of good supermarkets and shops, “bargain” often takes second place to “can carry without ripping my arms out of their sockets”.
And as a single person, it’s very difficult to buy a reasonable range of fresh food without ending up with a lot of wastage, as even a confirmed hog like myself can only eat so much at one time.
Even with these disadvantages, I’d always managed to feed myself well, and subscribed to the commonly-held belief that people on low-incomes should still be able to eat properly with a bit of organisation and some basic cookery skills. This belief took an Arrow To The Knee last year, when I was flattened with clinical depression and continuous anxiety attacks. It took every ounce of energy I had just to hold down a job, keep clean, do the laundry and stagger round the nearest (not-so-cheap) supermarket a couple of times a week. A pile of boxes from the move to the flat stayed, unpacked, in the middle of the floor for 5 months. I slept in a sleeping bag because sorting out sheets and duvet was a use of energy above and beyond the call of duty. My social life vanished. And my food bill doubled, my weight rose, and dinner became microwavable read-meals and take-away chips. George Orwell, a writer with talents above and beyond any pathetic keyboard-thumping I might muster, described it very well in “The Road to Wigan Pier”:
Now compare this list with the unemployed miner’s budget that I gave earlier. The miner’s family spend only tenpence a week on green vegetables and tenpence half-penny on milk (remember that one of them is a child less than three years old), and nothing on fruit; but they spend one and nine on sugar (about eight pounds of sugar, that is) and a shilling on tea. The half-crown spent on meat might represent a small joint and the materials for a stew; probably as often as not it would represent four or five tins of bully beef. The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes — an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. Here the tendency of which I spoke at the end of the last chapter comes into play. When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea! That is how your mind works when you are at the P.A.C. level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the English-man’s opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread.**
When your life is so finely balanced, it doesn’t take much to push you over the edge. Unemployment. Disability. Debt. Children or other dependents. A fixed income, such as a pension. Ill-health. And a rise in living costs – rent. Utilities. Council tax. Food.
I was aware of the phenomenon of food-banks, and it seemed to be a well-established feature of the USA, perhaps because they have less of a formal welfare net than in the UK. But they are expanding rapidly in Britain now, and are now feeding hundreds of thousands of people.*** There’s one operating out of a local church in Tangleton, in conjunction with the Trussell Trust****, who run a number of these banks across the UK. I donated a couple of bags of food, from the list of food items that they ask people to bring. And it’s a poem to the joys of processed sugar and carbohydrates. A haiku to diabetes and obesity. And you can understand absolutely why the list is like this – quick calories, and enough energy to keep you active. Easy and fast to cook. Easy to store and keeps well. And most people like pasta, tuna, cornflakes, tomato soup, biscuits. A little bit tasty. A little bit cheaply pleasant. A nice cup of tea.
Milk (UHT or powdered)
Fruit juice (carton)
Sponge pudding (tinned)
Rice pudding (tinned)
Tea bags/instant coffee
Instant mash potato