Sarah Batts shows me up a narrow staircase and into her one-bedroom flat. It’s in the converted roof space in a not-great area of Eastbourne. The flat is crammed full of baby equipment for her 15-month-old daughter, Scarlette. Stiflingly hot in late summer, there’s nowhere to sit and eat a meal, partly because the place is tiny and partly because, in common with households with small children across the land, every flat surface including the dining table is covered with stuff.
After working in a pet shop for 14 years, Batts, 38, now can’t hold down a job due to poor health. In any case, since her daughter’s birth she has looked after Scarlette on her own. She is dependent on benefits and gets around £250 per week. Her monthly rent is £580, then there’s bills, and she usually allows £25 for her weekly food shop. Budgeting, she says, “is pretty hard, because you don’t get that much. I probably do spend way too much on food.” She orders groceries online because she can’t drive and her illness means she struggles to leave her flat. “I worry about money pretty much all the time,” she says. “I always end up with nothing at the end of the month.”
More than four million children in one of the richest countries in the world are growing up in poverty, their access to adequate nutrition compromised. Beyond the misery and stress of not knowing where the next meal is coming from, it is well established that poor diet is linked to coronary heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer. The situation is now so dire that after declaring that food insecurity is significant and growing in the UK, with levels among the worst in Europe, particularly for children, parliament’s environmental audit committee last year recommended that the government should appoint a minister for hunger.
Schools, charities and groups of concerned citizens have been trying to tackle the issue by offering free dinners for pupils who may not even be getting one square meal a day in the holidays, community lunch clubs and, of course, the record high in use of food banks. With a lot of thought and careful planning, feeding a family on a severely restricted budget “is possible if money’s tight for a few weeks – but not for years on end”, says Clare Hackney, co-founder with her friend, Sue Morris, of the not-for-profit company, Community Stuff. The two women met six years ago while running the Eastbourne public consultation for Big Local, a nationwide initiative that puts people in charge of a million pounds of Lottery money to spend on issues that they decide are local priorities – it has since funded Community Stuff to put on cookery classes for individuals trying to eat on punishingly low incomes, as well as most recently a Friday lunch club for people who are socially isolated.
“If you’re on minimum wage with a zero-hours contract, or you’re disabled, or have learning difficulties or mental health issues, then providing decent food day in, day out is difficult,” Hackney continues. “It only takes one emergency – your cooker or fridge breaking down, for instance – and then what? You haven’t got any savings as saving isn’t possible, so you’re now in crisis and you’re tempted to take out loans at exorbitant rates to fix the problem. The other option is to not heat your home, not pay the rent or not buy food. Things can very quickly spiral out of control.”
Batts recently went on a Community Stuff cookery course. She is now trying out the six-week “empty cupboard plan” chapter from the recipe book Hackney and Morris published called Beyond the Foodbank.
The recipes are designed to help people trying to feed themselves in straitened circumstances – including living in emergency or temporary hostel accommodation – to make creative use of the often uninspiring dried and tinned goods given out by food banks. The empty cupboard plan assumes £16 for a week’s shop for one person; this has just been revised upwards from an initial sum of £14 to allow for more fresh fruit and veg. It also assumes a kitchen cupboard with not a single ingredient in it at the start, and provides week-by-week, costed shopping lists with accompanying recipes that provide varied, nutritionally balanced meals. These include spaghetti with tomato sauce and fried bacon pieces; potato, onion and carrot bake; fish pie; sausage meatballs; and chicken and broccoli risotto. The dishes focus on simplicity and taste, but you don’t get any culinary thrills on £16 a week. You don’t get puddings either. The nutritionist who was consulted banned the inclusion of a pot of jam because sugar is empty calories. Hackney rolls her eyes. She knows treats matter. I suspect she might sneak some jam into the next edition.
While clearly delighted that local food banks are now giving out the recipe book to clients she hopes will benefit, Morris emphasises that the answer to food poverty is not ever niftier budgeting, better meal planning or homilies on cooking from scratch. “Lots of people have poor mental health, or they’re living in just one room,” she says. “Some people don’t have a car to get to the shops and public transport is expensive. You can’t count on someone having a freezer or even a fridge. Sometimes they’ve only got two rings to cook on, or just a microwave.”
The situation for some people in Eastbourne, an elegant seaside town generally known as a desirable retirement destination for affluent pensioners, is becoming increasingly desperate, confirms Howard Wardle, founder and manager of Eastbourne Foodbank. “Counterintuitively, because overall it’s a wealthy town, there are poor services for those in most need,” he says. “I talked to a mum the other day. She’d been found rummaging in a bin for food – and collapsed. She was taken to hospital and diagnosed with malnutrition.”
Hackney grimaces. “She’ll probably be worried about losing her children [to social services],” she says. Social workers and families have told me that it is standard for a welfare check to include social workers looking through parents’ fridges and kitchen cupboards. The three of us ponder the notion that poverty is making families terrified that local authorities will consider that the threshold of “significant harm” has been reached, and fear their children could be removed because there’s not enough food in the house.
Wardle has just helped to launch a Poverty Commission in Eastbourne. “We’re going to look at fuel poverty, transport poverty, food poverty, education, find out where are the gaps, and how can we plug them, to stop this crazy business of food banks,” he says. “Because we want to close this food bank. I think it’s disgusting in the 21st century, to be banging out 10 tonnes of food a month, in a rich town.”
The kitchen at the end of Batts’s living room is almost too small to turn around in. She does have a cooker and a fridge-freezer, but there’s barely any work surface on which to chop an onion let alone assemble ingredients. Undaunted, she’s done her best to follow the recipes. “Doing the three meals a day was the hardest thing, and getting into a routine,” she says. “I’ve not eaten breakfast since I was at primary school. It’s made me eat properly.” Nodding at her sleeping daughter whose eyes are starting to flutter open after her nap, she adds: “I only used to feed her.”
Scarlette’s favourite recipes, it turns out, have been the bean burgers, the frittata and the blueberry porridge. “She’s good at trying things,” says Batts. The allocated £16 has been enough to feed them both, but four weeks into the plan, the lack of treats has been impossible to stick to. “Now and then I will add something like a takeaway, maybe once a month, or a tub of ice-cream,” she says, smiling embarrassedly. “I’m a little bit naughty. I do buy her treats.”
The toddler is too young to grasp the financial choices her mother is having to navigate, or understand the effort required to feed her seven days a week on less money than some people spend on a top-up shop on the way home from work. And she can’t understand yet how the impossibility of finding a few spare quid for social activities that include eating out may impinge on her social life and friendships as she grows up.
It doesn’t take long for those differences to become obvious though. Jacqui, 32, has also taken cookery classes with Community Stuff. Her kids are 11, eight and three, and have only known a life on benefits: Jacqui can’t get a job till her youngest is at school. She allocates £40 a week for food, and the children have started to notice they’re missing out. “My 11-year-old complains sometimes,” she says. “She’s been round her friends and says they’ve had treats and things. I just say there’s nothing I can do.”
Does she think £40 a week is enough to feed a family of four? “Not really, to be honest. Because if I can’t get the reduced stuff, it’s just plain bland food. Pasta on its own.” Her children have learned, Jacqui says, that they can’t have treats. “Meat to them is a treat.” How does having to say “no” all the time make her feel?
“I’d like to do a lot better for them but you can only do what you can do,” she says. Beneath her matter-of-fact tone, which speaks of years of coping, you can hear the hurt.
In April 2019, the charity Child Poverty Action Group published Living Hand to Mouth, a piece of research that shone a spotlight on children’s experiences of food and eating in low-income families. When I was asked to write the foreword – following previous reporting looking at how poverty and hunger affects children’s ability to access education – it was the young people’s shame, guilt and sense of exclusion from normal, everyday activities that hit hardest. Bryony, aged 13, living with her mother and brother in a coastal town, told the researchers: “If there isn’t enough food, we’ll get it and sometimes Mum will go hungry… Even if it’s not that much food for [us], it’s enough that we’ve actually had something, whereas Mum hasn’t, and it gets a bit to the point where we’ll start feeling guilty because Mum hasn’t had anything and we’ve had it.”
Some parents said they would often go hungry so their children could eat. But that isn’t always enough. Children whose parents have no recourse to public funds aren’t eligible for free school meals despite being destitute. Two brothers aged 14 and 15 whose mother was not allowed to work until her immigration status was resolved said they went hungry every day at school because their mum couldn’t put credit on their pre-payment dinner cards. One had so little energy, he explained, that “you end up falling asleep in the classroom and get in trouble for it”. Dr Rebecca O’Connell of University College London, who conducted some of the interviews, recalls a teacher who had been made redundant, with one child at university and one at home, telling her: “I’m sick of people talking about budgeting. There just isn’t enough money.”
Why are children’s lives being blighted and their futures curtailed because they’re not getting what they need to eat?
“No department of government is taking responsibility for people being hungry,” says Niall Cooper, director of Church Action on Poverty. He drily ticks off the list of departments he’s lobbied: the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department of Health, the Department for Education. They’ve all knocked him back. “The ability to afford a good diet isn’t a strategic priority for any of them, and departments are driven by their strategic aims,” he observes.
It’s hardly surprising that the politicians have struggled with the stark truth that austerity has brought many of their constituents to the point where food banks are the only thing standing between a basic meal and not eating at all. Despite multiple reports of rising child poverty and growing inequality, the government has only just agreed to start collecting statistics on household food insecurity, defined as “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways (eg without resorting to emergency food supplies, scavenging, stealing or other coping strategies).” The numbers gathered this year will become the official baseline against which progress – or lack of it – can be measured.
Back in Eastbourne, I meet Kath in the Tesco cafe. Now 41, she had to drop out of her nursing degree aged 20 following two years of study, after being diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a disabling genetic condition. She’s had to live on benefits ever since. As she eases herself onto a chair, it’s clear she’s in some pain.
Kath is resourceful, organised and funny as hell as she rips into the empty cupboard plan, for which she was an early tester. “No snacks! If you go to the food bank you get a jar of jam or a packet of biscuits,” she teases Hackney, who grins back. “Maybe we can look at putting in a recipe for fruit crumble next time,” she murmurs. Kath isn’t mollified. “And a week of fish this, fish that – I don’t like fish!” Shopping done, we look in her trolley. What’s in it scarcely covers the bottom. The receipt says £14.10.
An electrical storm has just broken Kath’s freezer. She can’t afford to get it mended so she won’t be able to freeze leftovers. The strictness of the discipline required to survive on a tiny budget for years is wearing, she explains – she regularly checks comparison sites for offers and has noticed prices going up. “There are times I wish I could just go and buy a cake,” she says. Does she ever? “Sometimes. But not often. Luxuries don’t often happen these days.”
What’s a luxury?
She laughs. “A chocolate bar. A packet of crisps. I’ve missed those. Especially if you’ve had a bad month, it’s a mood lifter.” Except for Christmas, she’s not bought alcohol for five years. “There’s no point in drinking. Not that I wouldn’t enjoy being able to have a glass of wine. I stopped because of the cost.”
Then Kath says something that leaves me speechless. “I drink tea, and as a luxury I’ll buy PG Tips or Tetley. Otherwise,” she pulls a face, “it’s shop’s own brand.”
On her benefits, Kath says she can only afford £20 a week on food. “I could probably up it but the cats have to be fed.” How many does she have, I ask. “Seven” she says. Involuntarily, my eyebrows jump. Kath looks at me steadily. “They’re rescues.” She couldn’t let them starve. She spends about a tenner a week feeding her cats. It is, she says, her choice. And the cats are a comfort. “They’re company. You’re never alone when you’ve got cats,” she says. “They bring calmness when I’m stressed.” Enduring a chronic illness on a very low income is clearly tough. “I’m basically fine,” she says reassuringly. But there have been times she’s had to use the food bank, when her money’s run out.
Emergency food parcels can only address the symptoms, not the causes, of food poverty. The End Hunger UK coalition of charities, faith groups, academics and frontline organisations has just launched a campaign calling on government to halve household food insecurity by 2025, as a benchmark on the way to eradicating it by 2030. This is one of the sustainable development goals, adopted by the UN, that the UK signed up to in 2015. It will not be achieved by doling out emergency food parcels. It will only happen, says Cooper, if government decides to address the underlying causes of poverty and destitution. He means wages not being enough. Benefits not being enough. The money people have to exist on just… not being enough. “Part of the long-term vision is that people should be able to buy food for themselves,” he says. “That has to be core to solving the problem.”
At the Eastbourne food-bank depot, a warehouse on an industrial estate, Wardle points me to a graph showing that the number of parcels given out has almost doubled in the last year. But donations from the public have dropped, so he’s had to buy in extra supplies. He’s reliant on what people drop in collection bins and he’s 10 tonnes down on what he needs, so he’s worried.
Can he ask the supermarkets for more? “They have never given us anything apart from their chuck-out stuff, when their shelving plan changes,” he says acidly. Some are “brilliant at giving us things nobody wants to eat. Anchovies. Duck pâté,” he adds. He points at huge tins of artichokes and olives. “I don’t know what to do with it.” Hackney says she’ll take some of the catering-sized tins off his hands for her cookery classes. She and Morris have launched a new food skills course which works in tandem with their book, and will be training grassroots organisations around the UK to deliver it to anyone needing help to feed themselves on a limited income. “Living on a tight budget, in the long term it’s crippling because you feel trapped,” says Hackney. “But if you have practical cooking skills and some organisation in the way you plan your finances, you gain some limited sense of control. If you have virtually no money, you can’t make mistakes. Otherwise you end up hungry.”
Some names have been changed
Source: Thanks https://www.theguardian.com/food/2020/feb/16/food-poverty-millions-children-uk-not-enough-to-eat