Food Poverty In Britain

in Special Feature 23 July 2015

By Jenni Gannon

Food poverty is a serious issue and one which is extremely divisive. Last year, protestors targeted branches of HSBC a bank which prides itself on its global network 1 - for its connections to tax havens, which are believed to be filtering money out of the British economy and thus increasing the UKs chronic levels of food poverty. They turned the branches into food banks in a move aimed at highlighting the government's decision to support financiers and traders rather than the suffering people of Britain. Opponents of this sort of action claim that food poverty is nothing to do with big financiers, and the fault lies with the impoverished people themselves, who dont make the most of cheap foodstuffs available to them. Clearly this is an issue capable of stirring a good deal of feeling within the nation. In truth, the people of Britain are not, generally speaking, starving. More of an issue is the quality of food consumed by the most impoverished which is generally nutritionally void and deeply inadequate. The health of the nation cannot fail to be affected if people are forced to rely on such edibles but what are the reasons for this poor-eating epidemic, and what can be done about it?

The Affordability of Ingredients

The Poverty and Social Exclusion Survey of Britain 2 revealed some pretty worrying statistics regarding food poverty. According to the survey, Around 4 million people are not properly fed by todays standards. They do not have enough money to afford fresh fruit and vegetables, or two meals a day, for example . A further 8 million people cannot afford household essentials like fridges and cookers. Naturally, therefore, a lack of money is a major factor behind the lack of nutrition obtained by the poor. Sites like are aware of this, and attempt to alleviate the situation by providing information on low cost nutritional alternatives the vegetarian diet wins, clocking in at Just 1.40ish a meal or 1,019 a year 3. This seems doable for most people but there are further costs to factor in. Often, the best value for money vegetables are located not in supermarkets and corner shops but in farmers markets and on the stalls of street-vendors, which require a certain transport fee for many to get to. Its a poverty trap which is leaching away the nations health a sandwich a day from a shop a quick walk away adds up, but its more affordable on a hand-to-mouth basis than bussing out to a market and loading up with fruit and veg.

Mitigating Factors

There are also far more factors than the simple cost of foodstuffs involved in the unhealthy diets of those on a low budget. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver got himself into hot water recently by claiming that the poor eat unhealthily simply because they spend their money on the wrong things. He told the Radio Times of a particular scene in his series Ministry of Food 4 with the mum and the kid eating chips out of Styrofoam container, and behind them there is a massive f***king TV. It just didnt weigh up 5 . This comment was widely translated as Jamie blaming the impoverished for their own problems for which he was soundly (and rightly) taken to task by the press. However, his ill-judged remark did highlight one important aspect of the food-poverty: its not all about the cost of ingredients.
While cheap ingredients may be hard to come by, they are not impossible, so people like Oliver who focus purely upon the monetary aspect of the case on a meal-by-meal basis are understandably perplexed. However, there are other factors involved. The availability of appliances, for example. Oliver speaks in his controversial Radio Times interview of buying healthy food in bulk and freezing it, or freezing leftovers, thus economizing massively on daily food expenditure. However, while freezables may be relatively affordable, freezers are not. B&Qs cheapest freezer the Cata Integrated Freezer 6 comes in at 258. This is way beyond the budget of a family living a hand-to-mouth existence. Those who take Olivers line would state that a family could forgo the massive f***king telly in favour of a freezer but television is a lifesaver in houses with children. The brief respite from the demands of offspring which is provided by putting on a DVD or a favourite show is often the only time many parents get to even attempt things like cooking and cleaning. Furthermore, those who can afford a freezer may not have space within cramped accommodation to put it, or not be allowed to place new white goods in rented flats.

Time and Space

Which brings us to a major factor in our chronic lack of cookery time and space. The Daily Mail reports that average time spent cooking in the UK has halved since the 1980s, and most people survive on diet of sandwiches 7. The most common reason given for this phenomenon is lack of time about which Guardian writer Felicity Cloake is sniffy. Heres the thing, she writes, the average Britondoes, somehow, find the time to watch more than four hours of television a day 8, and goes on to suggest that this time would be better spent in the kitchen. Its a fair point, but it fails to take into account other factors which frequently come into play. While time in and of itself may not be an issue (although, despite what Cloake claims, time in which to cook in a family home can be extremely limited) the way that time has been spent earlier in the day usually is.

Many people on the breadline work exhaustingly stressful days, and come home completely shattered. With energy and willpower at a low ebb, hunting down cheap ingredients and then cooking them seems like an arduous and tiring chore. Far easier simply to curl up on the sofa with a sandwich and a DVD. Furthermore, kitchens are often extremely small and shared between a large number of people. According to a National Youth Agency report, since the recession many young people are forced to follow a chaotic housing pathway 9, flitting swiftly from home to home and usually sharing tenancies with multiple other occupants. In such situations, the opportunity to cook healthy meals from scratch simply does not arise. Tenants cannot cook a meal and eat it communally as most are on very different schedules, meaning that all meals must be cooked individually. This necessarily involves one person taking up space in a small kitchen and thus precluding others from using it for a considerable amount of time. In the interests of preserving household harmony, speed is of the essence when using the kitchen in such situations.

The Importance of Education

So what can be done to alleviate this situation? Well, education is probably the best bet. Many people simply do not realise that an awful lot can be done with very little and quickly, too. Rather than buying expensive staple ingredients, people can instead purchase cheap tins of kidney beans and, armed with the correct culinary knowledge, make a meal both tasty and nutritious using them as a staple. Inventive, delicious, and healthy dishes can be rustled up very quickly by those who have the know-how. Resources on the internet could perhaps aid people in learning more about food for free, and dedicated cookery classes provided by local councils for free could go a long way to helping the situation. However, there is a long way to go before something is done and, in the meantime, the health of the nation is under serious threat.

1 HSBC "Why Invest With Us?"
2 David Gordon, Ruth Levitas, Christina Pantaziz, Demi Patsios, Sarah Payne, Peter Townsend, Laura Adelman, Karl Ashworth, Sue Middleton, Jonathan Bradshaw, Julie Williams, "Poverty and Social Exclusion in Britain", Joseph Rowntree Foundation
3 Bill J, "What is the Cheapest Diet?",
4 Jamie Oliver, "Ministry of Food"
5 Emma Daly, "Jamie Oliver and Martin Lewis in eating well and spending less", Radio Times, 2013
6 B&Q, "Cata Integrated Freezer"
7 Eleanor Harding, "Can't cook won't cook Britain", Daily Mail, March 2014
8 Felicity Cloake, "Can cook won't cook - Britons stew in front of the TV instead of on the hob", The Guardian, March 2014
9 National Youth Agency, "Key Housing Issues for Young People"

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