In the last few days, a glut of commentators has taken to Twitter to offer the nation’s struggling families their top tips. Many of these are so disingenuous that taken together it effectively amounts to derailing the discussion. I can’t help wondering whether in fact that was the intention, or whether the wall of condescending advice is simply motivated by benign ignorance.
There was the £2 chicken tweet, the writer of which told us he or she could make three family meals from a £2 Aldi chicken, adding just a few cheap noodles and a can of sweetcorn. Let’s start the debunking here. One chicken, particularly one we can presume is small, cannot make three family meals without considerable assistance from other ingredients. For the roast the original writer suggests on day one, you will need at a bare minimum potatoes, carrots, peas and gravy.
The next day we are told to make sandwiches. This will require bread and either margarine or butter. If possible, they would likely benefit from a mayonnaise or pickle too, because yesterday’s cheap roast chicken is a sure bet to have gone very dry. On day three the tweet tells us to boil the carcass to make a stock to serve with noodles and sweetcorn. That will also require salt and pepper. To roast the chicken would require one to two hours of fuel for the main oven. There are additional costs for fuel for the hob on which you boil down the bones to make the soup. Don’t forget you’ll need hot water to wash up. There are meals you can satisfactorily wash up after using cold water, but the nature of chicken fat means this isn’t one of them. If you are eating chicken, you will need hot water.
All in all, I would imagine you might just about be able to cover the full cost of this for ten pounds, if Aldi does sell a small chicken for £2 at all. Not being near enough to Aldi myself to just pop in, I rely on memory, which suggests that £3-4 is more likely. There are utensils to factor in. Do you have roasting tins, a stock pot, a reasonably good knife? Come to think of it, do you even have an oven and a hob?
Another self-proclaimed cooking expert has looked up the price of Aldi’s cheapest pasta and cheapest sauce and claims that 68p will in fact buy a family dinner for four. However, as any parent knows, pasta and sauce alone is not enough. Children need protein far more than adults. They also need fibre, vitamin D, calcium, iron, etc. It’s a long list. If you serve children pretend dinners like this regularly, you can expect those children to develop malnutrition related conditions such as scurvy, rickets, anaemia, arthritis, dental issues and mental ill health issues – all of which cost the state a lot of money to treat and damage the long term prospects of child and nation alike.
The false premises of the previous two examples, however, pale beside the multiple pieces of advice I have seen handed to the poor to forage for wild foods. Within 24 hours of the first of these coming to my attention, I was making my way along a dual carriageway in my car, when I spotted a well-dressed family of at least two adults and two or three older children. They were standing in the middle of the roundabout, putting something from the ground into carrier bags. I couldn’t see what it was, but from the shape of the trees they were browsing beneath made me think that it could have been apples. As an experienced forager myself, I can tell you there is no way someone who knows what they are doing would ever do this. The traffic is incredibly dangerous, and the items being collected have been exposed to intense air pollution. Inexperience can even lead to death after just a single misidentification. The recklessness of telling people to scour the outdoors for dinner is hard to underestimate.
One final standout comment, worthy of a mention, was overheard on a radio call in. A woman, allegedly claimed to be able to produce a stew sufficient for four people, for £1.50. This is patently absurd. You won’t get sufficient beef of even the worst stewable quality to feed a person, let alone four people, for that price. If you could obtain the tiniest piece of beef for that money, the quantity of potatoes you would need to bulk it up would be huge, and quality stock cubes would be needed to disguise the almost complete lack of meat. I have no idea what you would do about carrots either.
I haven’t even touched on many of my favourite suggestions. The righteous commonly like to suggest jacket potatoes, porridge and filling-less sandwiches from budget loaves of bread, as if no mother in poverty would have thought of that. We know about these already. They are cheap plain carbs, as devoid of colour as they are of joy. In between these beige snacks, it is vital that children receive proper, balanced dinners.
All this talk of rock bottom eating is nothing more than a distraction. The number of children in hardship relying on foodbank support has more than tripled since Covid-19. The jump has been greater than that in some areas, depending on local trades and how hard they have been hit. The families who need feeding are not predominantly the long-vilified long-term unemployed – they are brand new.
Food is the least of their worries now. They are having to navigate a sudden lack of resources for the rent or mortgage, for electric and gas, for phone costs and their wifi bill. They have no money to keep the car on the road or to buy train and bus fares. There will be nothing left in the kitty for Christmas or birthdays, no money for pet costs and no means to support dependant relatives. Their overdrafts and credit cards have gone from managed repayments to toxic terrors overnight. They won’t be able to replace their children’s clothes as they grow or various home essentials as they wear out. There will be bills for water, bills for council tax, bills for property service charges. It will feel like absolutely everything is a brick wall for which they didn’t bring a rope ladder.
A short time ago, many of these people worked in Pret & Monsoon. They were airline cabin crew and cinema projectionists. They acted, danced and made art. They taught sports. They worked in sales, motor vehicles, construction and so much more. What has happened to them is not their fault.
In exactly the same way, what has happened to those of us who have struggled at the lowest end of the income spectrum for even longer is not our fault. We got ill, we got unlucky, we got left holding the baby, we got a black eye and had to run. Whatever it was, something happened to bring us to this point and keep us there, even before the Covid-19 new poor arrived. The majority of us are no more culpable than the new Covid-19 poor. Recent changes associated with the pandemic have only served to highlight the fact there isn’t enough employment for all. When there was full employment – as in the 1950s and 60s – you could, as I have often been told, walk out of your job on Monday morning and have a new one by lunchtime. Now that the number of people the national workforce needs has suddenly shrunk significantly, the pool of ‘the poor’ has become larger, in a way much more obvious than before.
When the support needs of struggling families gets public attention, as has been the case since Marcus Rashford started his campaign to persuade the government to supply free school meals during the holidays, the old narratives about lazy parenting, 20p cans of beans, and £2 chickens get dragged out with predictable regularity. These narratives serve to reinforce the fact that ‘they’ are coping better because they are better people and it is ‘you’ who are defective. Insidious remarks, often dressed up as helpfulness, play to the deep-seated anxieties experienced by all parents. Comments like this reinforce the dread fear that you’ve let your children down. You have no future. You are substandard.
If you are among Covid-19’s newly poor, you need to know that your predicament isn’t synonymous with personal failure or a lack of responsibility. At present, the whole country is in an enormous, stinking mess. A combination of unemployment and depressed wages, along with furlough and home working, Brexit and trade issues plus any number of other factors have been hitting your sector or hitting you as an individual. Sometimes bad things just happen, but you don’t have to allow either this moment you find yourself in, or the massed ranks of the chronically nasty, to define your self image. Nothing about the international and national swirl of crises we are currently experiencing was caused by your kitchen management. You will not be able to keep hearth and home together by adopting a diet of basic pasta and basic sauce as any kind of main strategy. Children require real food, and don’t forget, so do you. If you need to find some genuine cheap recipes, I cannot recommend the food writer Jack Monroe highly enough. She is among a small group of defenders and champions of the skint family, into which, incidentally, footballer Marcus Rashford also fits. He went through this fresh hell you are in, years before you did, and came out the other side determined to genuinely help – not to throw recipe-shaped rocks from the sidelines and question your fitness to be a parent.
In reality, I suspect you don’t have a burning desire for more food suggestions. If the massed ranks of gun dog owning, Sunday Aga chefs – who never cost out the power used – have discovered that budget sausages in toad in the hole with mash doesn’t break the bank, then you know your own cheap eats too. We all do. For pity’s sakes – it isn’t a secret of the occult! Imagine being so ignorant that you think the poor are poor because they won’t give up their precious pearl collection -I am not making it up. Someone really said this this week, in all seriousness. Are you hard up because you only know how to make lobster bisque? Me neither. No one is.
Criticising the habits of the poor challenges the relatability of struggling families. In so doing, it cools the public’s desire to demand that our government remedy the failing and callous inbuilt gaps across the entirety of welfare provision, most especially within Universal Credit.
One thing the new Covid-19 poor will learn very fast is that the negative, critical naysayers are terrified of impoverished families effectively speaking out. Power does not want the truth spoken back to it. The supporters of that power find the experience of truth stressful.
The new poor don’t need ever more ridiculous, extreme, obvious or non-nutritious recipes. They need our country to rebuild social security, or alternatively to try out Universal Basic Income. It is vital for the health and future of our country in the long term that we provide the most basic of safety nets now. Recipe sharing, attractive and easy though it may be, serves only the oppressor. We have to stop sharing the distraction and focus on a solution, before we find we have resigned ourselves to doom the futures of a generation.