Image courtesy of the Trussell Trust
This might read like one of those bah humbug kind of posts, it’s not supposed to be one, but as Christmas creeps closer I’ve begun to look back over the past year and realised that a lot of things are not right in the world.
Perhaps with my change of circumstances, both for the good and bad, I’ve become more acutely aware of the huge inequalities within the industry that I work in. I’ve found it increasingly difficult to reconcile my feelings about the gulf between have’s and have-nots. Those that can afford good food and those who can’t…as if eating good food is only a right for those with money.
I’m going to go off on bit of a tangent here. About a month ago I read a headline in the Guardian “Move over ‘poverty porn’ … is it the era of ‘prosperity porn’?” The whole concept of ‘poverty porn’ disgusted me to begin with. The idea that we watch poor people on our TV for ‘entertainment’, like it’s a dirty pleasure, but then another thought dawned on me. Why don’t people want to watch programmes about the poor anymore? Is it because there are a growing number of people in Britain living in poverty. Everyday working people, those unemployed through no fault of their own and not the ‘dole scum’ they like to portray. People are beginning to empathise with the people in those programmes. They are beginning to understand what it is like to struggle. Is this perhaps the reason for the switch? A subtle government ploy to change the message? Now more people than ever are living in poverty the focus is shifted elsewhere. Where once we laughed at the poor now we’re being encouraged to laugh at the rich.
You can call me a conspiracy theorist, and I might not be correct in my assumption, but you can’t argue that the media is full of disingenuous information about how the economy is improving, shallow programmes that dumb us down and make us forget to focus on the things we should be angry about, the awful things happening in the real world, and who created the mess in this country.
Despite my education I’ve never been rich. I learned that critical opinion, morality, intellectual achievement was more valuable than money. I learned the lessons the hard way. I grew up on a council estate in a family of activists. I frequented the picket line while my parents shouted scab at strike breakers. As their strike dragged on into its sixth month and employees lost their pay we suffered extreme poverty. I have memories of scouring the fridge for anything to eat, asking when shopping would be done and being told not this week. We had no money. I’m almost convinced we even had to hide from a debt collector knocking on the door once. As growing teenagers we were hungry, but we never starved because we were lucky, my mother knew how to cook and make do. Generations after the 1980’s are even deprived of that skill since cooking, sewing etc were no longer considered as ‘life skills’.
So back to the point, I’m getting a bit sick of the TV food industry where a bunch of wannabe’s take part in reality cookery shows (yes I did it, I hold my hands up, guilty as charged..but it wasn’t for fame, that was the last thing on my mind, it was just for the hell of it, for the experience). There are hundreds of cookery programmes on the TV and chefs are ‘celebrities’. Were not. We make nice food for those that can afford it. The viewers of these TV shows include a host of people who happily live off ready meals, takeaways, junk food and haven’t a clue how to cook, or are not able to afford the ingredients to emulate the TV chefs dishes.
This is the way I see things….
- Supermarkets sell masses of unnecessary food at inflated prices (we know this because you only have to look at Aldi and Lidl to know that it can be cheaper)
- Advertising props up the idea that you need ‘convenience food’
- Schools do not teach basic cooking skills, these lessons were not considered core skills and so were abolished by the conservative government in the 1990’s
- Supermarkets link up with schemes like Fareshare to make themselves look better, to improve their profile by ‘helping’ the community. This is because their profits have dropped, not out of any sense of altruism or genuine caring
- Many food banks are based in supermarkets where its the community, the people who are struggling, that are buying extra things to ‘donate’ not the supermarket giving freely
- On top of this supermarkets are making it harder and harder to retrieve discarded food from the skips. In my area supermarkets tip bleach on what would be perfectly edible food, and hide it behind gates with razor wire and locks. Once upon a time students and the skint would have lived off this, now it just goes to landfill.
- Supermarkets give very little to the local food banks and skips are still full of perfectly useable food.
Figures from the Trussell Trust, between April 1st 2013 and April 1st 2014 913,138 people were given 3 days emergency food rations. This is three times the number of people receiving aid in 2012-2013 and one can only imagine what the figures will be for 2014-2015. While The Real Junk Food Project cafe based in Leeds reports that they have intercepted 11.8 tons of food since March 2013, which has created 3338 meals served in their Pay as You Feel cafe (Dec 13′-July 14′).
I paid a visit to my local food bank where I spoke with Helen Roberts, part-time village post mistress, volunteer food bank organiser and do-er of other ‘random’ jobs. She co-ordinates the food bank at Bangor Cathedral, my nearest city, which is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons. I visited on a Friday to find out about how they distribute emergency food. I was early so sat in one of the pews watching the silent bustle of the volunteers preparing to open and packing numerous carrier bags with 3 days worth of food.
A volunteer packing emergency supplies bags
Volunteers sorting produce at the Cathedral
Helen reported a steady increase in users since they opened. Usually agencies helping people with other issues such as homelessness (Shelter Cymru), mental health problems (Community Mental Health Trust), housing issues (North Wales housing) or substance misuse problems (CAIS or NACRO) will make a referral to the food bank. Individuals are given vouchers which entitles them to either a family pack or a single persons pack containing three days of emergency rations. Depending on circumstances this maybe supplemented, such as, where there are more children in the family.
There is also a growing number of people arriving with no voucher. They are walk-ins that stop by because they are struggling at a particular time. Some of these are working people who for one reason or another find themselves in difficulty. They are never turned away. In these cases they are given a letter which entitles them to a further three days emergency food but usually they are also signposted to another service if necessary.
One of the problems with the service is that food packs only contain ‘ambient’ goods (so no fresh, chilled or frozen produce). Goods such as breakfast cereal, UHT milk, a variety of tins with sandwich fillings that can be used for lunch such as corned beef, tuna, bread and margarine, plus the ingredients for 3 main meals (tinned meat, chicken).
What shocked me the most was that food is mostly bought for these parcels. In the past the food bank received deliveries from the CREST Co-operative Fareshare service. Fareshare is an organisation which works with partners in the food industry securing surplus food and delivering it to a variety of community projects and charities across the UK. Sadly, although the service was only established in 2010 it has now been discontinued. According to Anna Hughes the marketing manager for Crest the operation was ‘not sustainable’ in North Wales and not enough groups had joined. Organisations wishing to receive deliveries from the service paid a £500 yearly membership fee which helped cover the costs of staff, fuel, deliveries and other overheads. Some of these community groups are now left without regular donations (like the Bangor Foodbank) while others access the service that runs out of the Wirral. I mentioned to Anna that it was a shame the service had closed now that there was a greater need for it and she agreed, although it was a decision made by the directors of the organisation. Perhaps such a large annual fee was off-putting for local community groups, who knows. I just think it is a shame there is no Fare share service here in North Wales at all.
I talked to volunteers and sat for a while quietly observing the steady stream of ‘customers’ arriving. They weren’t queuing around the block like they might in a bigger city, but there were plenty needing help, some of whom I knew by sight some people were collecting for others who weren’t able to get to the Cathedral. It saddened me and made me thankful that I do know how to cook well and know how to make-do with very little. Whole generations of children and young adults are growing up in Britain watching their working parents struggling to put food on the table, struggling to know how to make a meal and not knowing how to manage on an ever decreasing income.
One visitor collecting supplies for a neighbour
So what’s my solution? I know, it’s not easy…but I would push for the following…
Proper cookery, budgeting and nutrition lessons in schools would be a start. Follow that up with affordable fresh food all the time as a right, not a privilege. Go back to the days of buying from markets, small producers and greengrocers (remember them?). Buy meat from the butcher in smaller quantities, bread from a bakery. Do I sound old-fashioned? Well they did seem to get some things right back in the post war era where people came before profits and we all lived in a community. Perhaps its only now people are beginning to realise this..
So I am putting my money where my mouth is. In the coming months I will be telling you about a new project I am starting up under the umbrella of The Real Junk Food Project…a community, pay as you feel cafe using diverted produce.. keep watching this space, I’ve a long way to go yet.
In the meantime…donate food if you can, buy local, help your community. That is all.