Two-thirds of children living in relative poverty in the UK are from families where one, or both, parents work.
It’s a shocking statement, and one we need to pay attention to. It turns on its head the idea that to be poor, to struggle, to go hungry, is the domain of the ‘feckless’ and the ‘lazy’. Millions of people, tonight, will not have a meal to fill their stomachs. For one nurse who contacted me, breakfast tomorrow will be a slice of bread before they dress for work, plaster on a smile, close their front door and project to the world another reality – one where they hide the truth of their cold damp house with its empty kitchen cupboards.
For these people, eating healthy food is secondary to eating at all. For families with children, the risk of buying new products, which might be wasted and left on the plate, isn’t practical. When you have a £2 coin in your pocket, and no money in the bank, you think ‘quantity’ of food, not quality. You search for things you know are filling, and will be eaten. You seek out, with the eye of a sniper, reduced stickers on last-day-they-can-be-eaten items. It’s a world where Sunday roasts are dreamed of, and beans on a slice of bread is commonplace for a child’s dinner.
As a country, we need to change our diets. We’re killing ourselves with what we eat, and it’s not just those in poverty – we’re all guilty of eating the wrong things. But having the choice about what food goes on the table is a privilege, and not everyone has it. For a financially desperate parent, with only a few pounds to feed a family, value-brands are a lifesaver. For seriously little cash, value-branded fish fingers and oven chips will feed four people for three or four days, and costs about £3.50.
The thing is, I know how to use vegetables, and know my way around a broccoli. I know how they work and I know they’re good for me. I can cook – I’m lucky enough to have that privilege, and I have access to cooking equipment. I am fortunate in that I have a family who will eat the dreaded chickpea, and who love a sweet potato curry. But I won’t pretend there haven’t been times – okay, a lot of them – when I have had to serve plain steamed rice and a handful of frozen peas for dinner.
There have been many times when dinner has been the cheapest ‘cheap food’ I could get from Iceland: sausages at £2 for 40; fish cakes at 50p for 10; a bag of spuds for 75p. I know I should add vegetables to these meals, but to add a vegetable is to add to the bill. I’m not, after all, going to leave off the spuds (which I know will fill my children up for a few days, and can be mashed, boiled, roasted, chipped and fried) when a head of broccoli at the same price will last one meal and leaving them wanting. For healthy food to be accessible to all, we need to make food accessible for all. It must be affordable, and the healthy stuff should be cheaper than the things that will kill us.
We need to lift the barriers preventing people from eating the best food they can: the food we all deserve. How can it be, that healthiness itself is perceived as the domain of the wealthy, while those in poverty (struggling to put food on a table and being referred to food banks) are left so far behind? Why is eating well seen as a privilege, when it should be a right, surely?
Whether a person is struggling to consume vegetables because of money, because of education, or because of accommodation, it’s within our power to turn this situation around, and ensure each person can achieve better health through their diets.
There are ways to lift the barriers people face. We could raise the arbitrary cut-off point for free school meals (currently £16,190 per annum) so more children benefit from a balanced, healthy, meal at least once a day. We could bring back facilities such as Sure Start, which were invaluable in helping to teach people how to prepare and cook fresh produce.
At the Food Foundation’s first Vegetable Summit, there were some hopeful pledges made by food producers and retailers promising an increase in vegetables in ready meals and ‘grab-and-go’ products. This is a step forward for those without cooking facilities at home, who might only have a microwave in their room – common for single middle-aged men in minimum wage jobs.
We’re facing a crisis as a country, and it looks as though it will get worse. Now, I think, is the time to understand the situation isn’t black and white, but holds many shades of grey. Once we’re prepared to see the problem, we might find a way to mend it.
Kathleen Kerridge (@k_kerridge) is a freelance writer and author. This blog is her personal reflection on the challenges involved in eating healthily on a low budget, and how we can help lift the barriers that prevent people from accessing healthy food.