Tight budgets, poor diets, judgmental callers

Mark Bothwell, who's still waiting for his ESA claim to be processed.
Mark Bothwell, who’s still waiting for his ESA claim to be processed.

A discussion programme on the Nicky Campbell Radio 5 Live Breakfast show this week on whether a tight budget means a poor diet  prompted quite a few callers to make comments including, ‘it’s all down to organising yourself’ or ‘it’s due to a lack of education’. Here at the London food bank, the majority of the people who come here for help know exactly what they should be eating.  They know what a healthy diet looks like. They’re just desperate and hungry, and can’t often afford to buy items such as meat or many fresh vegetables. Or anything much at all. That’s why they’ve been given a voucher for the food bank by a frontline care professional such as a GP.

People on low in-work incomes  – for example those working two zero-hours contracts paid below the Living Wage and often at the National Minimum Wage to make ends meet – don’t have the money to buy much meat protein. They have to focus on keeping a roof over their heads, and trying to ensure they have the electricity or gas to cook with. Neither do they often have the luxury of  time or the mental and physical energy to plan, shop for, cook and serve nutritionally balanced meals. In London, they probably can’t afford to run a car – which makes doing a bulk shop  – very handy when you’re time poor – really hard. They might live on a large estate, without the great  range of shops on their doorsteps that would allow them to make easy price comparisons. There would probably be a chip shop though, that would at least feed their family cheaply. Once they do get some food in, many can’t spend a lot of time preparing it. Those who are short of money often prioritize feeding their kids rather than themselves.

As for those on UK benefit levels that have been described by the European Committee of Social Rights as ‘manifestly inadequate’ , the chances of them being able to avoid food poverty are patently not reflected by the facts.  This food bank is part of the  Trussell Trust network of 420 UK food banks, which fed 913.138 people in 2013-14. But using research by Eoin Clarke, the Trussell Trust represents under half the estimated emergency food providers in the UK. He has listed 960 emergency providers, including food banks. Why so many  – an exponential growth – if a poor diet is down to poor education or disorganised individuals?

What about those who are among the increasing numbers who simply are not getting even these internationally criticised levels of benefits through on time  – either because of  delays or sanctions? Mark, whose case has been covered before here, has a serious shoulder problem and is in terrible pain. His arm is in a sling. He’s on jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) of £72.40 a week, and has applied for employment and support allowance (ESA). He put his claim for to this higher (but not that much higher) level of support about 10 weeks ago. He’s still waiting for his claim to be processed. Meanwhile, he’s trying to eke out what he describes as an existence.  Yes, most of the time he sees it as an existence rather than a fulfilling life. He told me: ‘The other day I was so bored I walked to Dartford and back. It took me nearly three hours each way – stopping every so often to rest. It was just to get me out of the flat.’

Unexpected bills  throw him off his budget, and this is what forced him to call into the food bank for a cup of tea and to see if we had any fresh food (sometimes people donate food that has to be given out on the day, or there’s some tinned food that is still in date but that can’t be included in the packs given out to those with vouchers). A direct debit he didn’t have quite enough funds for was returned twice to his bank, and the bank charged him £8 each time. This loss of £16 would have been the money he spent on food. Mark, who has to ensure he eats when he takes his strong painkillers a couple of times each day, said he had an appointment with his GP the next day, who would hopefully gave him a food bank voucher. So he would have to go to the only food bank open on a Saturday, and haul the bags home using his one good arm. He wouldn’t have got the bus, because he can’t afford it.

I’m coming across more and more people at the food bank who are even worse off than Mark if that’s possible. One client – Ben – a widower of 58 who came into the food bank hungry yesterday, is actually destitute . This is because his JSA was put on hold in early March, around the time the work he was offered through the controversial Universal Jobmatch system finished after two days – and he’s received nothing from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) since then. I’ll be detailing his case next.

Welcome to the UK in 2014. We should be proud of the way we treat our most vulnerable. The President of the UK Faculty of Public Health Professor John Ashton has written – along with John Middleton and Tim Lang – an open letter to Prime Minister David Cameron on food poverty in the UK. In the letter to the Lancet on behalf of 170 signatories, he mentions the ‘worrying gap in health circumstances and outcomes between rich and poor people in the UK.’ He says UK food prices have ‘risen by 12 per cent in real terms since 2007, returning the cost of food relative to other goods to that in the 1990s’. He notes that in the same period, UK workers have suffered a 7.6 per cent fall in real wages.  He adds: ‘It therefore seems likely that increasing numbers of people on low wages are not earning enough money to meet their most basic nutritional needs to maintain a healthy diet. We should not accept this situation in the UK, the world’s sixth largest economy and the third largest in Europe.’ He says that during the past five years, ‘food has been one of the three top factors in price inflation, sufficient to worry even higher-income consumers’. This inflation, he continues, ‘ has translated into families cutting back on fresh fruit and vegetables and buying cheap, sweet, fatty, salty, or processed foods that need little cooking’. A ‘vicious circle’ is set in motion, with poorer people ‘having worse diets and contributing to the worrying rise in obesity, diabetes and other dietary-related diseases’.

As Professor Ashton states so clearly to the Prime Minister, even the higher-income consumers are seeing the effects of  inflation on their food budgets. There’s obviously an impact there, and it’s right that this aspect is highlighted. But are we fighting hard enough for people such as Ben, who spent yesterday morning hungry and don’t currently have any budget for food? Or for anything….