The BBC have published an article by one Brian Milligan, which purports to show that it is possible to eat a healthy, varied diet for less than £1 a day. The article is – and I’m being polite here – a complete farrago of nonsense from beginning to end. Let’s start with the idea that the diet Mr Milligan lived on for five days (a whole five days, imagine!) was ‘healthy’.
We’re not going to rely on my attempts to assess the quality of his meals here. Instead we’re going to avail ourselves of the opinion of a professional dietician. I should make it plain that this isn’t the result of some great feat of research on my part. I’m simply quoting the words of the dietician Mr Milligan himself contacted, and whose views he reports in his own article. Here goes:
“Those dinners looked great,” says Alison Hornby, of the British Dietetic Association. “But I would say they may have been slightly smaller than you required. You may have felt hungry at the end of a meal.”
After some quick calculations, she confirms that I am well short on my calorie intake.
“You could have done with something a bit more substantial,” she says.
In other words, the diet Mr Milligan provided for himself was not healthy, since it left him significantly undernourished. On this diet he would have lost weight – not a problem in the short term, but a significant one in the longer term. Over time he would have become underweight, and then emaciated: he would have developed a weakened immune system, putting him at risk of infection, and would eventually have ended up hospitalised. In the absence of hospital treatment he would have starved to death. So much for the claim his diet was healthy.
What of the claim that it cost him less than £1 a day? Here’s how he describes his breakfast on the first day.
Did you know you can buy an egg for just 8.7p? It may not be an ethical egg, and of course you have to buy 30 to get that price. But when you are on a real budget, it still gives you valuable protein and great vitamins. So including one piece of toast, with margarine and a cup of tea, my breakfast costs me 14p.
In other words, to get his 8.7p egg Mr Milligan actually had to spend £2.61 on eggs – that’s over half his total five day budget blown on one food item. Needless to say, if he had been doing this for real (rather than as a fun, pretendy game), Mr Milligan would have spent his 5 days eating eggs for pretty much every meal: a poached egg on toast for breakfast, a hard-boiled egg sandwich for lunch, omelette in the evening, and so on. So much for the idea of a varied diet, you might think. But, actually, having crowed over his first breakfast egg (did you see what I did there?), Mr Milligan never eats another one.
That’s how he manages to maintain the variety of his diet, but it’s also straightforwardly disingenuous. By pretending that he can simply ignore the more than £2.50 of food he bought but didn’t eat, Mr Milligan is intentionally misleading his readers. And it’s not a one-off.
On his second day, Mr Milligan prices his lunchtime BLT sandwich at 26p: that includes a single lettuce leaf at 4p. Yes, you read that right – he is asking us to swallow the idea that a person on a tight budget can buy a single lettuce leaf. You can’t, of course. You have to buy the whole lettuce, even if you never pop another morsel of it in your mouth. (Actually, Mr Milligan does eat lettuce again – but it’s a different lettuce. The second time he specifies premium quality iceberg lettuce for a garnish (garnish? on a pound-a-day budget?), and he includes that in his budget at 4p for half a single leaf: that’s twice the price of the ordinary lettuce that is sitting mostly uneaten in his fridge, and is now joined by a mostly uneaten iceberg lettuce.)
He does a similar thing with courgettes – buys a 6-pack for £1.60, uses ¼ of one courgette, then pretends that he only spent 7p. And the same thing again with sweet peppers – buys 6 for £1.51, uses ¼ of one, and pretends he only spent 6p. Potatoes costing £2.40 for 2.5kg make it into his budget as 6p for half of one potato. Celery actually bought for 89p is priced as 2p for a single stick. A 50g can of anchovies costing 79p is factored into his budget at 16p for 10g, and the remaining 40g simply vanish. Or perhaps he feeds them to a magical cat that defecates coins to the value of the food it eats – that’s one way of explaining how he doesn’t have to account for the money he spends on food he doesn’t eat.
Hypothetical felines aside, you just can’t do this. If you’re shopping on a tight budget, buying six courgettes means you have to eat six courgettes. If you only eat part of a can of anchovies one day, you have to eat the rest of the can before they go off. Doing anything else would mean that you were wasting food, and you can’t afford to do that – you can only afford to buy the absolute minimum of basic food you need to survive.
All in all, in the five day period in which he claimed to spend just £4.82 on food, I calculate that Mr Milligan spent £38.52 buying foodstuffs in supermarkets. That’s just counting those items that he provides the pack price for: when it comes to the tomatoes, cucumber, cream cheese, tea, bread, scones, margarine, jam, butter, cream, apples and bananas he also enjoys across his five-day jaunt he doesn’t reveal what he actually paid in the supermarket, so I haven’t included those items in the total. Making even a modest addition for those items would mean that Mr Milligan actually spent well over 8 times his budget – £40. And keep in mind that, even overspending by that much, the diet he ate still left him undernourished.
(What about the idea that Mr Milligan wouldn’t have had to buy everything he ate because some things would simply have been “in the cupboard”? Well, no, they wouldn’t, not if eating for a £1 a day was anything more than a very short-term exercise. Maintaining a well-stocked cupboard means buying food that you don’t have to eat right away, and if you’ve only got £1 to spend on food every single day, there is never a point at which you can afford to spend 74p on a pot of dried thyme “for the cupboard”.)
Keep in mind, as well, that the prices Mr Milligan was able to source involved mixing and matching between all four of the big supermarkets. No doubt it was important for a BBC journalist to maintain his commercial impartiality, but it only adds to the artificiality of the exercise. The major supermarkets do not just line up next to each other; even in larger towns and cities that have branches of each of them, they are in different, far-flung locations. So how was Mr Milligan travelling to buy his onions in Morrisons, his garlic in Tesco, his tinned tomatoes in Asda and his tinned kidney beans in Sainsburys? It would be reasonable to assume that a person reduced to spending £1 a day on food is acutely impoverished in other ways, and unlikely to be able to afford to travel to more than one supermarket in a week. Even if they could, would the modest savings of a few pennies here and there offset the cost of the petrol or bus fares spent schlepping to several different locations?
In reality, of course, people who are in food poverty usually live in deprived areas – high-rise estates (like the one I live on) for the urban poor; half-dead villages for the rural poor. Places with few shops, in other words, and poor transport links to the places where the shops are. Even one decent supermarket is more than many impoverished people would have access to, and smaller shops carry a smaller range of items, at a higher price. Good luck with buying the fresh kale Mr Milligan made into soup at an average Spar, let alone a village newsagent that stocks just a few non-perishable groceries.
This is the reality of food poverty in the UK: the people who are most acutely affected can’t afford the multipacks that offer the best price per item, and can’t get to the shops that sell decent food at the cheapest prices. They’re forced into expensive local shops, or alternatively the frozen food stores that offer highly processed food at prices that seem reasonable until you take into account how nutritionally poor it is. Well-to-do people who like to lecture the supposedly feckless poor on their diets always overlook this – the fact that, paradoxically, poor people can’t afford to eat cheaply. Somewhere along the line our socio-economic system got so warped that cheap food became a middle class luxury.
If Mr Milligan had just written a disingenuous article about something that didn’t matter much, I’d have let it slide – it’s a failing in a journalist, sure, but a commonplace one. But this does matter, because it fits so neatly into the coalition’s demonisation of the poor. The coalition – aided and abetted by their cheerleaders in the right-wing press – are trying to make out that benefits are paid at a level that guarantees luxury. And if it’s supposedly possible to eat a varied, healthy, nutritionally balanced diet for £1 a day then that makes Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith’s claim that he could live on £53 a week seem entirely plausible. In that context, it matters that Mr Milligan’s diet actually cost him more than £8 a day (£56 a week), that it could only be had for that price by travelling to widely spread supermarkets, and that it was inadequate to maintain his long-term health. It matters because it changes what seems to be evidence that supports the government’s case into evidence that undermines it.
Mr Milligan’s stunt was inspired by a campaign to highlight global food poverty, the Live Below the Line challenge. That encourages people to try and live for less than £1 a day for a period of five days, but specifically notes that
The full cost of all the items you consume must be included in your budget. This means budgeting for whole packets of food items such as rice, pasta, noodles and eggs etc.
Needless to say, a diet based on those principles would look rather different to the one enjoyed by Mr Milligan: out would go his £2.30 bag of ‘hard cheese shavings’ for a start. A diet formulated in accordance with those rules is going to involve a lot of cheap carbohydrates, tinned/ dried pulses for protein, and a few cheap veggies, either in season or tinned; you might manage to stretch to a bit of cheese or meat for flavour, but you might not. It’s also going to be a very repetitious diet. If you buy 500g of spaghetti, you can’t just use 100g and pretend the rest didn’t cost you anything, and if you use half a can of kidney beans on day 3 you’ll have to use the other half on day 4 or 5: there just won’t be room in the budget to waste food in the way Mr Milligan does.
Of course, this is the sort of thing that lots of people know first hand. For lots of people, living on a tight budget isn’t a fun game to be indulged in for five days, it’s a way of life. There are literally millions of people in the UK who know all about eking out a food budget, which is what makes Milligan’s article so bizarre. It’s not just that it involves sleight of hand (pretending that all the food he didn’t eat added nothing to his shopping bill), but that it involves a sleight of hand that will be so obvious to so many people. Anyone who’s ever shopped on a budget – or, for that matter, anyone who’s ever tried to minimise food waste in their shopping – knows that you can’t carry on like Mr Milligan does, adding large quantities of perishable items to your shopping basket, then only using a fraction of what you’ve bought.
Anyone who’s ever shopped on a budget knows that kind of thing busts the budget – and they know it because, when they take their shopping basket to the checkout, they find they’re charged for all the stuff they buy, whether they plan to use it all or not. And you know the really bizarre thing? This group of people must include Brian Milligan. He must know for a cast-iron fact that he spent at least £40 on food during his five days, because he was the one who spent it: he was there, in person, handing over the cash.
Forget the fact that the BBC have posted an article claiming that £40+ of food can be had for less than £5, even if that is the kind of thing you might hope would be picked up in the editorial process. How did Mr Milligan, personally, suppress the massive cognitive dissonance involved in writing the article? How do you persuade yourself to write the subhead ‘Day 4: Amount spent 91p’ when you know that the items listed under it cost a total of £11.80? Even if he believed that readers wouldn’t add the figures together, how on earth did he persuade himself that no-one would spot that the day’s shopping list includes one single item priced at £2.40? I’m astonished he ever thought he could get away with it. I’m pleased to note from the comments that he hasn’t.