A few months ago, the BBC published an article on their news website which purported to show how easy it is for a UK resident to eat a healthy, varied and delicious diet for less than £1 a day. I, following in the footsteps of many other people, did not find it persuasive, mainly because it involved pretending that a supermarket would only charge for the small fraction of a lettuce (or can of anchovies, or bag of pre-grated cheese, and so on) the BBC’s reporter actually used, when in reality he would have had to pay for the whole item. Undeterred, the BBC have now had a second crack at the topic of food poverty, in a TV show called Great British Budget Menu; it’s available to watch on the iPlayer until the wee small hours of 25th July.
This time Brian Milligan, the ‘Personal Finance Reporter’ behind April’s farrago of an article, was not involved. Instead, at a time when the overwhelming majority of Britons are worrying if their personal finances will stretch to turning the heating on this winter, he was off writing an article about the dreadful scourge of the ‘water view premium’ faced by people in the market for luxury coastal properties. If the trend of Mr Milligan’s recent articles continues, I can only assume his next will be an expose of the heartbreaking difficulties faced by people trying to fit a Paul Cézanne painting into a Bugatti Veyron. (If you’re interested, Milligan came to the conclusion that it is ‘uniquely British’ – not, as you might yourself have thought, obscene – to squander a fortune on a view of surf and boats. This assertion is also rather revealing of Mr Milligan’s weakness as a journalist. If he’d done any background research at all – really, just the lightest of light-brush research – he couldn’t have failed to stumble across mentions of the Hamptons or the Gold Coast, to name just two of the world-famous locations where non-Britons pay the earth for sea views.)
The premise for Great British Budget Menu was that three big name chefs would go and live in UK households that are in the grip of food poverty, and see how they feed themselves. The chefs would then try to produce healthy and flavoursome meals for those families, using only the shops that they could get to, and spending only the money that they had available in their budget for food. The second half of the programme was given over to these same chefs creating a ‘budget banquet’ costing £1 a head, to which various politicians and supermarket executives were invited and (very gently) questioned about food poverty. At the end of the banquet, one of the three chefs was awarded a trophy for creating the best budget meal, because apparently you can’t get a documentary on BBC1 these days unless you include a competition element.
Perhaps the first point to make is that all three of the chefs failed in the first part of their mission.
In real-world conditions – when they were sent out to the local shops with a handful of coins, and with a mission to come back with the makings of a nutritional and tasty meal – they all overspent. One of them overspent catastrophically (his solution to abject food poverty was to go out and buy vast quantities of fresh salmon), while the others overspent in more modest ways. But they none of them were able to match what their hosts are able to do day in and day out: put food on the table when they have not much more than pennies to spend. This was a point the programme could have made rather more of: that people in food poverty do not eat poorly because they misspend, or because they don’t know how to cook, but because procuring any food at all within their budget is almost impossible. A family of 6 making a meal out of a 45p can of hot dogs, a 10p pack of rolls and a 35p can of ravioli (as one of the featured households did) cannot be accused of profligacy.
Despite other positive elements in the programme – which I will come on to – it sometimes seemed like the realities of the participants lives were being wilfully obscured by the programme-makers. One of the participants (a mother who had been going without food to make sure her daughter was well fed) was instructed to eat porridge and a banana every morning for the good of her health, but there was no indication of where the money was to come from. It was explained that porridge oats and bananas are cheaper than pre-prepared sugary cereals – but that was nothing to the point, because the lady concerned hadn’t been eating sugary cereals. The breakfast she usually had was a cup of tea, so the porridge-and-a-banana option was only achievable within her budget if it cost the same or less – and of course it doesn’t. “Stop buying expensive rubbish” is one of the patronising things that’s always said to people in food poverty, but it’s worse than useless advice if they aren’t buying expensive rubbish in the first place.
Another family were presented with chickens so they could have cheap eggs. The hens, the coop they were to spend nights in, and several months’ supply of chickenfeed were all provided by the programme-makers. That was very generous of them, but without a donation of this kind it wasn’t a practical solution to the problem the family was facing. “Grow your own food” is another of the patronising homilies delivered on a regular basis to people in food poverty, but it overlooks the fact that – even if you’ve got access to the outside space in which you can – you have to find the initial outlay, something which is entirely impossible for people who are living pay-cheque to pay-cheque.
Something else that’s impossible for people who are living hand to mouth is maintaining a well-stocked cupboard of staple goods. All three of the participating households were left with a cardboard box of items such as pasta, rice, herbs and spices, etc. Again, this was very generous of the programme-makers, but again it tended to obscure reality. The obvious implication was that the budget shoppers should be able to replace the items from this kit as they ran out, and so have access to items that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. But this is impossible: if you have only enough money in your weekly or monthly food budget to buy the food that you actually have to eat in that week or month, then there is never a point at which you can afford to buy extra food that you don’t have to eat. Some people – especially people who are employed on a casual basis – will find themselves with occasional surpluses, and, absolutely, they can take advantage of those times to stock up on non-perishable items they can use to tide them over the rougher times, but none of the participants featured in this programme were in this situation. In two of the households the breadwinners were in regular, salaried employment, and the third was a man who was retired.
The make-up of the households selected to take part was one of the strengths of the programme. The decision to focus on working and retired people (as opposed to sick, disabled and unemployed people) did have the effect of raising the spectre of the old Victorian division between the supposedly ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor, but it also had the advantage of heading off at the pass one of the standard tactics used by those who try to dismiss food poverty as a problem. It’s much harder to say that people in food poverty somehow deserve to be when the people affected are a double income working family. It also provided a very visceral insight into the extent of the problem of poverty in the UK – when even two incomes are not enough to raise a family things are desperate indeed. (The selection of participants may also have been influenced by the fact that other programmes in the BBC’s Cost of Living season are looking at people who receive benefits.)
That a married, home-owning, double income family were on the verge of requiring assistance from a food bank may have proved shocking to many people watching the programme, but I was shocked by something rather different. Another of the participants – the mother who went without two meals a day, and had lost 2½ stone in a matter of months – was shown attending a food bank. She was, therefore, a recipient of charity, but she also worked for a charity: she was introduced as earning just above minimum wage managing a charity shop. The particular charity involved was not named, but it is truly shocking that any charity is paying its staff so poorly that they become charity cases themselves. It effectively means, after all, that one charity is relying on another to subsidise its own fundraising activities. If a shop cannot make a profit for the charity that runs it while ensuring its paid staff receive a living wage then it is not actually a fundraising enterprise. It can only be described as raising funds if it raises more money than it costs, and without any dodgy tricks like offloading a part of its staffing costs to another charity that supplies food aid.
It seems unlikely that any of the three participating households received any real benefit from the visits by the chefs, beyond the nice (and out of budget) meal they had cooked for them, and the food parcels they were left. Despite that, I thought the first half of the programme probably was worthwhile in the way it drew the viewers’ attention to the nature and scale of the problem. Even if there were occasional flashes of something that felt uncomfortably like poverty tourism, for example when one of the chefs expressed incredulity that his hosts might have an empty fridge, or a bank account with only 20p in it, by the end of the month. These are routine experiences for millions of people in the UK, after all, even if they are grounds for astonishment to some.
The second half of the programme seemed rather unsure of what it was trying to achieve. Was it a cookery competition between professional chefs? Was it a chance for the participants from the first half to learn culinary skills from those chefs? Was it a forum to demonstrate to viewers the kinds of meals that can be cooked for a low per-head cost? Was it a chance to bring together campaigners, politicians and retail executives for an informal summit on food poverty? Was it an attempt to prove to Brian Milligan that you absolutely, categorically cannot have a tasty and healthy diet for £1 a day, given that professional chefs (with, no doubt, the off-screen assistance of professional home economists) only barely managed to produce one meal for that price? At different times it seemed like it was trying to be all of those things, with the result that it didn’t really achieve any of them.
In terms of demonstrating the kinds of meals that can be prepared for a low per-head cost, well the chefs found that the key is to use a small portion of the cheapest protein you can find, bulk it up with a lot of cheap carbohydrates, and make the whole thing palatable with some ingredients designed to add flavour. This ‘discovery’ will hardly have come as a surprise to anyone who has ever tried to cook on a tight budget. But even so the programme skipped over a lot of rather important details, such as the difference between a meal that has a low cost per head when it’s prepared in bulk, and a meal that’s low cost when it’s being prepared for one or two people.
All sorts of ingredients (especially fresh ingredients that spoil rapidly) are cheap when you divide the unit cost between 30 people but prohibitively expensive when you divide it between two. One of the chefs sourced the protein for her £1 meal in the form of a special offer to get three fresh chickens for £10. She suggested that you could always use just one and freeze the rest – but even if they can afford the upfront cost, one chicken is going to have to stretch out for days on end if it’s being eaten by a single person. And is someone in acute food poverty really going to have access to a freezer large enough to accommodate all the cheap-in-bulk products that they’re recommended to buy and use a fraction at a time? Capacious chest freezers tend to be the preserve of well-to-do people, with less well off people having to make do with a small fridge-freezer.
This programme was a better take on food poverty than Brian Milligan’s earlier stunt – though this does not mean the bar was set particularly high. I liked the fact that the first half of the programme focussed on people for whom food poverty is day-to-day reality, rather than recounting the experiences of a (presumably) well-paid BBC journalist who (sort of) tried to live like he was poor for a few days. Overall, it did a better job of identifying and highlighting problems than it did of proposing actions to address them. This was true both in practical terms – the participating households seemed to be offered ‘solutions’ that they either couldn’t afford, or were impractical for other households which weren’t being generously helped out by a TV production company – and in broader terms, too. Representatives of the major supermarkets and politicians were interviewed, but weren’t particularly held to account, with the result that they could get away with mouthing platitudes.
But at least this programme drew high-profile, BBC1-sized-audience attention to the scale and extent of food poverty in the UK. It demonstrated that it’s a serious social problem which affects a wide range of people, including many who just a few years ago could have expected to be, if not rich, at least comfortably off. It made it clear that people who struggle to feed themselves are not incompetent or irresponsible. It may not have particularly held politicians to account, but at least it did something to air the problem, and thus make it harder for politicians to ignore.
This is really all an organisation like the BBC, which is prevented by law from engaging in political campaigning, can do. It’s up to us to make sure that poverty comes to dominate the political agenda. Not vacuous soundbites about ‘workers versus shirkers’ or ‘skivers versus strivers’, just the fact that, in the seventh richest country in the world, there are significant numbers of people who cannot afford to feed themselves and their families properly. That really should be a dominant issue in politics right now.