Felicity Cloake on food poverty in the UK: shall we let them eat raw potato?

Those who think food poverty in the UK is no big deal need to spend a bit of time volunteering at a food bank one of these days, says writer Felicity Cloake.

Felicity talks of her time working at her local food bank and the realities that have sunk in, in doing so.

Felicity Cloake on food poverty in the UK: shall we let them eat raw potato?

At the end of last year I heard Jacob Rees-Mogg, Conservative MP for North East Somerset, on the radio criticising Unicef’s decision to give £25,000 to provide breakfasts for children in south London over the holidays – the United Nations agency, he said, should be ashamed of itself “when it is meant to be looking after people in the poorest, the most deprived countries in the world”.

After an unusually dispiriting afternoon working at my local food bank – telling mothers who’d queued with pushchairs in the rain that their families, some of them eight-strong, could only have two tins of tuna between them – I’m afraid my reaction was not fit for Jacob’s delicate ears. Britain may not be experiencing the famine or civil war that the Leader of the House seemed to think necessary conditions for aid, but many people, including children, are going hungry nonetheless.

His comments reminded me of a Tweet from his sister a few months earlier, unfavourably comparing the price of oven chips to that of raw potatoes, but conveniently leaving out the cost of the cooking oil, fuel and equipment required to turn one into the other. If I’m being charitable, I’d suggest she simply has no notion that such things are beyond the budget of many, including those with facilities but also several jobs that allow scant time to peel, cut, par-boil and deep-fry potatoes on the side.

Indeed, as a younger, sillier person I was also naive enough to wonder why, when I could make a vat of wholesome soup for mere pennies, others didn’t do the same. It never occurred to me that not everyone has the luxury of shopping around for cheap seasonal ingredients or even knows what some of the best-value options are, let alone how to prepare them – a recent donation of swede at the food bank caused great confusion.

"Britain may not be experiencing famine or civil war but many, including children, are going hungry."

All these things, I’ve realised, are privileges; privileges of growing up in a family that cooked and of having the time and money to do so myself. Not to mention the confidence to experiment, secure in the knowledge that if it’s a disaster, I can always knock up an emergency omelette.

Not everyone is so lucky. It’s not uncommon to hear, as a food bank user peers despondently into their weekly carrier bag, that they’re living in accommodation with a kettle instead of a kitchen, and they need to swap the potatoes and pasta for instant noodles and crisps – hardly the most nutritious diet, but still infinitely better than nothing. It means checking the few tins they can use have a ring pull, replacing their tomato soup with an extra apple and sometimes even scrabbling around in drawers to find them a plastic fork for their dinner of cold hot dogs.

I sympathise with Jacob Rees-Mogg: such poverty is hard to comprehend in one of the world’s wealthiest countries, but pretending it doesn’t exist helps no one. Not all of us have the time or money to offer practical assistance to those worst affected, but we can at least make the effort to try to understand the realities of their situation. Surely we owe them that much.

Do you agree with Felicity or do you take a different view? Tell us what you think at info@deliciousmagazine.co.uk or via Twitter.

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