I get intensely annoyed when I see middle class people online announcing on the basis of one cheap meal they made once, that not being able to feed your family cheaply is just the poor being crap. That it’s lousy budgeting, lack of cooking skills, laziness. Let me start by saying that it is possible to feed a family adequately for less than a pound per person per meal, but it is hard, and problematic.
I’m an intelligent, well educated person, I know about nutrition, I know how to cook, I know how to shop and how to budget. In this, I am better off than many people who end up in difficulty. I got into difficulty because I was dragged through the family courts for a couple of years and it was terrifyingly expensive. As is often the way, the flexibility in a budget is often around food. This same budget also has to cover clothes, cleaning products and anything else you might need unexpectedly. As children tend to grow and require school uniforms, there are extra costs.
While it is possible to feed a family cheaply, it’s not possible to feed a family at no cost. If you’ve had your benefits sanctioned, or are in the long waiting period before they start, you may well have no money at all. Universal credit leaves many families with far too little money to begin with – I’ve seen this happen to others. It doesn’t matter how clever you are, you can’t buy food if you have no money.
To eat cheaply, you are going to make compromises. Cheap low nutrition starchy foods are good to fill up on and for avoiding hunger, so probably one of your meals each day will take this shape. It is really hard to do five portions of fruit and veg per day on a very tight budget. I usually managed three, and there wasn’t as much diversity as I wanted. Carrots are indeed cheap, so you need to like carrots and be happy to eat them as part of many different meals. This is, frankly, hard on children who tend to suffer more with food boredom. Also it’s not actually that healthy – diversity matters in nutrition. Protein is expensive. Even if you do a fair bit of it through pulses, and you give up meat. Getting enough protein into people affordably is hard. Without enough protein, your brain struggles to make some of the happier chemicals, and your body will hurt when you active. I’ve done this and it sucks.
You have to pay attention all the time. You have to shop carefully, budget carefully, be super careful to use things before they go off. You probably won’t be able to afford to have snacks, and your meals may be smaller than is ideal. You will, at times, be hungry. Especially in the winter if you can’t afford to run extra heating and your body is trying to burn calories to keep you warm. Feeding a family on a tight budget is hard work and insufficient food is exhausting and this is a bloody awful combination.
Mistakes are expensive. Reduced to clear food that goes off is a disaster. You pick the mould off the bread and eat it anyway. Mistakes can lead to debt, and once you’re servicing a debt your disposable income is reduced, pushing you closer to the edges.
Being poor is bloody hard work and there are no days off. It can be done adequately, but you won’t eat well, you won’t have a highly nutritious diet, you will never have treats, and it will make you feel like shit. What you can do as a one-off as a person with resources is not an indicator of what it’s like dealing with this stuff every day. It is not possible to be clever, frugal or skilled enough to make food out of thin air, and I wish more people understood that.