It happens every year. I do my first big food shop in a new house with new housemates, and just as I’m packing away my potato smileys into my tiny freezer drawer my friends will snort in disbelief.
“Are those smiley faces?” they gasp!
I rearrange my face from ‘here we go again’ to a sheepish smile and launch into my defence of smileys as a ‘great late-night comfort food’… The conversation which follows usually turns into a “my mother never let me eat…” competition.
In my first year of university I often felt like an escaped zoo animal when I admitted that I had never tried middle class student basics such as pesto, hummus, and butternut squash and brands like Kettle chips and Green & Black’s. My oblivious friends seem to think that my diet is a topic that is up for public discussion and quite often I am on the receiving end of comments which make me feel small, unhealthy, ashamed and angry.
I want to shed some light on what it is like to experience food poverty2 first hand. I’m tired of being judged by people for valuing food that is ‘unhealthy’.
I grew up in a low income town in North Wales. For most of my life money has been a big worry in our family. I remember free school meals and milk tokens without bitterness because that was also the experience of my peers. I never even considered feeling ashamed until I arrived at university. Many academics have pointed to a connection between emotions and food1, but it wasn’t until people I cared about started flippantly judging my food choices that I associated food with feelings of embarrassment.
I shouldn’t have to feel like a lower class citizen because of the food I buy!
Comical as it might sound, smiley faces comfort me when I’m sad or missing my family. Most people have foods that they associate with memories, why does it matter whether that is Boeuf Bourguignon or beans on toast?
I think that prejudice towards working-class diets is unfair and it is why I am offering an insight into my diet at home. I hope to replace prejudice with empathy. Above is a typical week’s worth of my evening meals from when I was at secondary school. Each meal serves 3 (me and my 2 siblings). I thought it would be interesting to compare this with a ‘better’ diet. I therefore asked two of my university friends from middle-class backgrounds for one staple family meal recipe each from when they were in secondary school (below).
In my very rudimentary investigation, it is obvious that a typical meal was very different in my house compared to my friends’:
- It suggests that there is a much more variation in price for a typical meal in middle-class households (indicating that they might have more choice in what they eat).
- There is more variety and more use of fresh vegetables and spices. It is worth noting that herbs and spices which make food taste good are expensive to buy at first. Ready-seasoned food such as pasta sauces in jars are a cheap alternative.
- The time taken to prepare the meals in the two diets is very different. The meals in my diet can be ready in half an hour or less whereas both the meals my friends suggested take at least an hour to prepare and cook.
So why did my family have such a ‘bad’ diet?
I have watched my mum cry over not knowing how she was going to feed us for many reasons. My dad took our money to the pub, the rent went up, or the car broke down. My parents worked minimum wage jobs and I remember sometimes being told to tell debt collectors that my parents weren’t home. However, my mum is determined and optimistic. These traits are not possessed by many people facing similar situations and I believe they helped our family become more food secure. She made a decision to retrain as a teacher, which would take her away from our home during the week as she went to university.
These are the reasons why during this time my siblings and I had the above ‘set menu’. It helped my parents to reduce planning and cooking time, reduce the food budget and reduce stress, especially while my mum was away.
On weekends when my parents had more time and less stress we had similar meals to my university friends – lack of skill in the kitchen is not the reason for our diet. This should be noted by organisations such as Can Cook which prepare healthy meals for people in food poverty, insinuating that people on low incomes aren’t responsible or intelligent enough to buy and prepare healthy food.
In reality, factors such as storage, time, cost and stress are the issues that are, in my opinion, the priorities in tackling food poverty – not skill.
When people look at my family now, they don’t see the same thing as I remember. My mum is a teacher and my sister I are both at university. My parents’ resilience, intelligence and optimism helped us get here, but many families don’t have that advantage. They are still suffering from the stress of not knowing where their next meal is coming from. There are people a lot worse off than I was, people who need to be praised for their bravery instead of being judged. My mum and I often joke that instead of national service everyone should have to spend a year living off a zero-hours contract on minimum wage.
I think the attitudes of society would be very different if more people knew the reality of life on the breadline.
1Varela, P., Ares, G. (2015) Special issue title: “Food, emotions and food choice”, Food Research International, Vol. 76 (2), 179
2Dowler, E.A., Kneafsey, M., Lambie, H., Inman, A. and Collier, R. (2011), “Thinking about ‘food security’: engaging with UK consumers”, Critical Public Health, Vol. 21 (4) 403-416