Understanding poverty and poor diets

Alicia Weston is founder of Bags of Taste, an NGO which works with people in or facing household food insecurity to move away from highly processed or takeaway foods towards regular, delicious home-cooked meals.

With the over 4,000 low income and vulnerable participants we work with, we’ve seen our fair share of barriers to cooking. It’s easy to think that the reasons that people in poverty don’t cook are to do with lack of motivation, or that they simply need to learn to cook.  The reality is much more complex than that, and overall has mostly to do with a lack of resources.  Those resources include money, but there are many others that are affected by living life in poverty.  Lack of access to food shops – food deserts – is one obvious example, where local food needs are catered for not by shops that sell produce, but a raft of cheap (and unhealthy) takeaways.  This short video lays out other resources people in poverty don’t have access to, how these serve as barriers to cooking and how they result in poor diets.

These barriers are bad enough in the best of times, but we are now in the worst of times, and for the people that we work with, things just got a whole lot harder.  I’m going to unpack a bit about how things that were already bad, got even worse.

Take Julia.  She still has a job – luckily.  But, being on a low income, she doesn’t have any savings.  One quarter of UK households have under £95 in total savings.  She lives from pay packet to pay packet, and she didn’t get paid until 2 days after lockdown.  This meant that whilst the rest of the country was buying up toilet roll and flour, Julia couldn’t buy anything until there was nearly nothing on the shelves.  She didn’t have a well-stocked larder to see her through, just empty cupboards.  So she stocked up, in panic, on junk food, which was all that was left.

Whilst prices have notionally not risen too much, the reality for those on a low income is much different.  Yes, the 20p pasta is still priced at 20p for 500g – but its sold out. So she pays 60p – three times the price – for the same sized packet.  One time there were only blue eggs, priced at £2.50 for 6, on the shelf. That’s 41p an egg – 5 times more than she usually spends.  The cheapest food has all disappeared from the shelves, leaving £1 cans of tomatoes, if you can even get them, rather than the 28p cans she usually buys. This makes a huge difference to what she can buy and feed her family.

Under COVID-19 public health guidelines,  Julia’s encouraged to shop only once a week But she doesn’t have a car and simply cannot carry the amount of shopping her family needs in one go. So she has to go more frequently – and spend ages queueing up as she’s still working and has to go at peak times.  Because of shortages, she had sometimes to go to more than one shop to get what she needed, queuing again.

She’s eligible for food vouchers for her kids. But to get the vouchers she’s got to go on email – not something she has easy access to – and the vouchers need printing.  She does not have a printer. Her 3 kids are sharing the only laptop to do their home schooling on, and using a mobile phone connection to access the internet, which is costing a fortune.

Because her circumstances haven’t changed for a while, Julia is not yet on Universal Credit.  She used to be grateful for this, but now, the government has given an extra £20 a week to those on Universal Credit.  This will go some way to covering these extra food costs (still probably not fully) for the new claimants, who are seeing more generous benefits than those pre-crisis did.  She really needs this money – but is terrified of the long waiting period during the change-over and ultimately the uncertainty of what she might end up with.  So she stays put. 

People like Julia suffer disproportionately in a crisis.  They have enough problems accessing good, healthy food in the first place – again, see our barriers video above.  This is why foodbank usage is three times higher than before the crisis, and is likely to rise even further as the furlough schemes come to an end and the unemployment rate quadruples, as is forecast by the OBR and the Bank of England. 

Our programme, which teaches food resilience and helps people overcome all the barriers, is needed much more widely across the UK.  It still isn’t easy if you’re Julia, but it helps.  A lot.

Working with local people and organisations, we have a 4-stage cooking and behavioural change programme which motivates participants in the long term to regularly cook their own homemade meals, at just £1 a head.

The stages are:

  1. Outreach to people who wouldn’t normally attend a cooking class
  2. Locally run, community-based courses giving people the strategies to address the individual barriers they are facing, and cook together with a mentor
  3. £3 bags of ingredients for four meals, sourced locally, are available to participants who want to practise at home.
  4. Participants can go on to take part in the Volunteering Programme, providing long-term, continuous learning.

“So a local food service dropped me off lime, avocado, mango, couscous and mixed beans… thanks to Bags of Taste I can cook something with it… I wouldn’t ever of had a clue before but now I know just put the curry powder and ingredients in and pop ginger in it. I added raisins, garlic and onion, wow thank god for such great ideas!”