Speaking to the Families at the Centre of Britain's Hunger Crisis

“I can't adequately describe how soul-destroying it just to fall and fall and know that there is no chance that you're going to get out of it.”
March 14, 2019, 8:54am
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Photo via Adobe Stock. Composite by MUNCHIES Staff.

For Kathleen Kerridge, rock bottom came gradually. At first, it was only small changes. She switched to supermarket own-brand tea bags and stopped buying pudding. Sometimes, the portions she and her husband ate at dinner would be smaller than their children’s. This way, Kerridge reasoned, her family could manage with the cut to their child tax credits and the rent increase on their home in Portsmouth.

But soon enough, the stark reality of not being able to afford food caught up with her.

“It whittled down so slowly, that you don't realise it's happening at first,” Kerridge tells me when I speak to her over the phone. “It carries on and on and on down the line, until you are subsisting on chickpeas, tinned tomatoes, and some rice.”

The UK has one of the largest economies in the world, so why are an estimated 8 million people like Kerridge struggling to feed themselves and their families? It seems illogical—until you look at the last nine years of austerity-focused Conservative rule. Brutal cuts to welfare services have left those on low incomes, in particular women and disabled people, worse off than ever before. Add to this rising rents, wages failing to grow with inflation, plus the widely condemned new benefit system, Universal Credit, and the reason for the disparity between Britain's wealth and some of its most impoverished citizens becomes depressingly clear. Indeed, food bank use has increased by 52 percent in areas where Universal Credit has been rolled out.

However, not everyone agrees on the source, or even the scale, of Britain’s hunger problem. Earlier this month, the Department for Work and Pensions announced that it would be launching a national hunger survey to measure food insecurity in Britain, launching this April as part of its annual Family Resources Report. Twenty additional questions will be added to the yearly survey, which is sent to 20,000 households around the country, in an attempt to provide an official measure of how many people are forced to skip meals or go hungry. Results are set to be released publicly in March 2021, and come after years of ministers refusing calls to collect data on the problem.

Kerridge's struggle with food insecurity started in 2009, when her husband was made redundant. At the same time, their landlord went bankrupt, forcing the family to leave their home and move to more expensive accommodation. Tory austerity cuts meant that any safety net she would have had became almost negligible, with child support credit cut from £132 a week to just £52 a week.

“We lost everything,” Kerridge explains. “It was literally the case of having literally the same outputs as we had before, on maybe 25 percent of the income.”

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Kathleen Kerridge, one of the estimated 8 million people in Britain to have struggled with food insecurity. Photo courtesy Kathleen Kerridge.

“It was a nightmare,” she continues. “Even as a writer, I can't adequately describe how soul-destroying it just to fall and fall and know that there is no chance that you're going to get out of it. That's it: you're stuck.”

The financial difficulties affected Kerridge in all aspects of life—including her physical and mental health—and food was a consistent problem: “You grow to hate food. You hate it. You hate buying it. You hate having to shop for it. You resent the money it costs, knowing that you've got no choice but to buy it.”

Although Kerridge knew how to cook healthy meals for her kids, money was so tight that she often had no choice but to buy processed foods.

“A lot of my favourites, which I wouldn't eat now if you paid me, were things like sweet potato and butternut squash tagine,” she says. “[But] I can't think of the other stuff that was healthy, because unfortunately, you do end up raiding Iceland. They're mainly bread and rusk, but you can pick up 40 frozen sausages for £2. You get very little meat, and a hell of a lot of filler, but it stops you being hungry, and that's all that you care about.”

Today, we are far more likely to die from health issues associated with excess consumption of sugar, salt, and fat—as found in takeaways or cheap snacks—rather than lack of food. This means that food insecurity often comes with dangerous health issues. But for many on a tight budget, low-nutrient meals are the only option: sausages bulked out with water and potato starch, giant bags of nuggets from the freezer aisle, a five-piece chicken and chips for £2.40. Some may also live in “food deserts,” places where fresh fruit and vegetables are hard to access, and public transport is too expensive or physically difficult to access.

And yet, there is still a stigma attached to takeaways and processed foods—even for those who are battling to feed themselves. Some of the people I spoke to were reluctant to even admit that they ate these meals, despite only having £60 a week to live off.

"I work, I'm not on benefits, I'm just a single mum. I look after me and my daughter. I didn't think of myself as the kind of person who would have to go to a food bank. It just made me want to cry.”

Food insecurity isn’t limited to those who claim child tax credits or unemployment benefits. Kate Black, who lives in East London, struggled to afford food for herself and her daughter after an administrative error at her retail job meant she was denied a day’s wage. Despite having a university degree—something she had always been told would safeguard her from food poverty—and following a strict budget, Black had to rely on a “too good to waste” box from budget supermarket Lidl for a month. The box contains vegetables past their sell-by date and is sold at a reduced price.

“When I went to get the box, [a member of the supermarket staff] looked at me and said, ‘Oh, do you just want an empty box?’ and I said, ‘No, I want the cheap veg boxes,’” explains Black. “And the guy looked at me with pity in his eyes.”

“I just felt so ashamed,” she continues. “Because I work, I'm not on benefits, I'm just a single mum. I look after me and my daughter. I didn't think of myself as the kind of person who would have to go to a food bank, and this kind of felt one step up from a food bank. It just made me want to cry.”

In a country as affluent as ours, no one should struggle to eat. But Black feels that many don't realise how widespread the hunger crisis is—it can impact anyone, not just those who use benefits.

“You see stories about people going to food banks, and you think, ‘Oh, they must be people who are waiting for Universal Credit or whose benefits haven't gone through,’” she says. “You don't think that regular people who go to work every day have those problems.”

Despite the difficulty of living with food poverty, Black has managed to maintain a healthy diet, thanks in part to Bags of Taste, a charity that gives lessons on how to cook nutrient-rich meals for under £1 a portion.

“I live on a very, very tight budget and it's like that every week,” Black says. “I do bulk cooking. I go to different shops and supermarkets to get different things because they're cheaper. I do lots of things with lentils, lots of things with chickpeas—things I never used to eat before, because I have to when everything else goes up except wages.”

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Volunteers at a Bags of Taste cookery demonstration in South London. The charity runs free lessons on creating simple, healthy meals for less than £1 a portion.

Not everyone has the knowledge or resources that Black has been able to access through Bags of Taste. Linda Green, who lives in North London, struggled five years ago after she and her husband lost their jobs simultaneously.

“I've got four kids, they're grown up now but there have been a few times where I've gone hungry so they can eat, because we were both unemployed,” Green says.

Luckily for the family, Green’s husband was able to find a job a few weeks later. During that period of unemployment, however, the family were denied council tax relief or housing benefits and Green struggled to feed herself and her four children, let alone think about healthy cooking.

“No matter how skint I was, the kids had school dinners,” she tells me. “In our worst times, it was the only hot meal they had, otherwise I made sure they had bread and made sandwiches, or just fed them egg and chips. I was always one of those people who go to supermarkets at the end of the day, and pick up cut-price stock.”

“It's painful thinking, ‘Either I eat or they eat,’ and it's always: they eat,” Green continues. “Because that's what you do.”

Inevitably, it was the cheaper, less-nutritious foods that were the easiest to provide for her family: “Instead of being able to cook enough for my kids and family, like a hot meal, it was just whatever's in the fridge. If it was something that was bad for you, like burger and chips, then so be it.”

“It was really bad,” Green adds, “and the effect on health and mental anguish was immense.”

The Department of Work and Pensions’ survey hopes to create a standardised measure of the food insecurity Green and millions of others like her have faced. But will it help to solve anything? Lindsay Boswell, CEO of food poverty charity FareShare, thinks so.

“Around eight million people don’t have reliable access to nutritious, affordable food, and one in five children grows up in a household where food is scarce,” he tells MUNCHIES over email. “A recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates half of children in lone-parent families in the UK live in poverty, and that ‘in work’ poverty affects more than four million people.”

Boswell believes that the survey will act as a start to solving Britain’s food insecurity: “We don’t believe that anyone should be in a situation where they’re unable to afford food,” he says. “Measuring the scale of the problem is a vital first step in tackling it. “

Kerridge agrees.

“You can't fix something until you've got a measure of the problem,” she tells me. “Until that happens, everyone could shout as loud as they like but there's no data on it.”

She pauses, excitement in her voice. “It's going to make so much difference.”