The first learning is that you don’t have to go hungry on £2.50 a day.
It is remarkable what you can buy with a £12.50 weekly budget – a kilo of sweet potatoes for £1, a crown of broccoli for 50p, a block of cheddar for £1.50 - all a testament to the fact that there are few places in the world where the cost of food makes up a smaller proportion of average incomes. Food that has travelled the world, gone through elaborate processes from farm to shelf can be bought in abundance for less than the cost of my morning tube journey.
So it’s possible to have enough food, but to eat a balanced diet takes time, energy and thought, which we found sapping for 5 days, let alone as an endless prospect. There is little room for spontaneity on the breadline: no casual idling on what you feel like eating tonight; no spur of the moment supermarket trips or instant gratification from tempting cafes. Instead with all the bulk bought vegetables and carbs it’s about finding creative ways of using the same combination of ingredients again and again, like a much less fun version of ready steady cook with no magic pantry. We spend more time making food we enjoy less – in large part due to our cooking skills but also because we didn’t really choose what we’re eating. Our decisions were shaped by the boundaries of what we could afford.
Secondly we learnt that it takes willpower to be on the breadline and that that can be a finite resource! We found that all that planning and decision making in what we ate and drank made us less disciplined in other parts of life: we exercised less than usual and did less day to day admin. These small things are probably a sign of our own lack of willpower but there’s weight to the idea that our ability to make balanced decisions isn’t limitless. Studies have shown that scarcity affects our decision making. For most of us it’s barely a decision of whether to buy a coffee, with no significant trade-offs, it’s merely a case of responding to a desire. When every financial decision you make is an exercise in prioritisation, each having a bearing on what else you can afford, there’s a toll, a growing weight on our self-will that’s hard to lift without the small pleasures most of us take for granted.
Thirdly we found that being on the breadline is excluding. Academically we knew this, much of our lives revolve around eating and drinking so it’s no surprise that being restricted in these things limits your life in other ways. What even a short 5 days tells you is that it’s more pervasive than you first think – walking into shops where you can only afford a small fraction of what’s on offer, avoiding other shops and situations completely starts to make you feel like an observer of life rather than a participator.
Against this, what stood out as a highlight for us in the week was the nourishment we drew from human connection, be that chatting about our experience with colleagues or the kindness shown by a shopkeeper who gave away a free onion! You get a sense of this in the recent film “I, Daniel Blake” where the connections between the characters living on the breadline fuels their determination to overcome their challenges and retain their dignity.
This is why FoodCycle’s mission is just as much about relieving social isolation and strengthening communities over a dignified, hot meal as tackling food poverty itself.
One FoodCycle guest said of the weekly meals: “There are a lot of people who live on their own, and it’s nice to sit round a table, and have dinner, instead of sitting in all the time on your own with a TV dinner. The social thing, that’s what I’ve got out of it. There’s a lot of loyalty, once people get to know each other, like if you have a really crap week, there’s a lot of people with addictions in here, and housing problems and social problems, and if they talk about it over a table, it helps.”
Thank you FoodCycle for this awareness-raising campaign and keep up the brilliant work!