It’s probably not news to anybody in the UK that we are currently facing what the mainstream media have dubbed a ‘cost of living crisis’. Martin Lewis, the friendly, affable, politically inscrutable bloke that sends you 2 for 1 pizza deals and tips about how to get the most out of your credit cards, is now nervously muttering about the country being on the cusp of civil unrest. A spokesperson for Energy Action dropped a bombshell in Parliament a few weeks ago that before the current crisis, 80 people a day were dying in cold, unheated homes up and down the country. There was barely a response from the assembled representatives, such is the prevalence of such shocking statistics nowadays. 4.1 million people in poverty. Three quarters of children in poverty living in a household where at least one adult works. 2 million foodbank parcels handed out in a year from one provider alone. The independent ones that I speak to estimate that they would triple that figure, which would make it one in ten people in the UK having received a foodbank parcel in the last twelve months alone. One in ten. I remember when half a million made front page news. Now, barely a column inch, barely a cricket. The ever-growing shameful roster of the names of the dead gets hastily edited out of any articles I write, newspapers legal teams frit and reproachful despite multiple coroners reports confirming that yes, these people are dead due to the deliberate, designer cruelty of the state.
Half of food bank users are in debt to the DWP, whether through Universal Credit ‘advance payments’, Council Tax debt, or other deliberately cruel, inherited fuck-ups that weren’t theirs to shoulder in the first place. When asked why the Government don’t simply pay Universal Credit claimants their first payment instead of making them take it out as a loan in order to bridge the inbuilt, deliberately designed, minimum 5 week delay between applying for welfare and receiving any kind of assistance, one representative from a centrist think-tank looked me dead in the eye and blinked, as though I were incomprehensibly stupid. ‘The Treasury benefits from that delay. Financially, I mean. Why would they change it?’ And there you have it. The Treasury benefits. The same Treasury headed up by a man more interested in demanding an inquiry into who let the £20million cat out of the bag about his wife’s dodgy tax arrangements, rather than reflect on how many ‘£20 a week Universal Credit uplift payments’ the Treasury could have continued to pay with that selfsame £20million.
But anyway, I digress. The point is, it’s a whistle stop tour of penury and chaos on this hellscape island right now. Pensioners sitting in their winter coats with the heating turned off. Single mothers going to bed at 8pm when their children do, because there’s naff all to do in the cold and the dark on their own. (I did this ten years ago when my son was two, and it absolutely breaks my heart that a decade later, nothing has changed except the numbers of people living like this have increased exponentially.) Low-paid workers who stock the supermarket shelves relying on top-up benefits for their poverty wages in order to actually buy any of the produce that they’re handling, day in, day out. Teachers setting up food banks in their classrooms, and sneaking lunches to the children in their care. A mother in Hackney living in hazardous, mouldy, collapsing accommodation with her children for almost three years after her upstairs neighbours flat poured water through her ceiling, basically being told to shut up and put up with it. Nurses skipping meals to feed their kids. If you’re not already painting your placard and preparing to chain yourself to the railings outside Number 10 Downing Street – provided you can afford the train fare and some decent waterproofs and a bobble hat and to miss a couple of days off work – if you aren’t raging into the small hours of the morning at the flagrant injustice of Partygate superimposed on the backdrop of the food bank queues; if you aren’t reminding every mealy-mouthed Minister who bleats about ‘green shoots of economic recovery’ that those green shoots are fertilised by the bodies of the thousands who have lost their lives after cuts and failures and deliberate cruelty by the Department of Work and Pensions, what will it take to turn this stinking failure of a rotten ship around? Powered by the fumes of needless austerity ideology, the Titanic of our times, with the working classes held below deck to drown as the electorate drink taxpayer-funded champagne and dance with the taxpayer-funded band and laugh and laugh and laugh about it all, and ensure their taxpayer-funded £60k a year vanity photographer is on hand to capture their best angles at all times.
I get it, it’s exhausting. This shit-by-degrees, the chipping away at the threads of what was once a halfway decent social safety net. The cold, the hopelessness, the hunger, the shame, the gaslighting, the lies, the ‘compassionate Conservatism’ that’s anything but, the stealthy shift of responsibility from the Government to the voluntary sector to try to catch people as they fall, the sugarcoated ‘neighbourhood collection points’ in the supermarkets that their own staff eye up at the end of their shift, wondering which of the donated goods will end up in their food bank parcel that week.
Meanwhile, the supermarkets boast record profits for their shareholders; profits that would eclipse the top-up benefits their staff need to supplement their poverty-line wages. Read that again: the supermarkets could increase the hourly pay of every single member of staff to a baseline that would mean they wouldn’t need to apply for supplementary support, and they would STILL turn over millions of pounds in profit for their own pockets. But what should we expect, when the head of Tesco, John Allan, bleats that £2,500,000,000 just isn’t enough for him. Oh, diddums. (Don’t click that link if you have high blood pressure or are in polite company, it’ll make you hella mad.) How do we expect a man paid a salary of around £5million to really comprehend the split-second humiliating choice at the checkout about what to put back because the till has rung in a total that was at odds with the carefully-noted down prices on the shelf edge labels? How is a £250,000 newspaper column mere ‘chicken feed’ to the Prime Minister, yet £20 a week for groceries is deemed more than sufficient for those he allegedly represents? And among it all, the underpinning tuneless refrain from the white-wing choir of gurning contrarians: the dismissive retort about how cheap it is to just buy a bag of pasta! Magic pasta, the weapon of choice in the last twelve years of state-sanctioned hunger and despair.
Enter Kevin, a 35 year old self-described ‘Opinionated Conservative’, Brexiteer, Boris bootlicker and curator of the most rotten casserole of pigshit I’ve ever had the misfortune to come across on The Twitter. Yesterday, he posted a link to a BBC News article about a nurse who skipped meals in order to feed her kids. Luckily for Nurse Rebecca, Opinionated Kevin had a really simple solution! One so devastatingly obvious, I’m astounded that she didn’t think of it herself. He said:
“You can buy a big bag of dried pasta, that would feed a family, for about £0.50p… . If you shop and cook properly, you can eat healthy meals really cheaply. I would love to see how she spends her salary…”
There’s a lot going on here, and this is getting fairly lengthy as it is, so I’ll skim over with the lightest of slaps the creepy insistence that white-wingers have about ‘checking how The Poors are spending their pennies’, the non-specific size of this mythical family he’s demanding share a bag of dried pasta for an indeterminate period of time to solve all of the problems he hasn’t a clue about, and the fact that a man child whose Instagram account is covered in boastful photos of Maccy Ds and Blossom Hill White Zinfandel isn’t exactly in a position to be dispensing financial and dietary advice, and just focus on the Magic Pasta.
For a start, and this really bothers me, whenever these sorts wang on about the cost of cheap food, they never, ever, ever actually get the price right. It’s a two second job guys, but the Magic Pasta isn’t 50p. The cheapest spaghetti at the Big Four is 20p/500g at Tesco, 70p/500g at Asda, 40p/1kg at Sainsburys, and 75p/500g at Morrisons. The cheapest pasta shapes are 29p/500g at Tesco, 29p/500g at Asda, 70p for 500g at Sainsburys, and 60p for 250g at Morrisons. And if you happen to be unlucky enough to be contending with food intolerances on your breadline, your cheapest options are £1/500g at Tesco, 70p/500g at Asda, £1.20/500g at Sainsburys, and 85p/500g at Morrisons. This seems like I’m labouring the point, I know, I’m autistic and the prices of everyday groceries is literally my job. But there is no 50p pasta.
But it’s not about the pasta, Kevin. And we both know that really. Its about the ghoulish, dogged insistence that the Better-Off repeat, day in, day out, that they would be better at being poor than actual poor people would be. That they, with their Blossom Hill White Zinfandel aspirations and pompous declarations on their rancid social media trash fires, could do this shit with their eyes closed. So I threw a gauntlet down to Young Kevin, and challenged him to put his bone-dry pasta quite literally where his mouth is, for five days straight.
A 500g bag of budget pasta is, as we established, 29p. That’s 5 meals there of 100g of plain pasta, with no butter, no salt, no sauce, and no nutrition, and a whole 147 calories per gruesome meal. That’s only 441 calories per day, but hey, it’s not as though nursing is a physically demanding job that requires you to be on your feet all day every day and night, working shifts, is it? (Note, this is sarcasm. My mother was a nurse.) Operating at a calorie intake lower than half that of the guidelines for Auschwitz prisoners is apparently perfectly sustainable according to the Magic Pasta Brigade. So I have a challenge for them all. Walk to your local Asda or Tesco and pick up three packets of Magic Pasta for just under a quid. That’s 15 meals, apparently. Eat nothing but 3 meals each consisting of 100g of plain pasta for five days straight. Nothing else. No salt in the cooking water. No butter. No oil. No pepper. No sauces. No proteins. No vegetables or fruits. No snacks. No Mcdonalds. No wine. No other meals. Nothing in the storecupboard. No help. No cheating. No tea. No coffee. No squash. No energy drinks. Just five straight days of this Magic Pasta that you all trumpet as the answer to everything. And come back to me five days later, when you’re skinnier but somehow also horribly bloated, when you’re exhausted, when your brain is foggy from the lack of calories and nutrition, and your sleep is all over the place, and you’re going to bed earlier and waking up starving and shattered to your bones, when your skin is breaking out in spots, and you can’t seem to stay warm, and your mental health has taken an absolute nosedive because of the monotony of your pitiful existence and the lack of variation, flavour, texture, social eating opportunities, and any ounce of joy that you had five days previously feels like a distant fever dream and you haven’t had a decent shit in what feels like forever.
And if they don’t have the 29p pasta in your local supermarket, well I’m afraid you have to suck it up, buttercup, and get just one miserable bag of the 70p stuff. Which puts you at one meal a day, but that’s the reality of the choice that’s not a choice at all for people on the breadline in Britain. Can’t just get in the Range Rover and tootle off to the next shop to see if they have a bargain, sorry.
And as fun as it would be to witness the 50ps dropping should any single bleating bore actually take this on, it barely even scratches a fraction of the surface of the realities of living in poverty. Eating some pasta to score points on Twitter over a gobshite leftwing campaigning cook, but doing it with a deadline, knowing that at the end of it you can return to your store cupboard that runneth over and clicking your fingers at service staff and drinking your shit wine alone on Instagram, won’t give you much of an insight. Serving it up in your John Lewis bowls in a house you own, with the heating on, and no worries about the electric meter gobbling up your last few pennies of the emergency credit, with no growing sporty teenagers to feed, no cracked school shoes to replace, no bitten-back cry at the winter coat left in school yet again or another lost PE kit, isn’t anyones reality. If you’re not pilfering free newspapers from the train station at 6am to fold up inside a sock to use on your period so you don’t ruin yet another pair of pants and jeans you can’t afford to replace, and the cheap detergent just doesn’t get the bloodstains out and I can tell you that from bitter experience, you’re just skimming the surface. The thing about poverty – true, everyday, mundane, survivalist, poverty – is the sheer dragging endlessness of it all. The not knowing when or if it will ever end, the self-condemnation to a life clinging to the periphery of nothingness by your bitten-down fingernails, the exhaustion of micromanaging every last eventuality in a vain attempt to mitigate the inevitable monotony of every day being a little bit worse than the day before. You can’t replicate the encroaching weight of your brittling bones, or the slowly turned-up volume of the voice in your head that tells you you’re a burden, a drain, a nothing, the seductive whisper of the void where your hopes and dreams and plans used to be. Ten years on from my own experiences of it, and the void is never far away. An unexpected knock on the door, an agony in my bones from the temperature dropping overnight, the skittish lack of any kind of self confidence, the automatic apology for existing in the first place. There’s not a recipe for filling that hole; believe me, I’ve tried. But sure, wield your Magic Pasta if it makes you feel better, being so utterly, heartlessly, knowingly and insistently absolutely wrong.
Because my god, I wish it were that easy. I wish just one other person out there in the real world could help take some of the weight off my shoulders here. As a person who has been at the frontline of trying to help tackle food poverty in practical ways for the last ten years, as someone who works 100+ mostly unpaid hours a week cobbling together meal plans for strangers on the internet who have a crumpled fiver and a nearly-empty cupboard and ten days til payday, I could do with the backup. I’m absolutely ground down to my bones with the sheer volume of desperate calls for help I receive on a daily basis and I’m just one person on a freelance writers income, not a charity, not an organisation, no team, no staff, nobody to cry with or lean on or tug me gently away from my inbox at 5am again. If it were really that simple, I’d be obsolete, yomping around the Kyrenian mountain region of Cyprus writing a coffee table hardback cookbook about the food of my ancestors and running with goats and picking lemons in the sunshine. The doors of the food banks would close with a triumphant bang, and believe me they really really want to be able to do that, one day. I work closely with the Trussell Trust and on our last conference call they were united and vehemently clear in their mission to put themselves out of business by working towards a day where their services were no longer required, let alone acting as the supporting structure of our rapidly disintegrating communities.
Please, god, all those sitting in your comfy Instagram lives congratulating yourselves at your clever solutions and terribly-cobbled falsely-priced ‘recipes’, go get your pasta, do your five days, and come back to me and let me know how you get on. Otherwise sit your well-fed arses down and let those of us who are actually trying to do something, get on with it without having to waste time educating you about the price of pasta and the cost of poverty on the internet. And maybe when your five cosplay pretend-poor days are up, you can donate the difference in your regular food shop, to your local food bank. Minus the Maccy Ds and the White Zinfandel; they really don’t want that utter nonsense when believe you me, they’d spend your cash far more wisely than you seem to be able to.
All text copyright Jack Monroe, not to be reproduced without the explicit written permission of the author.
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