South Yorkshire councillors live on £1.75 daily food budget as part of Make Hunger History campaign
Envy is a feeling I don’t encounter often, but it hit me hard one Monday morning while I was in line for the checkout at the local Tesco.
Usually I’d have a quick trolley dash around the supermarket, making sure i had basics like pasta and bread in the cupboards before I set off, and loosely planning the week’s menu.
This time it was different – I’d organised a challenge to live on £1.75 of food per day, which a number of Rotherham Labour Councillors had signed up to.
On this particular Monday, I took much longer in the supermarket than usual, phone calculator in hand to add everything up as I went, trying not to linger too long over the branded cereal or juicy strawberries.
With my basket of loose veg and value carbs, the amount looked pitiful for five days. Without herbs and spices it looked beige and bland.
I’m a nosy person by nature, so I’ll usually have a peek in people’s trolleys as they pass, to see if they’ve picked up something tasty or new that i’ve missed.
This time, as the lady in front of me unloaded her trolley of goodies, it really hit me. There would be no snacks – no biscuits to see me through council meetings, no coffee to help me function, and no bananas for a 3pm energy boost.
The conveyor belt carrying her weekly shop really hit home that food isn’t just a necessity, we eat to socialise, to experience new tastes, to catch up with family after a long day of work, and a million other reasons.
I wanted to take on this challenge as part of the Make Hunger History Campaign, because if I am writing about how we can help those struggling on tight food budgets, the least I should do is stick to a skimpy budget myself.
After being told by a registered dietitian that it would be “extremely hard” to get all the nutrients needed to function on £1 a day, she suggested a budget of £1.75 a day may provide more balanced meals.
Because I didn’t fancy keeling over – or being responsible for councillors feeling ill – I agreed to the £1.75 a day budget, and got in touch with registered nutritionist Natasha Gilbody, who drew up a menu as varied and nutritious as possible.
I must confess I found it pretty hard to stick to, and I did cave and drink coffee again by the Wednesday because the caffeine headaches were debilitating – I really wasn’t expecting going cold-turkey on caffeine to make me feel so rubbish.
The food filled me up and tasted fine, and I wasn’t physically hungry, but I became frustrated and bored with the lack of choice. I just wanted a biscuit or a banana on a whim, instead of every meal being planned with military precision.
Mealtimes became monotonous and dull by day three. Eating was a chore.
I wasn’t looking up interesting new recipes or trying out a different way of cooking something like I usually enjoy, just eating the same foods to feel full.
Reflecting on the week, I feel angry. Even though I am very privileged to have a choice in what and how much I eat, this isn’t the case for the 16 per cent of adults across England, Wales and Northern Ireland who are food insecure.
Being given a foodbank parcel with little choice in the matter, and having to come up with meals from the contents must be demoralising and demeaning, and get old very quickly.
I didn’t want the challenge to simulate extreme poverty, rather just open our eyes to how privileged we are to see food as anything but a necessity for survival.
Often food banks prepare parcels for people whose choices are limited due to an inability to pay for energy, containing food that can be heated using only a kettle, or eaten cold.
This challenge has really made me reconsider what I pop in the food bank donation trolley at the supermarket. I think about what I missed the most – coffee, juice, snacks – and try and put in a couple of “non essential” treats – because they do become essential to you when they’re no longer in grasp.
This is what the councillors in Rotherham made of the experience
Councillor Robert Taylor, Labour councillor for Holderness followed his own meal plan for five days.
This was his experience: “Overall I’ve found it very challenging. First few days I felt a bit hungry, lethargic and irritable but, settled down a bit as I got used to limited choice and smaller portions.
The shopping was really difficult, firstly, even given the suggested shopping list, to shop to budget took a lot of mental arithmetic and time. I wandered around twice as long as normally picking stuff up then putting it back because it broke the bank.
“When I reached the checkout what struck me was my trolley was sparsely occupied with stuff with white packaging and home printer style cartoon representations of what was inside. Either side on the conveyor belt was brightly coloured goods decorated with words like specially selected, very best whilst my bland products said things like saver and budget.
“Even though I was only ‘playing at it’ my shopping said I was skint and I felt embarrassed, a bit ashamed and angry that shops make the situation even worse with discriminatory packaging, in order to push the higher priced goods.
“It took some real planning and lots of Tupperware to ensure I squeezed the last drop out of everything I bought. To make sure my diet was balanced with fruit/veg, protein, carbs again was like planning a major exercise, hard enough for one but to do that every single day for a family must be incredibly hard. I eat a lot of fish and fresh veg because I enjoy it and its good for me but I simply couldn’t afford it. Eating became functional, there wasn’t any relation at all to theatricals the arty luvvies do on the many cooking programmes we’re bombarded with on tv.
“So ultimately I did it but I don’t feel any sense of achievement, just frustration. I had a conversation with someone who said ‘well I’m sorry, they’re moaning about food poverty but they can afford mobile phones, designer trainers and botox’ I must admit I am constantly bemused at what today’s society holds precious but it’s a society we collectively, not children, have created and we can correct it. Eradicating child poverty is not only an excellent place to start, it is essential we do it.”
Labour Councillor Gordon Watson, deputy leader of the council, also followed his own meal plan, and tried to keep his meals as close to his usual diet as possible, even if that meant watering down milk.
He said: “As I try to keep my carbon footprint down I use oat milk to make my porridge – but as this is more expensive than cow’s milk I had to use half water. I usually also have a fresh orange and either a pear or grapes with my breakfast – I could only afford ¼ tin of fruit.
“Pasta sauces and chilli were possible as I do not really eat meat, but as I am concerned about animal welfare I only buy organic eggs and so could only afford to have one when the food list suggested two.
“I worked out that my instant coffee costs 6p a cup and the lemon and ginger tea I drink 8.5p a cup, so I could only afford 1 of each a day.
“On the Wednesday I was out nearly all day delivering election materials and the lack of any money to buy food ‘on the hoof’ made me feel quite rough by the end of the day.
“The difficulty for me would be the monotony. Also I am lucky enough to have a well equipped kitchen to cook in, which makes it possible to prepare the dishes.
“Long term the lack of any sort of treats must be awful.
“It confirmed to me that benefits are nowhere near high enough in this country (lowest in Western Europe) and that I have been lucky in life that I have always been in work.
“Also it is difficult to have principles and not be well off – over the long term would I start to buy cheap eggs and milk and have no/less regard for animal welfare?”
Councillor Wendy Cooksey, who represents the Rotherham East ward, said that although following the challenge for five days was a novelty, it must be difficult to follow every day.
She added: “Many of the staples you can buy with a limited amount of money are about ‘bulk’ rather than quality.
“For example, pasta can be bought cheaply but not the whole meal variety which is healthier. The diet is also monotonous with no extras or treats which add to the quality of life.
“I think the main challenge is trying to be inventive on a low budget.
I missed crisps, coffee and wine. By the end of it I was looking forward to more variety.”
Councillor Sue Ellis, who represents the Wickersley ward, said the challenge was “sobering and thought provoking.”
She added: “I really missed fruit and meat and found I was eating bread everyday as part of a meal or to be more precise something on toast.
“I also missed crunchy things and everything seemed very bland as the ingredients that are tasty are invariable expensive , or herbs and spices just add to the cost.
“The only time I felt I was eating a proper meal was when I bought liver and had it with veg , potatoes and gravy, so I had it twice in five days.
I” did go shopping ,for the liver and vegetables . This was not a good experience , seeing all the things I could not have .
“The veg was limited to the three for £1 – so no choice . It was the really sunny day and all I could think of was eating an ice cream but this was absolutely impossible for two reasons -cost and supermarkets only sell them in less than fours or the more expensive ones in threes.
“I did think of shopping in a discount shop but I would have needed to get on a bus or use my car.I thought that if I was unable to afford and ice cream I certainly wouldn’t have a car or the bus fare .
“Planning the meals did take time and effort and although I ate a lot from my pantry, costing and weighing as I went, I realized how I usually bought a lot of things in bulk to bring the price down . Again this would not be option as when would I be able to afford £8 on a big bag of tea .
“I really looked forward to the end and wen straight out and bought a load of fruit and was extremely grateful that I could
“All in all ,a very sobering and thought provoking five days.”