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Eating for £2 a day – part one

1 Jul

A few days ago I posted a semi-coherent rant, provoked by the UK government’s dismembering of the welfare state and by reading tales of people in work (the ticket to self-improvement, according to ministers) yet struggling to eat well.

Off the back of this, I’m penning some posts looking at how far you can get on £2 per head, per day – that’s a few pence more than enjoyed by UK prisoners, or a few pence less than the minimum NHS hospitals lavish on patients. It also roughly equates to the ‘Feed your family for £50’ campaign run by Sainsbury’s – recently shelved over concerns it was misleading shoppers.

I’m not trying to demonstrate the bare minimum you can part with to keep from starvation, but rather some routes to eating cheap things that also taste good and aren’t bad for you.

I spent £25.20 at a supermarket on a week’s eating for two adults. An additional £2 went to a greengrocer, one of my meals uses £1.50’s worth of chicken that was in my freezer – and I had some cupboard items in: oil, rice, lentils, spices and soy sauce.

Against that, I’ll have cheese, bacon, onions and potatoes to carry over into the next week – and a couple of items, including that bacon, would normally have been cheaper but were replaced by pricier versions owing to what was in stock. All in all I may be running fractionally over my £28 budget, but if so it’s by pence.

I’m not going to exhaustively detail everything I’m eating this week – you can take it as read it’ll be toast breakfasts and leftovers or sandwiches in the middle of the day. But everything I’m including, I still tuck into regularly now I’ve hit the dizzy heights of £3 per head, per day.

My point, and the original reason I set up this blog, is that you can dine pretty well for a small amount of cash. But it takes planning, and pence saved on a given week needs ploughing into stuff that sits in the cupboard like salt, rice, spices and oil.

Given the coalition government’s fondness for using Channel 4 presenters to burnish its caring credentials – and the unlikelihood of low-income households becoming better off while it is in power – maybe it could extend my exercise via an information campaign. It sounds an ideal challenge for former face-of-Sainsburys Jamie Oliver.

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A diet for the breadline?

25 Jun

Over the past seven days the Guardian has run a number of articles on what it terms Breadline Britain, highlighting people struggling by, and in many cases working hard to do so, in a condition one slip away from being unable to make ends meet.

Giving the lie to the pernicious myth – ably assisted in recent times by Iain Duncan Smith – that the poor are scroungers who should try a bit harder if they want to do better for themselves, the series struck a chord with me.

Closer to the trapdoor

During the six years I worked in social housing, I read hundreds of homeless case files of people seeking a council property. Many of the neediest had been dealt a heartbreakingly shitty hand from the outset – and yes, a proportion were trying to chisel the system.

But it was always striking to see instances where a divorce, debt problems or simple misfortune had ripped the rug out from under seemingly settled lives. For many, the ongoing erosion of the UK’s welfare safety-net is bringing these kinds of scenarios nearer.

I got a milder taste of austerity after coming to Bristol last summer, thousands in debt after retraining, to start a £15,000 entry-level journalism job. On my second day I learned my team was being axed and that redundancy was imminent; my girlfriend, who moved with me, was unable to find full-time work.

We turned the situation around thanks to luck – and the privilege of having qualifications, job experience and families seemingly desperate to part with the odd tenner. But I can confirm that watching rent and bills swallow three quarters of earnings while interest on money owed ticks upwards is a bit stressful.

Eating happier

During those months, having something decent for tea was about as exciting as life got. So I was unsurprised that some of the case studies in the Breadline Britain series vented frustrations that they couldn’t manage to eat healthily.

But interestingly, next to the tales of hardship was a report on prison food, costing £1.87 a day for each adult, which hinged on the argument that good food could be prepared from fresh for “a fraction of the cost” of foodstuffs “in a packet or a tin” – and had a pronounced impact on self esteem.

Drawing a comparison between incarceration and working poverty would be glib, and stupid on a number of levels, but that £1.87 figure – the cost of four chocolate bars, and less than the minimum daily patient spend in NHS hospitals – got me thinking about how far I’d be able to cut things back, while still actually enjoying eating.

So later this week I’ll be devoting a few posts to exploring what you can do for £2 a day; it’s the kind of thing this blog was originally intended for.

A food poverty trap?

19 Dec


Interesting Guardian article by Zoe Williams this week, framing the links between poverty, bad eating and poor health as a consequence of economics, not just education.

It riffs on a lighthearted piece at the Student Beans website about cooking a cheap and cheerful/nasty Christmas dinner out of processed food, making the point that if a site was discussing hard-up people other than studes (“the acceptable face of poverty”) doing the same, the tone would be pretty different.

I wrote a list two weeks ago about some of the independent retailers I’ve found to buy good food for relatively little cash since moving to Bristol. Having the choice to shop at these places is down to a couple of factors:

  • Living in the inner city, close to the intersections of many different areas. On one side is a main road packed with independent supermarkets catering to local BME communities; on the other a neighbourhood heavily populated by relatively affluent hippies and their brethren in which local food shops are a given.
  • Being young and mobile enough to get to these different places by bike and therefore shop cheaply – or do the same at a big supermarket – meaning the lack of a car isn’t an issue.

In north Sheffield, where I worked for five years, many outlying areas where money is tightest and car ownership lowest have fewest amenities – so least choice – within easy walking distance. This pattern is typical of many parts of the UK, especially in today’s chilly financial climate.

Education about eating well is clearly important – it’s grim as hell meeting kids barely able to identify a vegetable or a piece of meat. But if keeping your family fed is manageable from your local cut-price freezer centre, and a struggle from the expensive supermarket franchise next door, then putting that theory into practice isn’t necessarily straightforward.

Bristol independents: the no-Tesco challenge

29 Nov

Stokes Croft Tesco has been back in the news in the last week, owing to a petition calling for an inquiry into police handling of disturbances around the shop when it opened in April. This prompted me to get round to writing this post, which I’d been intending to do for ages.


I followed the No Tesco saga in the national news prior to moving to Bristol. I agree with protestors that Express-style supermarket franchises tend to be cash-vampires of the worst kind, flogging price-inflated branded goods and fruit/veg in individual eco-hating “plastic prisons” (© Tom James).

And yes, 40 outlets in one city smacks of a greedy monopoly. It’s encouraging that passing by the shop gives the impression residents are indeed voting with their wallets: it always looks pretty empty.

From the tone of some of the rhetoric at the time, though, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Stokes Croft is hiving with independent food marts, waiting to be cut down in their prime by the unwelcome agent of capitalism.

Not so (at least not at the moment*) – a quick walk from town to the junction of Ashley Road reveals plenty for those seeking pubs, cafes and massage parlours, and a few small outlets selling some groceries, but nowhere to buy a weekly shop.

Viable alternatives

After taking a flat in St Pauls – a stone’s throw from Stokes Croft – I wondered where, if you were working longish hours, on a moderate budget (£35 per week for two people in my case), and without a car, you could shop while avoiding a journey by bus or bike to a larger store such as the Tesco at Eastville.

Anti-supermarket diatribes frequently duck the issue of whether most people have the time or money to make using the alternatives viable (to be fair, the No Tesco blog did conduct a price comparison, but this only listed a few basics).

But after a couple of months here, I reckon all the shops on the list below are well worthy of support – if you’re reading this then I’d be interested to hear other recommendations, especially if you live elsewhere in the city.

I may be stating the bleeding obvious to longer-term residents of Bristol, but a visit to most of them is possible in a similar time – and at an equivalent cost – as a trip to a large supermarket.

  • Gardners Patch, 159 Gloucester Road: Ace greengrocers stocking well-priced, mostly UK produce including harder-to-find ingredients such as artichokes and pak choi.
  • Bristanbul, 137 Gloucester Road: Turkish bakery and patisserie selling gigantic flatbreads that you can live off for days – at 79p a pop.
  • The Breadstore, 45 Gloucester Road: Delicious English loaves at little more than supermarket prices.
  • Licata & Son, 36 Picton Street: When I saw this Italian deli and importers, I said something sneery about it looking like a nice place to shop if you’re minted. Then I went inside and realised you could get most of your canned and dry goods – plus cheese and cured meats – at megastore-comparable prices.
  • Grosvenor Supermarket, 102-104 Grosvenor Road: My local convenience store, stocking a decent range of fresh and store-cupboard food. Worth a visit just for the range of hot pepper sauces.
  • Malik’s, 24 Stapleton Road: A strong range of exotic (and not so exotic) veg, fresh herbs, pulses and spices. Open late and friendly staff – and thanks to their second business selling beauty products, you can now browse their products online.

*This situation could well be set to change in the near future, if the planned Stokes Croft People’s Supermarket manages to get off the ground. I’m aiming to be writing more on this some time soon.

Grosvenor Supermarket stocks a dangerously wide range of hot sauce

Style over substance: Bristol’s best restaurants?

10 Oct

As a relative newcomer to Bristol, and a massive food-lover just about finding my feet financially, I was pleased to find a Google alert titled Top 10 restaurants in Bristol pinging into my inbox a few days ago.

I didn’t expect revelations from the Bristol Evening Post piece. However, soon after noticing that the article was actually subtitled ‘Top 10 places to dine in style’ I realised I was going to get very little in the way of enlightenment.

Pointing out at that some of a city’s restaurants occupy amazing buildings is a good idea, but what purpose does it serve if discussion of the actual food served goes no further than “has won numerous awards” or “offers a seafood menu”?

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been lured into eating somewhere because of its location, interior or menu – only to be hugely disappointed by what arrives on my plate.

I love interesting architecture and good design, but somewhere selling food should stand or fall on that basis – everything else is secondary.

The place I’ve eaten more than anywhere else in my adult life is Zeugma in Sheffield. The key visual treat of a trip to this nondescript shopfront is watching a middle-aged bloke turning skewers with an expression of Zen-like calm on his face (seemingly weathered by a working life lived within centimetres of a glowing charcoal grill).

All filler, all killer: Sheffield's Zeugma consistently delivers the goods (photo courtesy of Nigel Barker).


All this is neither here nor there because the food has been consistently excellent since Zeugma opened over five years ago – so much so that the owners had to fit out a second branch a few metres down the road because the original was too busy.

Anyway, I digress – if anyone would like to offer suggestions as to where the best actual food in Bristol can be found, comment below, drop me an email or tweet at me. Might even give me some other things to rant about, down the line.