More and more frequently there seem to be stories on the news about how the cost of living is going up – prices of food and fuel are rising, and wages are not.
I’ve really noticed this over the last few months particularly. Our gas and electric bills are through the roof this winter – partly because of the especially cold weather, and partly because we’ve moved to a bigger house with lots of authentic Victorian features like holes in the floorboards – but mainly because energy companies are charging more and more.
I’ve also really noticed the cost of food rising. We don’t have a car, so every month I have an online supermarket delivery of lots of tinned basics like tomatoes, tuna and pulses, as well as washing powder, cleaning products etc. Then I shop for fresh fruit, veg, meat, fish and dairy on a weekly basis. That system has worked well for years, but recently I’ve noticed that where the monthly shop used to cost me around £120, it’s been creeping up and up, and hit £200 this month. Consequently, the money available to spend on fresh food is being squeezed.
One result of this is that we are eating more and more veggie food, or I am using pulses to bulk out meat – chilli con carne contains half the mince and double the kidney beans, for example. I’ve also managed to get my husband to express pleasure at a meal based on lentils, which is a bit of a first, with this simple but yummy recipe I got from Netmums.
So, it’s not the end of the world. In fact we’re probably that bit healthier for it. We’re not loaded, but we’re sufficiently comfortable that by cutting back a bit, and moving money around we can manage perfectly well. We’re certainly not in any danger of going hungry or cold, I don’t have to worry about whether I can feed my daughter. That makes us very lucky.
However, the increases in the cost of food and fuel, which I have noticed with irritation, are nothing short of disastrous for some families. My parents, and my brother and sister-in-law, all volunteer at food banks run by their local churches. The principle behind food banks is simple – members of the public donate food, the volunteers collect and store it, and vouchers are distributed amongst professionals such as GPs, health visitors, social workers and probation officers, which they can then give to families they see who can’t afford to eat. The food bank then provides them with an emergency parcel of food, which should be enough to keep them going for a week.
More and more often the families referred are going hungry because they have hungry electricity meters, and feeding both simply isn’t an option. Where there are vulnerable members of the household, the very young or the very old, then keeping reasonably warm takes priority over nutrition. But that isn’t sustainable, which is where food banks can be a lifeline.
There are extensive political debates to be had over the system for welfare and benefits, and this blog is not intended to get into those issues. I do find it hard to believe, though, that there are many parents who would let their children go hungry through laziness or inertia, it seems far more likely that they have simply been left with no choice. I also find it interesting that donations to food banks, in common, in fact, with most charitable giving, come disproportionately from the poorest people in the community. Perhaps they have a more acute sense of precariousness themselves, which unlocks the Aristotelian emotions of pity and fear.
There is a temptation to see this phenomenon as something awful, but which happens to ‘other’ people. But how many of us, really, are more than a couple of paychecks from that foodbank queue?
If you lost your job tomorrow, and struggled to get another one, how easily would you be able to feed and clothe your family, to heat your house, to pay your bills, on £111 a week (for a couple), which is the maximum amount of jobseekers allowance available? Without going too ‘Thought for the Day’ on you, perhaps we should all think a little more about how we’d cope if the worst happened, and what we can do now to help those to whom it already has.