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March 20, 2009

Most of us are feeling the pinch at the moment or at least being swept along with the rest of our credit crunched society and feeling nervous or fearful about the next few years.

As we shed the consumerist excesses of the last decade we’re developing cannier shopping habits, going beyond the simplistic supermarket basics’ ranges to rediscover our grandparent’s way of doing things. All of us have made changes to the way we live: I now buy Jigsaw basics on Ebay rather than on the high street; don’t seem to be going away as much as I used to; and buy less fish as I can only buy sustainably-caught after researching fishing for the Rough Guide book. My next challenge is to reduce our weekly shopping bill.

Make-do-and-mend is the new mantra – check out Caroline Harris’ brilliant new household hints book full of tips on such things as home-made cleaning products (wave goodbye to expensive synthetic chemical cleaners: Mr Muscle is completely useless as a cleaner and damages the environment). Sewing machine sales are up and lots of us will have to learn the skills which were once a natural part of growing up. My 10-year old daughter has been stitching away ever since she got her first sewing basket at Christmas (this was a pretty hefty investment coming in at around £70 by the time all the fabric, trimmings, threads and hardware were bought – but still half the price of a plastic gadget or computer game). Surely we’ll now make our own greetings cards (more personal and free) rather than spend over £2 on commercial ones (that’s the price of a week’s worth of organic yoghurts for one child). We anti-urban-4×4’rs can’t help feel delighted at the falling off of these gas-guzzler sales. Many of us are using our cars less or signing up to the City Car Club: save money and reduce carbon emissions in one go.

But while the newly-poor middle classes are coming to terms with the end of an era and thinking up cunning ways to save money, for millions of our fellow citizens the world of money-saving is just business-as-usual.

Life on the breadline
The aisles of Morrison and Tesco are full of anxious-looking shoppers carrying baskets of over-priced and packaged pies and pasties; gluey, pumped up ‘bread’ and cakes, aggressively marketing to them by supermarkets and food manufacturers selling the lie of good food at bargain prices (£1 is the key price point for hard-pressed shoppers). I’d dispute this, as on closer inspection, the ingredient labels reveal a multitude of unreal, heftily-processed components – mainly very cheap fats, sugars, flavourings and fillers with minimal nutritional content. Make no mistake this is not in any way a charitable impulse on the part of supermarkets, but merely another market they’re happy to tap: these ‘bargain’ products will still be making a high profit margin for the industry. This is NOT what affordable food should look like and it’s not doing anything for our collective health.

The food industry with its increasingly vast profits has no genuine interest in helping us eat well (by which I mean simple ‘real’ and nutritional food) and every reason to carry on conning the consumer with new product developments (to drive their profits). Affordable, healthy food means cooking from scratch but this does not feature in supermarket aisles piled high with processed foods and soft drinks. A local greengrocers or market will usually be cheaper (and fresher) than the fresh produce section of the supermarket where the high costs of a complex supply and packaging chain have to be passed onto the shopper. Cheaper seasonal prices are rarely reflected in any genuine way in the fruit and veg section of supermarkets. Unfortunately, most of us no longer have a local greengrocer as they were wiped off our high streets by the handful of supermarket chains which have a stranglehold on our food culture. This is especially acute in areas with high levels of poverty – exactly the places where good quality affordable food is needed most.

Amelia Gentleman, writing in the Guardian article about the daily reality of life on the breadline in 21st-century Britain tells the stories of those stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty and disadvantage. While middle-class families might switch to a discounter to reduce their £100-150 a week food bills; there are millions out there having to feed their families on £20 a week.

No-one seems to have an answer to this (and there seems to be little real interest in tackling it and achieving a tangible result). Surely one of the most sustainable and affordable ways to address this is through the education of all children (not just those at private schools – who seem to receive a higher level of cooking and nutrition teaching) in how to choose ingredients, cook them and eat better even when on a tight budget. Making land and grants available for small allotments could help the time-rich; cash-poor develop new skills and encourage children to eat more veg (many UK children eat just 2 portions a day – and one of these is probably fruit juice).

We’ve been promised cooking in secondary schools by the eminently sensible Ed Balls – but what about after-school cookery clubs for primary children with subsidised ingredients (for areas where there are high levels of deprivation) which would not only teach young children to cook but send them home with nourishing meals?

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 3, 2009 12:51 pm

    Many thanks for the mention, Katharine. And I will definitely try out your tiffin recipe in Cooking from Scratch! For anyone interested in more thrifty living, make do and mending, and a beginners’ guide to growing your own, I have a blog at and have just started Twittering at

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