Baroness Jenkin Was Right: She’s Just Too Late

The state subsidising the food bank debacle is ridiculous; it keeps people on tangible, edible dependency which exacerbates the situation further

Food banks: fuelling Britain's dependency culture
William Hanley
On 12 December 2014 13:41

As a result of the identikit, forced apologetic statement by Baroness Jenkin this week, after the Daily Mail article ‘Poor people go to food banks because they don’t know how to cook,’ firstly, I jumped for joy. I believe she is absolutely right. Secondly,

I also immediately recognised the time period that has passed, during which someone should have already made this seemingly obvious statement. It’s come five years too late; I think the subsequent outcry of criticism is directly related to the fact that it would have gained more positive traction years ago, in the depths of our economic despair.

I say five years because I can think of a perfect anecdotal example at that time when I happened to be enjoying some ales back in Northampton with some new acquaintances in a backstreet local. I recall conversing with a young local man, out of work, on benefits and with a young mouth to feed.

He took the time to outline his plight; his fears and underpinning feeling of futility. He didn’t feel able to be the hunter-gatherer and provider to sufficiently put meals on the table for those under his care. Curiosity allowed me to push further and ask how he does, to the best of his ability, keep his brood from hitting the poverty line. Remember, this was 2010, the plunge pool at the dark depths of the recession.

I took his points seriously until the answers were revealed.

It won’t be a revelation to readers to find that the answers were frozen fish fingers, ready meals and the chillingly attractive offers at Iceland, Farmfoods, and their ilk. These purchases cost pounds per unit, let alone pounds per head – the most important part of disciplined budgeting when on the social.

I’ve been on the dole twice in the past. I understand the pressure, the shame and useless stagnation of the system; however, neither of these times have I had to use the aforementioned acquaintance’s lexicon in outlining how to look after myself. My answer to his claimed troubles? Bollocks.

Unsurprisingly, my reaction was about as well received as a foie gras sales tent at the PETA conference. That initial response may have been flippant, but I justify it through two things: knowing the value of money, and the pragmatic desire to educate myself in making best use of the opportunities around me to make the precious state hand-out go as far as possible. I mentioned earlier, the relatively cheap – and I emphasise the word “relatively” – option is a decision of convenience, not necessarily a choice between right and wrong, but certainly a choice between what is right and what is easy.

The latter, as I highlighted earlier is actually high cost per unit, whereas sourcing fresh produce dramatically lowers the overall cost per capita of serving a dinner. My latter point gives credence to Baroness Jenkin’s narrative: people don’t know how to cook.

My response to being vilified, branded aloof and fantastical (in not such eloquent language) was to fill my boots and offer a credible alternative to vindicate my scarily revolutionary argument. That same week I acquired not one, not two, but six fresh fillets of whiting; a small flat fish, common in our waters but snubbed due to the EU fishing quotas at the time.

These six fillets cost me the grand total of ninety pence – and no, not from a local trader at the local fish market at the crack of dawn, but in Morrisons in the middle of the day. Combine that with some fresh green veg and you’ve got a meal for four costing a quid a head.

I realise I’m recalling this tale five years after it happened, but it’s always been stuck on the back-burner in my mind, ready to deploy at the right time. Baroness Jenkin is right. Irrespective of whether you’re feeling the pinch or not, educate yourself. Ignorance is the great underpinning factor in situations such as this and, believe it or not, individual education is the key to emancipating oneself from them; knowledge is passed on and the books can be balanced if you feel like a fish out of water.

Outlets to learn basic cooking are, these days, ubiquitous; there is no excuse not to quash the status quo and teach yourself the basics.

Of course, this ugly tree of incompetence has borne fruit from the audacious comments made by the Archbishop of Canterbury over the weekend. The state subsidising the food bank debacle is ridiculous; it keeps people on tangible, edible dependency which exacerbates the situation further. Surely the previously reported near £6bn hedge fund could do something I always thought the church was meant to do: help the poor.

Hand-outs and not hands up, his hypocrisy aside, is not progressive, and doesn’t consider a way out of this trap of preying on the ignorant. I’m sure he’d rather see the populace spending their pennies wisely on cheap, widely-available fresh fish on a Friday than standing in the queue in Aldi with generic, white fish batons in a deep-fried crumb.

Baroness Jenkin should have stood by her remarks and challenged anyone who claimed to the contrary. If she was an anti-fun food fascist (Jamie Oliver springs to mind) she’d have received plaudits, as opposed to reactionary, class-based vitriol. The produce, the education and, most importantly, the personal satisfaction and budget management is there for all on every high street and for every wallet.

All it requires is diligence and some basic imagination. That seventy-odd quid a week can go far. Believe me, I’ve done it, and the results are incredibly rewarding. I just should have written this five years ago to save the Baroness the trouble.

William Hanley is co-founder of online culture magazine @InGoodTasteUK and chief creative officer at the Parliament Street think tank @WilliamPHanley

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