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‘People can't afford to eat'

Food
Food justice files
Penny Walters in the kitchen at Byker Community Centre where she volunteers as a chef twice a week. Credit: Tessa Bunney
Penny Walters in the kitchen at Byker Community Centre where she volunteers as a chef twice a week. Credit: Tessa Bunney

I’ve experienced hard times in my life. My husband left 10 years ago. As a single parent – my daughter was 19 by then – I was stacking shelves, working seven days a week and I’d have about £10 ($13) left to spend on food. We’d be eating pasta with margarine, or noodles for 9p (12 cents) a packet. Going without has made us terrible food hoarders; the cupboards are stacked up.

Having been there myself, I’m now in a position to help others. Where I’m from in Byker, Newcastle, it’s a tight-knit community and about half the area is deprived. I’ve worked in catering all my life and at the moment I’m cooking meals at a community kitchen in Byker twice a week as a volunteer. I’ll turn out 40-plus meals for £1 ($1.30) a head. And if anyone turns up at my house looking for a feed, I’ll help them out.

Having been there myself, I’m now in a position to help others

What I see is that it’s about more than food – it’s about social isolation. There’s a woman round the corner who’s just a bit older than me who lives on Müller Rice yoghurts and biscuits. She can’t read or write, has mental-health problems and is too frightened to go out. I give her dinner twice a week, plate it up and take it over. When we’re shopping, we get things in for her.

There’s lots of awareness about healthy eating but when you ain’t got the money you ain’t got the money. A mother will go into Iceland and buy chicken nuggets or frozen sausages for about £2 ($2.60) and a bag of frozen chips for £2 and that’s two meals. It’s cheaper to get a takeaway than to cook at home. At the chippie you can get a bag of chips, bread, gravy, battered sausage for under a fiver. Yes, it’s all processed food, full of fillers, salt, sugar and carbs but the bairns won’t go to bed hungry.

Where I was brought up, in a mining village in County Durham, we had an allotment and grew our own vegetables and fruit. But the kids round here won’t eat fruit and veg because they’re not used to it – they won’t try it. And now you hear about diseases like rickets coming back…

It’s hard to walk into a food bank. I’ve always been too proud to use them

I think they should start teaching cooking in schools again. There’s a lad who works with me now who’s ex-army – I say he’s my muscles because I can’t do everything I used to – and he’s learning to cook (and I help him out by looking after his dog).

It’s hard to walk into a food bank. I’ve always been too proud to use them. You’ve got nothing, you’re on the bones of your arse, you have to walk into a place – often a church – where you don’t know people.

Ultimately, the problem is that people can’t afford to buy healthy food. The government benefits are low, and there can be weeks of delays getting your money through. And people just aren’t paid enough – we’ve had nurses coming to the food bank. The government is talking about obesity now but nothing will change unless you either reduce the cost of fresh food or increase people’s ability to buy it.

Penny Walters campaigns against food poverty in northeast England. She’s a member of the Food Power network

This article was published alongside How food banks went global, part of the Food Justice files.

This work was funded by the European Journalism Centre, through the European Development Journalism Grants programme., a fund supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

New Internationalist issue 528 magazine cover This article is from the November-December 2020 issue of New Internationalist.
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