The reality of being poor: Lesson 1 Food provision

Until recently when I sold a property, I have been living on a third (or less) of my previous income. These are the lessons I learned about being comparatively cash poor and then even poorer; I own a home so do not consider myself as poor as others, but recent experience of being cash poor and having limited funds has taught me alot about how others live who are really poor… The lessons surprised me and I hope will help you put yourself into the shoes of someone facing dramatic income reduction, whatever the reason!

Lesson 1: Food

There are levels and levels of food provision for yourself and you family, especially for any children. If you currently shop in Waitrose, Marks & Spencer’s and the farm shops, you are in the privileged position of being able to choose and buying the highest quality food. Something most would aspire to and many are unable to.

If you have been in the habit of doing your weekly shop in Tesco’s, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons or Asda, then again you are able to choose and get high quality, nutritious food for your family. Most people would view these shops as for regular people with a reasonable income, and as offering a wide range to choose from both for personal preference and nutritious value. Fortunately all these shops offer a handheld device to keep track of your spend. Absolutely essential to avoid the embarrassment of ending up at the till and being unable to pay. Horrid experience!

If you’re now shopping mostly in Lidl or Aldi to economise (though everyone knows you have to go elsewhere for certain things), then you still have a level of choice though perhaps not the quality. Honestly, at this point I would spend up to a third of my food budget elsewhere and therefore went to at least two shops for my weekly groceries, ultimately taking up more time. Unfortunately these shops do not offer handheld devices; I think they’re missing a trick as people would spend more if they could trust they had not miscalculated the value and gone overbudget. Honestly this is a constant fear while on a very low income and poorer people are just as proud as others, if not more so.

Now let’s see what happens when your income descends further to the point where even the cheapest supermarkets are out of reach. What choices are there for feeding a family say below £30 per week? There’s food subscription services from charities like Sofea (Community Larder partnered with FareShare that acquires food from food providers which is nearing it’s sell by date and otherwise wasted), who accept anyone. This costs around £28 per month for a family subscription entitling you to 20 items per week, plus as many vegetables and fruit as you can carry depending on what’s available. There’s also foodbanks, often run by local churches or charities like the Trussell Trust, however for these you need to be referred by the local council or related charitable partners like mental health support organisations. Finally, there are the Community Fridges usually run by local organisations, such as the Abingdon Community Fridge.

All of these charities and services offer an essential lifeline to many poor families, but there is a downside: time and availability of certain foods we would normally take for granted. Firstly let’s look at the time it takes to source food from these services, which was a massive shock to me when the reality hit. These services are generally open at specific time slots during the week, normally a three hour window. As a result find travel may be difficult especially, and as is often the case with poorer individuals, if you do not have a car and are reliant on public transport which involves waiting around anyway. For example, the Abingdon Community Larder run by Sofea is open on a Friday afternoon and not near a bus stop. The Abingdon Community Fridge is on Monday evening, Thursday afternoon and Saturday morning. The Abingdon Foodbank is open on Tuesday morning and Friday morning. So should your family need more than is available at each service offering which is mostly the case, alot of time is spent on the bus and most involve substantial queueing too (over and hour in some cases).

Now please understand, I am in favour of these services existing and for some they are truly a lifeline. However there are some who cannot accommodate the timings, particularly working parents or individuals in full-time employment. It’s a fundamental time and motion exercise and can involve literally hours used in contrast to a quick visit to the supermarket or local shop.

Secondly is the kind of food available and the challenge of converting the available food proffered into real-life meals. Generally, there are dry goods, tins of food, some fresh vegetables and fruit, plus occasional toiletries. I have not seen fresh milk, meat and fish, or other dairy products available as yet. Therefore in contrast to feeding your family from the weekly shop usually from one or two food sources, making good meals requires far more creativity, effort and compromise, both nutritionally and personal preference. My attempt at lentil casserole was rejected by me and my daughter with much laughter as absolutely disgusting! Clearly this was only one meal, but you can see that you can end up with some really bad combinations of food, with limited nutritional value. Otherwise the tins provided usually make a reasonable meal, but eating may become pretty repetitive as similar things are available every week.

And this brings me to my final point, that at all these services there is an element that maybe you should just be grateful for what you’re offered, whatever that is. In a way I agree as these services are free or very cheap, so you pay for what get, right?? However, I have been known return food still in date, stating that our family just wouldn’t eat it. Needless to say this met with a level of surprise but was just honesty on my part, and not wanting to waste free food.

I now make way more food from scratch, including bread, pizza and treats like cakes for school lunches. My daughter also has free school meals like many others, which can be a difficult too if there is any differentiation with what you can buy as a pupil and what’s free. Kids don’t like feeling different and it discouraged her from having them at all at first.

It’s worth considering these elements when the next news bulletin is on with a mother revealing her sorrow at being unable to feed her family. It is a very real problem and not always experienced as you might have expected. It certainly wasn’t the scenario I expected and while I refuse to feel embarrassed or ashamed of my need at the time, I certainly restricted the number of people I told. Poverty is seen as somewhat shameful, but increasingly under the Covid lockdown people have experienced it. So I plan to write subsequent blogs looking at other lessons I learnt including:

  • Lesson 2: Keeping up with expectation
  • Lesson 3: Planning ahead
  • Lesson 4: Changing attitude to debt
  • Lesson 5: The horror of the benefits system
  • Lesson 6: Regaining financial control

Please get in touch if you have anything to add. I look forward to hearing from you.

Love Ruth x

Header photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash


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