Can’t eat on £1 a day? Cheat!

A bag of Waitrose's "Love Life" soup mix containing barley, yellow and green split peas, marrowfat peas, lentils and brown riceBBC News - How to eat healthily on £1 a day

This rather hilarious article represents a BBC journalist’s ostensible attempt to live on £1 worth of food a day. You’ll notice that the food is rather appetising and colourful and looks expensive. A brief look at the price lists reveal that it was in fact more expensive than the single-serving cost and that the journalist cheated, one ingredient from the first meal alone blowing his daily budget and the total spend (of that meal alone, remember) coming to £8.27. The article is an insult to those who really do have to live on a tiny amount of food a day. (More: Aethelred the Unread, Potato Skin Belt, The Plan.)

The Goldfish has already done a brilliant point-by-point takedown of this ridiculous article. Briefly, they consist of:

  • Food wastage
  • Choosing from a selection of supermarkets, when in fact most people do not have ready access to all major supermarkets
  • It doesn’t take account of specialist dietary needs, such as food intolerance and religious strictures
  • It assumes you can cook, when many people don’t have the ability or the equipment

The bit about shopping around is particularly relevant, because where I live, there are three supermarkets (Waitrose, Co-Op and Tesco) within walking distance; in the nearest town, there’s a Sainsbury’s and another Waitrose. There isn’t a Morrison’s in either place — the nearest one to me is in Wimbledon, which is a 20-minute bus ride away and definitely not in convenient walking or even cycling distance. If I had nothing to do but make food, I could do a round trip of the New Malden and Kingston supermarkets on my bike, but Morrison’s is really not feasible. If I had to work, I’d be able to choose really one or two of these. If you don’t live in a big town, you might not have access to more than one or at most two — or even a pretty small Co-op which won’t have all the ingredients you might need to live on an extremely limited budget.

The article does not use genuinely frugal ingredients. If you really had to live on £5 over 5 days, soup mix is your friend. A pack of it costs 89p from Waitrose (I tried finding it in Sainsbury’s, but no luck) and it contains pearl barley, green and yellow split peas, marrowfat peas, haricot beans, lentils and brown rice. You can make considerably more than five meals with this stuff. You soak the mix in water for at least five hours, replace the water, boil it for ten minutes then simmer for 20 to 30 more minutes. Given that this will take some 5p out of your budget daily, this adds space for stock cubes or maybe some chopped tomatoes, or some tinned meat or fish (the price of that has gone up, but a tin of sardines costs 55p — mackerel used to be affordable, but a tin of that is around 90p or more). You might even be able to fry up some of that courgette and add that to the mix (and you don’t have to buy a pack of six — if you use a quarter or a third of it, the rest will keep in the fridge for a few days).

That won’t make a meal replete with huge amounts of fresh fruit and vegetables, but will be a balanced meal even if a rather dull one. Milk and bread will add quite a bit to the cost — a four-pint bottle of milk costs £1.29 and a loaf of bread starts from about 75p, so that’s more than £2 out of your five-day £5 budget to begin with. However, the soup mix will last you for much longer than five days, if you’re only cooking for yourself. The budget only covers ingredients — it doesn’t cover the water bill, especially if it’s metered, or the gas or electricity you need to cook any of this, or the container you’ll need for the soup mix once you open the packet. But it’s possible to eat on £5 over 5 days, and it’s a healthy but somewhat boring and repetitive diet although there will be left-overs and you will be able to vary the diet if you have to go another five days on another £5. The BBC’s “attempt” only shows the cluelessness of a journalist who has never had to live anything like this frugally, and poor editing by the BBC’s website staff. It uses more than eight times its budget in a day and if you were on Jobseekers’ Allowance, you could not afford to spend this much on food, and certainly not to waste this much money and food.

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  • There are variations of the soup mix (sometimes called “broth mix”) at the Co-op and Tesco, and I have had weeks of this stuff myself (that is, a week of it, here and there). Admittedly during fairly rough times when I wasn’t capable of much beyond adding a spoonful of Marmite for flavour, but it will certainly keep you going (and is good human central-heating food).

  • I discovered it when I was awaiting my colonoscopy this past February - I was told to eat a clear diet and “broth” was one example. I went into the local health food shop and the lady there showed me the soup mix and told me how to prepare it. I used a sieve to filter out the solids (the first lot I threw away; the second, I kept and put a pasta stir-through sauce on it, and ate it with some fish). My Mum used to make stews and they had barley and lentils in it, so it was probably the same stuff although she put meat and vegetables in it. I looked it up on the Tesco website and I found their version - good thing the Co-Op has too. Some small towns just have a Co-Op.

  • Daughter of Adam

    I saw this yesterday on BBC News and was gonna check out Jack’s blog today but saw your blog instead! I must admit, there was a huge assumption that people could readily cook!

  • Ocean’s Edge

    “Somewhere along the line our socio-economic system got so warped that cheap food became a middle class luxury.” THIS! So much THIS….. in order to reduce our food costs, our living costs, has required a really significant investment. We’re lucky that we could, but for most of the poor - investing in freezers and bulk buying and growing your own…. not possible.

    Sustainable living isn’t for the poor - just take a look at the williams sonoma agarian line.. http://www.williams-sonoma.com/shop/agrarian-garden/?cm_type=gnav ‘grow your own’ is now some sort of bourgeois thing. I recall recently this thing where you could buy ‘rare heritage chickens and a castle style chicken coup, and a consultant to set it all up for you - all so you can raise your very own RARE eggs … only $100,000 - how very Marie Antoinette.

    Sorry… ranting again. ….

    On the upside there are people trying to reclaim REAL food, self sustenance for the poor … this TED talk from a group in South Central L.A. is very encouraging

    http://www.karmatube.org/videos.php?id=3875

    (BTW thanks for the ping…)

  • Ocean’s Edge

    I think we need to start a whole “Victory Garden” movement again … not victory over the Germans, but victory over poverty - our new worst enemy.