Frugality has become popularized in Britain since the 2008 financial crash. Budget cooking shows proliferate on television, supermarkets hand out free recipes on cheap meals, austerity food blogs such as A Girl Called Jack detail how to survive on £10 a week grocery shop and have led to the blogger Jack Monroe securing two book deals and a newspaper column. ‘Budget cooking’ has become a buzz word but beneath its popularization is a dark story.
Austerity food blogs are distinctive in that they are written by people who due to force of circumstance live hand to mouth. They are a bottom-up social history offering valuable insights into the lived realities of poverty at a critical juncture in British history. Food poverty has hit post-war highs, more parents like Monroe report missing meals so they can feed their offspring, more children are going to school hungry and medical experts warn of an impending public health crisis. The rise of mass poverty is partly due to long term changes to the job market and to the welfare system but also more recently to high global food prices and austerity policies initiated by the Conservative Government after the 2010 election and that have cut welfare benefits. The policies are controversial. Critics link benefit cuts to growing queues for emergency food relief; ministers counter that there is no ‘statistical evidence’ to support such linkages. The recounting on Jack of Monroe’s personal narratives of the lived experience of poverty and the techniques she developed in order to survive corroborate the claims of charities.
The government’s mantra of austerity used to legitimize a radical reshaping of the welfare state is a powerful one. Austerity is neither truth nor fact but a neoliberal ideology committed to rebalancing the economy by cutting government spending. It draws on a ‘narrative fiction’ that justifies benefit cuts by reducing the causes of government debt crises to an ‘orgy of state spending’. The fiction is persuasive, appealing to everyday platitudes of ‘do not live beyond your means’ and ‘you can’t cure debt with more debt’ familiar to ordinary people managing household budgets. However, austerity masks as common sense a pervasive ideology, legitimizing policies that exacerbate acute impoverishment.
Churches and charities are vocal critics of the policies but the absence of mass protests against them is partly due, I argue, to the naturalizing of austerity as common sense, coupled to the stigmatizing of benefit claimants as ‘scroungers’ living a self-indulgent lifestyle paid for by hardworking taxpayers. Food has become a potent symbol in this with Jamie Oliver’s popular television shows stereotyping claimants and the working poor as living on takeaways, cheese and chips. The government has used these clichés to cast its austerity agenda within a moral mantel of breaking a dependency culture by withdrawing benefits and forcing people back to work. Such an account is premised on explanations of poverty predicated on individual failure while ignoring structural and systemic ones. Public attitudes are converging with these stigmas and explanations enabling ministers to claim they have support for their policies.
The rapid growth of food banks exposes the myth of these assumptions about unemployed ‘skivers’ and self-indulgent lifestyles. Food banks in Britain are run by charities but unlike the American variants hand out emergency food parcels directly to those referred to them by doctors and teachers. The food banks are thus filling the void provided by the retreat of the welfare state. A decade ago Britain had only two food banks; by 2014 the largest operator, the Trussell Trust, had over 400 and was opening two a week. Ministers apply the same stereotypes used for benefit claimants to food bank users and deny a link between growing queues and welfare reform. However, research by charities cites the main reason for recourse to emergency food aid is delays or non-payment of benefits. Jack, in detailing the circumstances in which Monroe was forced to use food banks, corroborates this, adding a personal narrative to the research. At the same she challenges the individual failure account of poverty by detailing the role a chaotic welfare system played in exacerbating her impoverishment and highlighting the structural problems in which a 24-year old single mother was deemed too old to be employed in a job that an 18-year old could do more cheaply.
Jack, however, is more than a narrative of the lived realities of poverty and a critique of austerity; it captures and archives a particular type of knowledge derived from Monroe’s daily struggles to survive on a £10-a-week grocery budget. The knowledge distilled into new forms of survival techniques is widely circulated on the internet and through recipes handed out at food banks. The need for such techniques has emerged since the 1970s as many British households have become reliant on ready-made meals, leaving some adults lacking basic cooking or budgeting skills. Blogs such as Jack are beginning to address such gaps in knowledge. Unlike the glossy budget cooking shows on television, Monroe’s recipes are fuel efficient in that meals can be cooked in 10 minutes on one hotplate, are based on the cheapest staples yet also are healthy and tasty i.e. the antithesis of associations of austere Victorian gruel for the poor. The capturing of these techniques in the form of recipes have also led to awards with Monroe acclaimed for ‘revolutionising budget cooking’.
The need for food survival techniques is likely to grow. Earlier this month the government announced a further £12 billion of cuts by 2020. Charities predict increasing levels of poverty as a result. While many budget television programmes and blogs tend to romanticize frugality as a return to a simpler lifestyle, Jack and other austerity food blogs highlight the grinding realities of living with modern poverty in Britain.
About the author: Anita Howarth is a former journalist and senior lecturer at Brunel University. Her research is positioned within political communication with a particular interest in food as communication, the contested spaces of migration and environmental-health risks.