I’ve been poor. I was a single mum on benefits for a decade. I’m now an older single woman with a low income and still many years to wait until the basic state pension of £9k a year. Heating or eating? Since January this year I haven’t had the heating on as I simply cannot afford it.
This isn’t healthy; I found I become listless, inactive and unproductive. Eventually the cold gets into your bones and it’s harder to warm up. This winter I went to bed early every night, at 6pm to save on heating. Heating was a treat when visitors came on a Sunday.
Anybody on fixed or low incomes will suffer, especially from this autumn when energy prices will go up even further: that’s when the pain starts. Being single is a tax in itself: gas and electricity bills aren’t lower if you live alone. That’s why the government used to give Lone Parent benefit, in recognition of the particular costs of living alone with no extra income, until Tony Blair stopped it within three months of being elected. I was very involved with the fight against this injustice: ferrying lone parents to parliament and select committees, protesting outside, even taking my two-year old toddler (now political lobby journalist Sienna Rodgers) who sat quietly in the strangers’ gallery watching the debate.
“Shame on you” I called to so-called left-wing MPs who voted for this. I visited the surgery of Glenda Jackson, then MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, as part of a group of single parents. I argued with her that helping single parents was not encouraging it, using statistics to show that only 6% of single parents were teenagers and most were divorcees. Jackson was furious: she wasn’t expecting articulate, educated, single parents with facts at their fingertips. She bellowed at me in her full Shakespearean theatrical voice which almost blew me across the office such was the intensity (and I’d been a fan of hers). She complained to the community centre which hosted the surgery and the single parent group that it was harbouring political activists.
I’m angry once again. One of the reasons I became a chef was because the only thing I could afford to do as a single parent was cook from scratch. I couldn’t go out, go on holiday, buy new clothes, go to the hairdresser but I could make nice food.
Now cooking has become more complicated: it’s not just the price of the ingredients but we must contend with but also the expense of heating them up. To cook on a gas oven for an hour (2 kWh) costs 34p while an electric oven costs .65p an hour, both including the daily standing charge. Poorer people are less likely to have energy efficient ovens and fridges. The cheapest way to cook is in a microwave or on a hob. To run your fridge costs between £5 and £10 a month and this will rise.
Is the government saying: not only can you not afford to have the heating on but you must eat cold food?
This murderous policy will lead to deaths. Energy companies should not be profiting from this. Certain industries should not be private.
I went to Lidl to do my shopping for this piece which like Aldi, is one of the cheaper supermarkets. Being poor is hard work, you have to shop carefully and creatively, do your research and stay alert for bargains. It’s not just a matter of grabbing a trolley, driving to one of the big five supermarkets and tossing in whatever you feel like eating. Throughout my career as a food writer I’ve recommended cooking from scratch: choosing, for instance, dried, soaked beans which taste better than tinned beans. But when it takes several hours to cook even soaked beans, tinned is a better choice energy and cost-wise.
These recipes assume a few basics: that you have salt and some spices. (It’s cheapest to buy spices from Asian stores.) The cheapest fat is lard, butter is now very expensive and margarine is not good for your health. The cheapest oil is vegetable oil although you can buy a litre of extra virgin olive oil for £1.99 at Lidl. (The English version of olive oil is rapeseed oil, grown in the UK. ) But it’s virtually impossible to eat really good quality fresh food on a fixed income such as the basic pension or on benefits.
You can buy a massive jar of spaghetti hoops for a quid which is fine for the odd quick meal but not enough nourishment for a child’s diet on a permanent basis.
Speaking to my upstairs neighbour, a single parent on benefits, when she’s really broke she buys a £1 frozen lasagne from Iceland. She feels she cannot afford to cook from scratch.
Protein is the most expensive food: the cheapest is beans or eggs. You save money by going vegetarian. It’s better to eat good quality meat or fish rarely.
So here are three ‘gourmet’ recipes, that you could serve at a dinner party for approximately £2.50 for four people. Because one of the worst things about being poor is the shame. It’s a basic human need to entertain, to be hospitable, to be able to share.
Garlicky mussels with pasta
- Packet moules marinères mussels from Lidl (1.59)
- 500 g bronze- die linguine pasta from Lidl (55p)
- 3 tbsp olive oil (9p)
- 1 tbsp salt
- Bring a large pot of water to the boil.
- Cook the pasta in the pot along with the bag of mussels for ten minutes.
- Remove the bag, drain the pasta, and mix the two together.
- Dress with olive oil and serve hot.
- 3 tbsp olive oil (9p)
- 1 brown onion, chopped (21p)
- 1 red pepper, chopped (31p)
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped (5p)
- 1 x 400 g tin of tomatoes, chopped (28p)
- 1 tsp salt
- a pinch of cumin (5p)
- a pinch of sweet smoked paprika (5p)
- 4 eggs (56p)
- 1 tiger loaf (75p), cut into thick slices
- Heat up the oil, then soften the onions until golden, adding the red pepper at the same time.
- Add the garlic, tomatoes, salt, cumin and paprika. Half-fill the tomato tin with water and add. Simmer for around 20 minutes.
- Crack the eggs into the sauce, put the lid on and poach for 5 to 10 minutes.
- Eat hot with the crusty bread.
Barr filets with rocket pesto and pommes à la vapeur
- 500 g white potatoes, cut in quarters, microwaved or steamed (16p)
- 1 tbsp salt
- 3 tbsp Olive oil (9p)
- sprigs mint, from a garden (free)
- packet rocket (Lidl 35p)
- 1 clove garlic (3p)
- pinch salt
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil (2p) for frying.
- packet 2 frozen salt and pepper Basa filets, cut in 4 lengthways, (Lidl 1.99)
- Microwave/steam or boil the potatoes with the salt until tender. Drain then toss with 1 tbsp of the olive oil and the fresh mint.
- Pound or blend the rocket with the garlic, 2 tbsps olive oil and salt.
- Using a frying pan, add the vegetable oil and gently fry the fillets until golden.
- Garnish the potatoes with more fresh mint. Drizzle the fish fillets with the 'pesto'. Serve hot.