#InPoverty: When you can’t afford to eat, nutritional food isn’t on the menu

As the number of people in food crisis increases in South Wales, we ask if there’s a choice when it comes to hunger versus health

Tesco Finest Chicken Soup
The fresh chicken soup is one of your five a day, high in energy at 495kJ and low in saturated fat which is linked to raising cholesterol levels.

The morning starts with a crate of chicken soup. Not tins, no dented aluminium; nor the kind found in the depths of a cupboard and saved for a harvest food hamper. We’re talking plastic tubs with tasteful photography from the chilled section of a supermarket. 

“Everything has to be logged before it gets put away,” says Dawn Tattershall, a volunteer at the food cooperative in Griffithstown.

The soup in question comes from Fare Share, a scheme that distributes surplus food to food cooperatives, community-driven charities that fight hunger and tackle waste by creating discounted parcels for those in need. 

Dawn sorts through the boxes stacked around her. She and two volunteers are emptying the white van idling outside the shop on Windsor Road. 

“We charge £4.00 for a bag of food and you’re entitled to up to three,” says Dawn, counting a stack of honey-cured ham like a deck of playing cards. The parcels are bulging; as much as can be squashed into a bag for life. There’s easily £25.00 worth of products in each one, enough to make meals for a few days. Dawn explains how the demand for the service is increasing now that the shop is on social media and more people know it exists. “I think we gave out nearly 50 bags in a week once,” she says. 

“Add the rising cost of living, mix with wage stagnation and you have a recipe for crisis.”

Dawn says that last week, they received a box of feta cheese among other things in their delivery. “We had mushrooms, turkey rashers, sausages, chicken, steaks…” It’s not the processed goods many expect from a food cooperative. 

Food Cooperative Store Room
In a survey given to customers of Gem in Association with Women in Need, 80% cited the current cost of living as the cause behind their experiences with food insecurity and a further 30% said it was a combination of benefit changes, unemployment, rising living costs and the lack of free meals during school holidays.
Elderly Volunteer
“I broke my elbow last year and they helped me out with food,” says Dawn, the volunteer charged with logging the food delivery. “I wanted to give something back.”

A country in crisis

In the United Kingdom, the number of people receiving food aid has grown by 73% in five years. In Wales, 113,373 emergency food parcels were distributed between 2018-19 and according to a recent report, a fifth of the population worry about food insecurity. 

Largely, food poverty is a result of changes to welfare. Add the rising cost of living, mix with wage stagnation and you have a recipe for crisis. 

Emma Revie, chief executive of the Trussell Trust – a charity aiming to end hunger with the largest national network of food banks – says, “People are being locked into extreme poverty and pushed to the doors of food banks. Hunger isn’t about food. People are trying to get by on £50.00 a week and that’s not enough for the essentials.”

Essentials are defined as things that are absolutely necessary. These differ; one man’s bread is another’s brioche. However, according to nutritionist Jayne Davis, we all need a balanced mix of protein, carbohydrates, fats and micronutrients in order to maintain a healthy diet. 

“It’s recommended that individuals follow the Eatwell Guide,” says Jayne. This is a government-produced visual representation of the food groups. “Choosing a variety of foods from each group will allow us to achieve the range of nutrients our bodies require to stay healthy and function correctly.”

When the choice is heating or eating, what becomes essential?

Feeding those in need

Typically, an emergency food parcel consists of non-perishables. Food cooperatives differ – think of it like a surplus food subscription; cooperatives pay redistribution charities a fee who then provide excess produce donated by supermarkets.

“It comes down to the supply and suppliers,” Paula Cotton, owner of the cooperative, says around an armful of pasta sauce. “They can only give what they get. It’s hard, people can’t pick and choose but they’re grateful.”

Paula puts down the crate. Bolognese, from the look of it. “Whatever we get, we try and give a variety,” she explains. Paula works to create parcels that mix fresh with packaged products. 

Paula Cotton
Paula Cotton owns Gem in Association with Women in Need and says of the food cooperative, “We don’t restrict it to, you know, you can only come if you’re on benefits, you can only come if you have a ticket. It’s anyone and everyone because everybody’s got a need.”
Fresh Produce
Unlike food banks, the food cooperative is able to store perishable items like fresh fruit, meat and vegetables. These are typically more nutritious than processed goods which are high in salt, sugar and saturated fat.

“One of the most notable benefits of consuming a balanced diet is its effect on our energy levels,” says Jayne. “If we don’t consume the appropriate nutrients throughout the day, it can leave us feeling lethargic.” 

“This means that a healthy diet costs £103.00 per week for a family of four.”

Yet, for those experiencing food insecurity, nutrition is of least concern with 70% of customers at the food cooperative agreeing that keeping costs low was a priority when buying groceries. A consistent diet of quality, nutrient-rich fresh foods is unattainable when relying on food banks as they, unlike the cooperative, are unable to store perishables. 

“They’re not given the choice, it’s snatched away,” says Paula, shaking her head. 

If you compare the cost of following the Eatwell Guide with average household incomes in Wales, the bottom 20% of families would need to spend 36% of that income on food. This means that a healthy diet costs £103.00 per week for a family of four.

One customer of the cooperative, a mother of two, speaks of the struggle to cook tasty meals on a food bank diet. She says, “We were grateful, obviously. It was better than nothing which was all I could afford at the time. I like coming here though because I love the variety of items. It’s much easier to make meals and I feel like what we get is healthy because a lot of it’s fresh.”

Combating food insecurity

Although not perfect, food banks and cooperatives ease the strain of food insecurity and do their best to ensure those in need receive healthy options when possible.

“We try,” says Paula. “It’s not always the best option. We try.” She reaches around Dawn, organising the chicken soup into a tower before unboxing several packets of chilled minced meat.

“Everybody’s got a need,” Paula finishes. “You know, working or not, people are still struggling.” She shrugs. “Thanks, government.”