Is food really too cheap? Plus new recipes and other foodie ramblings…

We don’t value food because it’s not expensive enoughthus Kate Humble, in the Guardian.

Seriously? That depends almost entirely on one’s income, and I doubt La Humble is feeling the pinch the way many of my contemporaries are.

The list that follows is what this pensioner spent on food last week – it’s fairly average. Some of it is, clearly, destined for the store cupboard/fridge (herbs and spices, cupboard; Clover and eggs, fridge; the quiches and bread are for the freezer):-

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2 x Sainsbury’s Broccoli, Tomato & Cheese Quiche 400g – Total Price £3.00

6 x Longley Farm Natural Cottage Cheese 250g – Total Price £7.20

1 x Sainsbury’s All Butter Parmesan Twists, Taste the Difference 125g – Total Price £1.50

2 x Schwartz Coriander Jar 7g – Total Price £3.20

1 x Schwartz Celery Salt Jar 72g – Total Price £1.60

2 x Sainsbury’s Sourdough Boule, Taste the Difference 800g – Total Price £4.00

1 x Sainsbury’s Swede, So Organic (approx. 1kg) – Total Price £1.60

1 x Sainsbury’s King Edward Potatoes 2.5kg – Total Price £2.39

1 x Sainsbury’s Beacon Fell Creamy Lancashire, Taste the Difference 240g – Total Price £2.50

1 x Billington’s Natural Golden Caster, Unrefined Cane Sugar 1kg – Total Price £2.10

1 x Sainsbury’s Onions 1kg – Total Price £0.69

1 x Schwartz Garlic Granules 47g – Total Price £1.60

2 x Clover Spread 500g – Total Price £4.00

2 x Carr’s Melts, Cheese 150g – Total Price £2.00

2 x Jacob’s Savours Thins, Sour Cream & Chive 150g – Total Price £2.38

1 x Sainsbury’s Free Range Woodland Large Eggs, So Organic x6 – Total Price £2.15

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Total £45.90 – approximately30% of my pension. Next week will cost rather less for food as some of this will carry over, but there will be household and toiletry items which will result in a similar total. All too often, my weekly bill gets close to £60.00, and when I was buying meat, would exceed it at times.

Note that there is not a single item on my list that can be classed as a luxury (unless you have very parsimonious ideas about what’s luxurious!).

Not expensive enough? I know of many people for whom my weekly spend is far more than they can afford – I just have to feed me, I don’t have a family. I also have only one meal a day, which helps – I shudder to think what my food bill (or my weight!), would be if I had the usual three meals a day. I do have snacks, a tub of cottage cheese around midday, maybe, or some rice and peas.

40 years ago, about 30% of the household income went on food. For me, as I said, that’s still the case, but probably somewhat closer to 40% than 30% in fact, as my food buying is based on need and quality, not price** (though I still make use of special offers if it’s something I’d buy anyway, and can be frozen, if perishable, until needed), and waste is kept to an irreducible minimum. I don’t believe anyone who claims to have no food waste at all.

**And no, I’m not well off, I have my state pension. I buy mostly mid-range produce, neither bargain-basement nor the luxury end. If I deviate from mid-range, I’ll go up rather than down, but not all the way up – just far enough to get what I need at the right price.

For example, I pay around 80p – 90p per can for canned pulses (chickpeas, cannellini beans and butter beans, mostly), Napolina brand (frequently on offer, thankfully). Yes, I can get own-brand for about half the price, and if I wanted pulses like bullets then that’s what I’d buy. But I don’t – quality matters, and I buy the best I can afford.

That’s made easier by the facts that I can’t drink now, other than very little and very occasionally – my morphine prohibits it – and I’ve never smoked. Both enable me to put more money into things which are important to me, like food. And kitchen equipment to make life easier. And books.

Because I am seriously disabled – I’m typing this during rest breaks from the kitchen – I can cook only rarely. The days when I could cook an evening meal from scratch every day are many years in the past. Which is a pity, as I’m a bloody good cook.

That skill goes – as it is today – into creating new recipes in my head which, when I feel able, are translated into real dishes – today both parts of that process are happening together for once. Mostly they’re casseroles, and robust soups, as they return maximum food for minimum labour. I’m not sure whether today’s counts as a casserole or a soup – as there is enough liquid to dunk bread, I suppose it’s soup, and definitely robust, but it’s a close-run thing.

In my usual 3-litre casserole I have diced swede, sliced carrots and finely chopped onions and shallots, cooked in a veggie stock spiked with mild curry powder, tomato purée and coriander leaf, until the veg are soft. To that I’ve added organic red lentils, cooked separately, sautéed in clarified butter, then covered with boiling water and simmered until puréed, adding more water as you go – they absorb a lot – and stirring frequently, which gives a silky-smooth texture. Finally, add a couple of cans of chickpeas. Eaten with good bread, it’ll give me a hefty protein hit.

It’s not quite finished. When it’s cooled enough to taste I’ll add more coriander leaf to perk it up, maybe a little Marigold Bouillon Powder if it needs more flavour, and adjust just the seasoning with Maldon Sea Salt and black pepper.

The recipe will be posted in full tomorrow, when I know for sure how it’s turned out. Soups and casseroles are always better after a night in the fridge to smooth out the rough edges.

While there’s none on the list, I do use butter, as you might have just noticed. I tend to buy it a kilo or two at a time, as I use it for baking and, clarified, for cooking. Olive oil I buy in 2-litre cans, so that’s not here either. Butter, I find, is an exercise in blandness these days, so for baking the brand matters little, though I tend to buy Country Life. For clarifying I buy President, as I like the slightly cheesy taste of Normandy butter, which lends itself to savoury dishes.

Milk I buy maybe twice a month, 6 litres of long life whole milk at a time. That, plus the cottage cheese, gives me the extra calcium that Addisonians need (I already take vitamin D3).

As I’m (mostly), a veggie I buy a lot of canned and dried pulses – there will be some cans on next week’s order, and maybe some dried, too – depends what I’m short of. Some items I source elsewhere online than supermarkets, so over time my food bill is bigger than this list would suggest.

So, should food be more expensive? For the most part, no, because that would penalise those who can’t afford to pay more. And this government is creating more of them every day.

However, there are some foods that are sold for much less than it costs to produce them. The ubiquitous white, sliced, loaf is a classic example, an 800g loaf often costing less than a kilo of bread flour. The supermarkets call these products “loss leaders” and there’s a very good reason why the bakery section is way at the back of the store – it’s so you’ll be tempted to buy other, more expensive, stuff on your way in and out.

But should food producers be paid more? Absolutely, but not by hammering the customer. Increased farm-gate prices should be met by a combination of reduced profits for shareholders and the abolition of products which sell for less than they actually cost to produce. That, I believe, would minimise the effect on the average customer, though I doubt it’s possible for everyone to escape entirely without penalty.

And here’s thought – everyone has a go at the major supermarkets for screwing the farmers on price, but I don’t recall hearing the same accusations being levelled at the likes of Aldi and Lidl. They charge so much less than the majors for almost everything – so how much do you think they pay their milk and meat producers?

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2 thoughts on “Is food really too cheap? Plus new recipes and other foodie ramblings…

  1. his time last year my monthly food from say tescos came to the £100 mark and when delivered was piled high in about 4 layers on my 2 seater settee plus the heavier stuff on the floor in front of the settee. on top of that there was around £85 for 24 ready meals as at that time i couldnt stand long enough ti cook from scratch. (have since bought kitchen equipmemt to help me do SOME meals from scratch). on top of that there would be about 10-15 quid every other week for fruit, veg and the odd things i may have run out of.
    now……im having to buy in fortnightly as cannot afford the full amount all in one go. my fortnightly bill has steadily declined to between £60-80 (so monthly thats 120-160 per month). this includes only 4 cheap frozen meals per week as i cant now afford the wilshire farm foods i WAS getting.and the amount of actual food is reduced to a single layer per delivery/ so approx half the amount there was last year. minus the big delivery of ready meals…plus a small amount of bottled water, milk etc .i can no longer afford to keep up the stock of 3 of everything which ive always tried to do. only me and the dog to cater for and as he only eats webbox. the cheapest dog food you can get at 65p per large roll (4 meals for my jack russell)thats not a lot though they have gone up by half as much again in the last year and treats are being limited now as the cost of them too has risen. i would guess that all told im only getting 2/3rds of what i got last year for the same amount of money and not the better quality either. as you say though. others are in a worse situation than i am..

  2. Kate Humble and all the other media dahlings who lived charmed lives with plenty of money, those who don’t need to worry about keeping a simple roof over their head, the ones who don’t have to risk pharmaceutical roulette every time they have to choose from their prescription list which drugs are essential and which they can’t afford, all these people need to shut the hell up about how much anything should cost.

    I would like to see Kate Humble spew her stupidity to those in the queue at her local food bank. I’m sure it would help massively to have a spoilt, middle class brat lecture everyone on why they should pay more for food, when they have no money to buy any food at all

    I agree that producers should be paid a fair price for their goods. The supermarkets could absorb the extra cost. Of course, most of the big supermarkets are saving huge amounts of money by not employing staff on proper contracts. In many supermarkets, the floor staff are on zero contract hours or workfare slaves on any of the dreadful schemes the gov’t is running.

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