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Race to the finish, via a chocolate shake

The London Olympics will boast the biggest McDonald’s in the world.

By now, we all know two things about the catering arrangements at the forthcoming Olympic Games. First, a bottle of beer (German! and not even a patriotic pint of the stuff!) will cost visitors over £4. And secondly, we’ll be playing host to the world’s largest McDonald’s for the duration of the event. Spectators, it seems, would be well-advised to eat before they go in – but what of the competitors themselves?

Jeni Pearce, head of performance nutrition for Team GB, shrugs off the presence of a 24-hour branch of the burger chain in the Athletes’ Village. “After the first day of the Olympics, there must be, what, 300 athletes whose dream is over. So I don’t have a problem with McDonald’s – I just don’t want them around the athletes who are still to compete.” She’s more concerned with the challenge of catering for diets ranging from 800–4,500 kilocalories a day in a single buffet at the Team GB holding camp in Loughborough: “I put desserts round the corner. If you need one, you can go and get it; if not, you aren’t tempted.”

Once they get to the Games, however, the team are out of her hands. “Can you imagine walking into the biggest supermarket in the world and it’s all free? They have to be focused in the athletes’ dining room, and ignore the Magnums and the fries.” 

Jeni permits only one deviation from the athletes’ personalised menu plans: a piece of the opening ceremony cake “but just a tiny one, so it doesn’t interfere with their diets”. In many sports, a kilogram could make all the difference, she frets. “If you overeat and your uniform’s too tight, well, as an archer, you won’t shoot right.” 

Locog’s head of catering, Jan Matthews and her team will be serving 65,000 meals in the main athletes’ dining room on the busiest day of the Games – which, along with catering to nine million spectators and 22,000 media visitors, puts her in charge of the biggest peacetime catering organisation in the world. She’ll need to provide a taste of home for athletes for more than 204 different countries – yet another area in which Team GB enjoys a home advantage. Even the bacteria’s familiar.

Buffet behaviour

Food hygiene is also a concern. Matthews must be alert for contamination with “malicious intent – we need traceability all the way along. Everyone working with food must be vetted.” Pearce meanwhile is obsessed with hand sanitising gel and buffet etiquette, and has a no sweating in the dining room rule: “I don’t care how famous you are. Have a shower first. It only takes eight hours to come down with an infection that could wipe out eight years of training.”

Poppy seeds are off the menu in case they show up in anti-doping tests and there’s a plethora of dietary requirements: one member of team GB has a banana allergy and there are Muslim athletes who have chosen to observe their Ramadan fast during the Games: “the hardest thing is maintaining hydration levels”. 

But while the diet she describes – carbs and grilled meat, beetroot juice with bicarbonate of soda, all washed down with chocolate milkshakes – may sound dull, most athletes, she says, will eat anything if it helps them in the competition. “Some of them don’t even care what it looks or tastes like: they’ll just stick it in a blender and glug it down . . . the worse it tastes, the better they think it’ll be for them.” 

Once they’ve competed, they’re free to eat what they want – but you still shouldn’t expect to spot Tom Daly diving into a pool of Big Macs. “Pigging out for an athlete is a bit different than for the rest of us,” Jeni says. “They’re just not used to rich foods.” Beetroot burgers all round then. 


Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Honey, I shrunk the Tories

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.