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26 July 2023

Hunger in Britain is mainstream now

Gregg Wallace’s savage satire about the cost-saving benefits of human flesh consumption exposes a day-to-day reality.

By Anoosh Chakelian

I first started hearing the phrase “cost-of-living crisis” in 2013, when I was working for a different political magazine. It was a Milibandism for costs outpacing stagnant wages, as government cuts shredded public sector pay and rationed state services. 

In the years that followed, I reported from neglected housing estates, food banks, communities that had lost their libraries, children’s centres and youth clubs. I had countless conversations with claimants losing out on their benefits, punished by the new Universal Credit system and left without a safety net. I met rough sleepers, single parents facing eviction, exploited workers on zero-hour contracts, and people trapped in the gig economy. 

All the while, the drumbeat of figures from the Trussell Trust would thump into my inbox on a regular basis. More and more were relying on food banks every year. 

Nothing changed. 

For years, there’s been a live conversation among charities, social affairs journalists and concerned politicians about how, exactly, to talk about poverty. To most people, it just sounds too melodramatic, fatalistic or patronising – too bleak for them to take notice. The anti-poverty organisation The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has for years been trying to change the imagery and language in its communications: no more sorrowful-looking children and laments about “fairness”. 

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I used to call this “paper poverty”: the volume of reports and press releases on ever-rising levels of child poverty, hunger and income precarity in the UK, none of it resonating with the wider British public. 

I never thought Gregg Wallace, the nation’s favourite egg, would be the one to crack the problem. But in his savage satire, Gregg Wallace: The British Miracle Meat (which aired on Channel 4 on 24 July), he says more than any list of grim statistics or pious piece of journalism ever could. 

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The premise is gruesome. Slices of human flesh, donated by cash-strapped citizens, are engineered into affordable cuts of meat for the public to consume. It all happens at the factory of “cost-of-living crisis disruptor” Good Harvest, where “a whopping SIX TONNES of human meat is engineered every day. That is STUNNING!” 

The programme has all the hallmarks of a soft weeknight consumer show, in the style of Wallace’s own Inside the Factory: naff scripting (“Now it costs a packet just to bring home the bacon!”), superfluous hairnets, located in Boston, Lincolnshire (where else?), a mixed-race female co-presenter given about four seconds of airtime, pointless scale analogies (the human flesh factory is, of course, “the size of four football pitches”), and the all-important public taste test. 

With his maniacal grin and signature wonder at the minutiae of manufacturing processes, Wallace plays himself ruthlessly – the idiot gourmand sending up the format that’s made him a household name. 

Like a John Wyndham dystopia or Roald Dahl short story, its cosy British familiarity makes it all the more disturbing. One scene even depicts children writhing in agony as their flesh is harvested for tender steaks. This process, the CEO private healthcare entrepreneur assures us, is “pain subjective”. At Le Gavroche, under dainty violins, Michel Roux Jr deduces that Alison, a 45-year-old NHS nurse and part-time delivery driver, tastes a bit tough because she’s an “animal of a certain age, maybe a little bit stressed”. Donors receive £200 for a slice of thigh, and £400 for a “double buttock” extraction. Gillian, a hard-up retired receptionist, grey with terror on the operating table, will be able to pay for nearly two weeks’ of energy bills with her cash. 

Beaming this with no warning on to TV screens at 8.30pm on a Monday night – following Supermarkets Unwrapped: The Snacks Aisle – was a confrontation. But it was also a play on how blandly familiar going hungry in unaffordable Britain is today. One in seven people in the UK is now cutting back on food or going without meals, according to the latest Trussell Trust figures. That extraordinary proportion makes this the stuff of primetime TV, a quotidian reality reflected back at us via mainstream shows.

When visiting three foodbanks around the north-east last month, I met people with jobs who nevertheless needed regular emergency food parcels – and those relying on benefits weren’t receiving enough to live on. 

Our government is under pressure from the Trussell Trust and 90 other UK charities to introduce an “essentials guarantee”: a law to peg benefits to the minimum amount of money needed to cover standard necessities. The basic Universal Credit payment for one person is currently just £85 a week, while a representative basket of essential items now costs £120 a week. 

“A future without food banks requires a benefit system that works for all and secure incomes so people can afford essentials,” as Gregg Wallace tells us, eyebrows innocently raised in the furious denouement. “So it’s no surprise eating children seems a more likely path for our country… Bon appetit!”

[See also: An “essentials guarantee” can end the need for food banks]

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