It’s been a busy week at New Cross church hall in Sutton-in-Ashfield, a market town in Nottinghamshire. Strings of Union Jack bunting line the noticeboards and posters overlooking a horseshoe of trestle tables, where a dozen locals make notes in their workbooks during a cookery class. Bananas ripen other fruit in the bowl; onions stored with potatoes will make them sprout; apples should go in the fridge.
Just off the hall is a spotless community kitchen of shining stainless steel surfaces that hosts the practical cookery sessions, part of a hospitality and catering course linked to a nearby food bank, Let’s All Eat. The course is offered free of charge to people who have been receiving food parcels for longer than the usual referral time.
Yet classes have felt a little different lately. Journalists have been filing in and gawping at the dishes being rustled up, which look so delicious they’ve been walking away with recipes. (A BBC crew were recently handed one for chicken tikka masala; I myself now have the instructions for baked apples.)
This is because Lee Anderson, the Conservative MP for Ashfield, recently put these classes — and the food bank with which they’re associated — on the map. It wasn’t your usual politician’s innocuous constituency plug. He caused outrage among his political opponents, fellow Tory MPs, chefs and the media for suggesting that a lack of cooking and budgeting skills is behind food bank use.
“At the food bank, we teach them how to cook cheap and nutritious meals on a budget. We can make a meal for about 30p a day, which is cooking from scratch,” he claimed in the House of Commons on 11 May. “I think you’ll see first-hand that there’s not this massive use for food banks in this country. You’ve got generation after generation who cannot cook properly. They can’t cook a meal from scratch. They cannot budget.”
Anderson also boasted that these classes were mandatory for those visiting the local food bank, Let’s All Eat: “When people come now for a food parcel, they have to register for a budgeting course and a cooking course.”
Yet when the New Statesman visited, we found no such quid pro quo exists. “In order to receive a food parcel, they don’t have to sign up to the course,” said Simon Martin, a founder and director of Let’s All Eat, speaking to us in the gloom of the church next door as the class continued. “We very much encourage people to sign up to the courses, but we are still delivering to a number of households where the family or the individual is in very difficult circumstances.”
Use of food banks has doubled in a fortnight here, with 250 new referrals between 6 and 19 May — the period inflation reached 11 per cent for the poorest in Britain — due to, Martin said, “households suddenly finding themselves simply not able to stretch their financial resources to cover food purchases, to cover the energy bill”. He added: “We know people now are being presented with whacking great bills that have increased, really denting their ability to manage.”
Ashfield, which has a history of coal mining and textiles, has high pockets of poverty; several areas in and around the town are in the top 6 per cent most deprived in the country. The constituency switched from Labour to the Tories for the first time since 1977 in the 2019 general election; Anderson, now 55, had previously been a local Labour councillor before running for parliament as a Conservative.
On Anderson’s comments, Martin pointed out that “people do know how to cook, obviously, because people have been eating and surviving before we’ve been intervening with food parcels”. He added, however, that providing free guidance on how to cook more economically can indeed help people struggling with rising bills.
“We don’t come from the starting premise that people know nothing about how to cook, or anything like that, we don’t take that view at all,” he said. “But we do take the view that everyone can improve their knowledge of how to use basic ingredients well to cook healthy food and make them go further.”
As the course members filed into the kitchen, tying their navy aprons on and queuing at the sink to wash their hands, they reflected on Anderson’s comments.
“In some respects I agree with him, not all,” said Susan Banks, 68, who has been doing the course for 13 weeks. She grows her own vegetables at home and has cooked all her life, but is enjoying experimenting with ingredients she’s never cooked with before (she is particularly proud of her naan breads and curries).
“I do agree that some people do need help to budget, they do need to learn to cook,” she said, but suggested these skills should be taught as standard earlier on. The government is at present ignoring recommendations from the National Food Strategy it commissioned, which lists all the ways food education is failing in schools. In 2016 the government axed the food and nutrition A-level, it doesn’t pay for the ingredients children use in cooking lessons, and cookery classes are absent from nursery and reception curriculums.
“I don’t think it’s a subject that is properly dealt with in schools,” said Banks, describing how her daughter was only taught to make a pie with shop-bought pastry and tinned fruit. “Here, you’re taught the basics, from scratch, for less than it would cost you to buy ready-made ingredients. If they’re not taught that, then they won’t be able to do it.”
She also noted how much food prices have been rising recently. “Every time you go round the shop, the price of bread, tin of beans even, they’re not jumping up 1p or 2p, they’re jumping up 5p.”
Chopping onions, leeks and carrots for a vegetable soup, Jennifer Mosley, 48, said “people can cook” but may not have the “oomph to do it”. While bringing up her four now grown-up children, she was “more used to convenient food”, she recalled. “I have cooked from scratch [before], but it is a busy life when you have got young kids.”
Now, she batch cooks and fills three freezers with portioned out meals and teaches her ten-year-old grandson recipes from the course: eclairs with home-made choux pastry are the latest.
She also put Anderson’s 30p meal claim in some context. “It isn’t a matter of people getting 30p, going into a shop and buying. It’s spending £10 a week, say, buying what you need, cooking it, and by the time you’ve portioned it out, then it would work out x amount per meal. I don’t think it’s impossible but you need the know-how, and you need the money up front to be able to do the 30p meals.”
Indeed, the 30p figure came from a batch cooking session here: a £50.24 Aldi shop — for the ingredients of chilli con carne, spaghetti bolognese, sweet potato curry and sausage casserole — stretched to 172 servings. “It’s theoretically possible, and these were decent portions,” recalled Martin. “It illustrates the point you can produce healthy meals [cheaply] but it’s not in the capacity of every family, and not easy to replicate in every household. It presupposes you’re buying in bulk, cooking with big catering trays and have the storage.”
“A tin of soup nowadays is about well over a £1 for an average size one,” said Karen Draycott, the cookery class instructor. Then she gestured to the group making soup. “This would be a quarter of the price. So it’s about budget cooking, it’s about healthy eating as well.” She is concerned about the price of food affecting her class members. “We want to try and help everybody live as cheaply as possible because of the rising costs.”
At Let’s All Eat crates of food were stacked up ready to be distributed to Sutton residents. Many are emergency packages, delivered on the same day, including one to a secondary school for a boy who otherwise wouldn’t have a meal to go home to after school, another for a woman who has fled domestic abuse and been rehomed, another for a father and his five children whose mother has just died.
“Things happen that you would never expect to happen: illness, domestic violence, death,” said Linda Smith, the food bank manager.
Food from here is also delivered to the cookery course members and some of it is used in the practical classes. “We have a wide range of reasons of why people are using the food bank,” Smith added. “We don’t get involved in politics. I think food banks are a lifeline, especially to a lot of people in this community.”
As for Anderson’s own cooking skills, at the last Ready Steady Cook event held at this community kitchen the result was a draw: a result that neatly reflects the mixed feelings about his comments that made this Britain’s most famous food bank.