The upsetting reality of modern day poverty

Dear Jamie Oliver – I suggest, before churning out the tripe you film, you come and spend a day in my world.

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This is a post about a subject very close to home. My home. It is about politicians who wouldn’t know poverty if it chewed on their overpaid arses.

It’s about, in part, Jamie Oliver.

Now, to put this out there, I love Jamie. For years and years, I idolised the man. He taught me to cook, when I could barely operate a Pot Noodle and we lived off Smash (dehydrated potatoes) and pasta (we even overcooked that). I would watch all his shows and learn, slowly, from the TV. In less than a year, I was able to cook a three-course meal for 15 people. Gourmet became easy and I was soon laughing my way through three-meat roasts and cooked-from-scratch curries. I owe my skill in the kitchen to Jamie. I have a lot to thank him for.

Jamie Oliver was good to watch, when I had money. Before I had six operations, culminating in a partial mastectomy of my right breast. He was great, before I had a heart attack – caused, in part, by the amount of strain the constant general anaesthetics put on the organ. Before I was diagnosed with Unstable Angina (that’s the bad sort, if you’re interested. It means there are days when rolling over in bed causes my heart to seize up and my oxygen levels to fall drastically – on these days, I can just about, with the constant administration of GTN spray, make it to the loo). Jamie was excellent, before I had to leave a well-paid job and fall back on the state and child tax credits, just to help me survive.

I lived comfortably and we wanted for pretty much nothing important. We were young, in our late twenties, with well-paid, good jobs, and four beautiful, if a bit spoiled, children. Life was good.

Until it wasn’t good and all I could do was watch, helplessly, as it spiralled down the pan. I was laid out on the couch every day with a sick-bucket as my constant companion. They don’t tell you that part – heart failure makes you puke. A lot. I couldn’t walk to the shop, 100 metres from my front door. I had to stop and rest, sitting on my neighbours' walls, every couple of feet. Work was an impossibility.

Enter the recession. Goodbye hubby’s job… thank you and goodnight. We were now, without question, in the deepest shit it was possible to get into. Then our landlord sold the house from under us and we were homeless as well. Luckily, we found another house and my husband found another job pretty bloody quick. It’s important to feel as though you’re earning money and not sitting on your arse having it handed to you. Trust me, I know this from experience; it is a major reason I started writing "seriously".

My food budget? About £45 a week. That’s for five days worth of packed lunches for four people, two lunches for five at the weekend, and seven evening meals. £45.00. I was over the moon when I saw Jamie had a new show on 4oD (yes, I know it’s not new, but I don’t watch a lot of TV). Food on a budget, that sort of thing. “Hooray,” I thought, “he’ll show me how to feed us all on the money I have.”

Nope. Not a bit of it. You see, to Jamie Oliver, a £20 shoulder of lamb is "cheap", because it can do two meals and it’s not the leg, so costs less per kilo. Two meals, Jamie? For 20 bloody quid, I want at least four meals. It’s a sad day when get angry at Jamie Oliver for being a pretentious, arrogant prick.

The reality of poverty is not what you might see on TV, with those delightful characters from Benefits Street (Channel 4). It isn’t all about people, cursing loudly in the street with a fag in hand and their pyjamas on, while they scream at little two-year-old Albie to "get the fuck indoors, ya little shit, or I’ll faaahkin slap ya, innit!"

It’s not sitting around on a bench with a can of Special Brew, unwashed and stinking of urine, roll-up in filthy fingers. I don’t smoke. I can’t afford to smoke. I don’t know many people who can. I have bars of soap next to my sinks and I am able to use them to good effect. I am not dirty. I am relatively poor. There is a difference.

It’s not even about food banks, because I don’t know what the hell you have to do to get referred to one, but it’s complicated, a long process. I have a fear the food banks might be linked to social services and I, like most of my peers, was raised to avoid them at all possible costs. (Please see my notes on this blog for details of how to find and get help from your local food bank if you need one. I know, now, that it is not complicated and does not involve social services.)

The reality of poverty is counting the 2p and 5p coins saved in a bottle, and sending a ten-year-old to buy a packet of cheap pasta and a tin of tomatoes, because it’s sort of embarrassing to have to pay with coins and count them out while there is someone behind you with a £20 note.

The reality is eating plain boiled rice and pretending to like it, so the kids don’t know there’s no other food except for what is on their plates.

The reality is having an electric meter, running always on emergency credit, because you can’t afford to get out of the cycle you’re trapped in. It’s making the choice between putting the heating on for an hour, or going cold and being able to buy a pack of sausages and some potatoes.

The reality of relative poverty is going to the butcher and asking for a pound of mince to be separated into three bags for three meals. You’d be amazed what I can do with mince. The reality is going to the supermarkets just before they close, and buying all you can for a fraction of the cost, because it’s going out of date tomorrow. That’s okay – you’re eating it tomorrow.

It’s value-priced peanut butters and cheap cuts of fatty meat. It’s poor-quality chicken and eggs from barn hens. It’s learning to mend, reuse, recycle and go without. It’s washing your hair with washing-up liquid, because it’s all you have until Wednesday, when the Holy Grail of child tax credit hits your account and there’s £50 for shopping.

The reality of poverty is the shame of always having to say, “Sorry, I can’t afford it.” It’s calling your mum, in tears, because there are bailiffs pounding on the door. It’s drinking so much water you feel ill, simply so your stomach isn’t painfully empty.

So, Jamie, forgive me for not watching your show. Forgive me for breaking up with you. You’re as clueless, you see, as those politicians you hound into raising the school meal standards. I can’t afford for my kids to eat school meals – not at £2 per child per day (that’s £20 I simply don’t have) and we can’t get them for free, because we’re not "on the dole".

I suggest, before churning out the tripe you film, you come and spend a day in my world. I’m so cold I can’t feel my fingers as I type this blog about poverty on a computer bought for me by a friend. I will let you sit next to me and we’ll laugh at how you can see your breath misting in the air above my charity-shop desk. I’ll show you which needle is used to stitch a hole in the toe of a canvas trainer. I’ll make you a coffee, but only if you don’t have sugar – that’s a luxury we only buy in if we’re going to make a cake. You can help me scrub some of the mould from the walls, before it takes over the house entirely.

We can do all of that. Then, maybe, you’ll realise what poverty is.

This article was originally published on Kathleen Kerridge's website, kathleenkerridge.com. She also writes books, which can be found and purchased here if you are in the UK, and here if you are elsewhere in the world. The paperback version can be found hereShe tweets @K_Kerridge.