The Free Food Fiasco

The build up was sombre and laid  heavy with gravitas. The poor women couldn’t even bring herself to speak on camera. Her words were spoken for her by an actress. She was angry, stressed out and upset. Why? Because she couldn’t afford to give her children  any breakfast,  and they were going to school hungry.

That was the main story on the ironically named Breakfast TV this morning, and there then followed a long “we’re-really-concerned-about-this” piece about the number of children going to school hungry and being unable to concentrate as a result. In response, Breakfast Clubs are being set up in schools  around the country (Hurrah!) and apparently this is a very good thing.

If I wasn’t so tight I’d have put my boot through the TV. As it was I just switched off and cursed and mumbled to nobody in particular. But then I thought…you’re here,  it’s a slow day…I’ll bore you with it  instead.

Now I’m one of those extremely rich people (ha!) the left wing  media like to talk about every now and again who don’t know the price of a pint of milk. Does anyone know the price of milk?  In fact I don’t really know the price of any food, but something about this ‘can’t afford breakfast’ guff just didn’t seem right. So I decided to check things out.

What would be a good nutritious breakfast? There are lots of options to go for, but let’s – purely for illustrative purposes – choose something we all know and could all make…porridge. Eat a bowl of porridge every morning and you would be neither hungry nor malnourished. But how much would it cost?

Well, as I say, the price of food wouldn’t be my Mastermind specialist subject, but I do have the wherewithal to check. A quick google search revealed that Wholefoods have a Kilo of oats for £1.19 and a four pint bottle of milk can be had from various places for £1. I’ve no idea whether these are the cheapest prices, but they’ll do.

Another Google search suggests that a portion of porridge containing more than enough energy to keep a child going through the morning contains 50 grams of oats and 100ml (a sixth of a pint) of milk. So that works out to £1.19 divided by 20 worth of oats and £1 divided by 24 worth of milk.  My admittedly appalling maths tells me that a bowl of porridge is coming in at just over 10p!

Now let’s say you can’t get your milk or oats at this price for some reason, or you want a bit of topping on your porridge. Let’s assume you have to pay double…a whopping 20p for a bowl. It still raises a puzzling question…

Are there really people in the UK who can’t afford 20p for a breakfast for their child, and if there are, why is that?

You see, if you can’t afford 20p for breakfast, it presupposes a lot of things. Food, shelter  and basic clothing should be the first three needs that anyone gets sorted before spending on anything else.  If someone cannot raise 20p for breakfast, then surely they can’t afford a lot of other things as well…so no wide screen TV, no Sky contract, no mobile phone contract, no alcohol, no cigarettes, no holidays, no car, no takeaways, no eating out, no convenience foods, no cakes, biscuits or confectionery for starters. Basic food surely comes before all of this – doesn’t it?

Do you think the people who claim they can’t afford to give their children breakfast are living without all that stuff as well?  Or do you think they’re prioritising their,  admittedly, limited spending power in completely the wrong way?

As someone from a working class background, I’ve never suffered from the middle class guilt that seems to afflict so many who feel – maybe on a subconscious level – that they’ve had it all a bit too easy. I’ve never experienced real poverty, but I‘ve come closer to it than what passes for it today. As a result, I’ve never felt the need to accept, at face value, pleas of poverty from anyone. And it’s perhaps for that reason – while I’m on the subject – that I have a problem with food banks, and the widely held view that their existence is proof that there is genuine food poverty in our country.

From time to time, I offer one of my books to customers for free. That usually goes down well, but from the resulting avalanche of requests for copies, I have never once drawn the conclusion that people can’t afford to buy books. Rather, I have taken the more realistic  view that on balance, people will take something for free if it’s on offer, and spend their money on something else.

I wonder then, why so many people cite the fact that food banks are experiencing brisk trade as evidence that people can’t afford to buy food. If your entire ‘business’ is based around giving stuff away for free, you’re going to be busy. Given the choice, I think most of us would rather get something for free rather than pay for it. Isn’t that obvious? The ‘success’ of food banks proves nothing more than if you offer something for nothing you’ll get plenty of takers.

Just yesterday, Amstrad founder Lord Sugar was heavily criticised  by social welfare campaigners for suggesting that genuine poverty doesn’t exist in a country where everyone has a mobile phone and a microwave oven. But I believe he’s right.

And if your only argument to the contrary is that people will grab free food  when it’s handed to them on a plate, you really need to go away and have a think about the nature and direction of cause and effect.

27 thoughts on “The Free Food Fiasco

    1. Terry

      If all these people are so starved why are they so fat. the kids may go without but the mums definitely don’t.
      come on you people is just you want your 2 minutes to be on the television. Get a life or better still a JOB.

  1. Howard

    I agree entirely with you. I have seen these people on dole day. Collect their money and then go to the sandwich bar and are eating a sandwich at 10pm in the morning even the kiddy in the push chair. So thats about 6 pound gone. A sandwich at home would have cost for 3 would have cost less than a pound..
    I belong to a church and we have a foodbank. All the staff do a great job. But I do not volunteer for the same reason you give. We all have heard the phrase feed a man for a day. Lets teach them to fend for themselves. A typical TV programme showed a young girl with all the modern stuff in her room bragging that she liked to have the good stuff. But all bought on the expensve credit. No sense

  2. patricia buckeridge

    I endorse your views, John. A look inside wherever these people live might be illuminating. What ARE their priorities?

  3. Robert Orchard

    Great Blog John, my sentiments too. the Left press try to exploit and strangely enough the do-gooders fall for it.

  4. Mike Bartie

    At last! Someone who agrees with what I’ve been banging on about for, I don’t know, ever since food banks feeding “poor people” first hit the headlines. I can’t think of anything to add to John’s post, he’s covered it all and I’ve lost count of the number of blazing rows I’ve had with gullible bleeding hearts who insist they know someone who genuinely can’t afford to eat. Like John says there are certain financial priorities in everyone’s life, These are, in order… FOOD, or you will die… SHELTER, or you will freeze to death,… BASIC CLOTHING, for warmth and modesty. Then you have to pay your utilities, council tax, and that’s it. If there is any money left after that, you can spend it on non-essentials like scratch cards and tattoos. Even if you genuinely can’t work, we give you money and help you with some of those bills. If you spend it on the wrong things, don’t come crying to the rest of us. (Dons tin helmet and retreats into trench.)

  5. philip allen

    And there was me, heartless me, thinking that I was the only one left in the country that feels EXACTLY the same way. Every word you’ve written, John, I concur with. Any chance you’ll be standing at the next election?
    Thank you, I don’t feel quite so lonely now 🙂

  6. Brian

    Very well put, John! I often wonder how anyone who is unemployed, on benefits – or even just hard up – can afford to smoke or have a satellite dish ……..

  7. John Golder

    I heartily agree. My partner used have a small village shop and was frequently asked for credit because of some excuse the the giro was late or something had befallen the family and there was no food for the kids.
    So she would agree until the first part of the order was 40 fags and a bottle of whiskey . When she said NO! Only credit allowed could be for food for the children. She was subjected to a lot of abuse.
    You are right nobody these days or at least since the fourtys has a clew on how to manage.
    I was eight years old in 1940 and saw the sights and horror of war first hand. We were far from well off but even then we never went hungry. Whats wrong with bread and milk. In the situation we found ourselves with Dad away for 6 years after Dunkirk my mother somehow managed even when the rations didn’t arrive to feed herself and us four kids.
    One problem is that children even in the less well off families are very picky and have never been really hungry.
    I have written a book published on Kindle called “It Was All Hitlers Fault” It’s about my childhood and my anger as a child and the realisation in my eighties that everything that went wrong in my life I blamed on Hitler whether associated with the war or not. After all if it wasn’t for him I would not have been evacuated from my idilic existence pre 1940 to where I ended up.
    But I have had a wonderful life.
    Thank you I feel as you do.


    John T Golder

  8. Joy Healey

    Well said, you and Lord Sugar.

    When I was part of a charitable group that I won’t name, I used to give up some time and food at Christmas, delivering food parcels to people who needed them. A very warm feeling it gave me…. until I realised that the majority of them were smoking heavily, had better mobiles and cars than I did – and were still in their dressing-gowns at midday watching TV whereas I had done half a day’s work and was doing the delivery in my lunch break.

    I wasn’t the only Scrooge in the charity group, several others felt the same way and we discontinued that particular project and moved onto something else.

    Apologies to the very few people who didn’t fit into this category!

    And don’t get me started on ***** who emailed me from her iPad to say she couldn’t afford to pay us her rent, left us with a four figure debt and a wrecked flat. My bad for letting the arrears run so high by being too gullible and believing the sob stories – until I went round and saw the wide-screen TV, the half consumed bottles of wine etc.

  9. janice

    here here totally agree. Never seen poverty until i went to India and saw naked people who didnt even have a pair of nickers to hide their embarasment. when people say they are poor i think they are comparing the haves with the have not’s in this country rather than looking at real stand alone abject poverty.

  10. pat

    I understand where you & them are coming from but I’m not sitting on the fence. I was a single parent of 3 boys, youngest was still in nappies, for a number of years. So I do know as they say the difference, between a fat & thin penny! Anyway, LIFE is good when its going your way but I can assure you that when its not any help is appreciated! Be it hand-outs or what ever. The other point is confidence; when your struggling, you are vunerable & tend to get caught-out too easily. especially if your not used to that situation.
    Currently I have invested a small fortune via your company, but still I’m failing, yes failing due to confidence. I’m your classic Dinosaur with a computer! Yes I havent made a THIN PENNY & DEFINITELY NOT A FAT ONE; but still a keen learner!
    Sounds stupid but I’m not, but I am getting frustrated with myself.
    I noticed that you were offering a mentor course, sounds good John but I’m affraid the money’s ran out & that sound expensive anyway.
    You are a self made man & your confidence is high so I understand that you are finding it hard to relate to these people.
    We of course are out with the TAR BRUSH as these are people with their own circumstances & obiously experiencing their own problems.
    YES well thats off my chest,
    BEST Wishes,

    Pat. McIntyre

    1. admin

      I think one of the things that kills confidence and self esteem quickest, is knowing that you’re not paying your own way – that you’re relying on the charity of others and giving nothing in return. I don’t believe you can help people long term by giving them stuff for free, particularly when they only need that stuff because they’re not making rational life decisions. Tackle the decision making and you no longer need to give stuff away, nor damage self esteem by doing so.

  11. Rod Lawless

    You are on the nail with this. There is no poverty in this country. In fact the nearest poverty would be Africa and even there it is localised. It may be tough in Eastern European countries initiating an influx of imigrants into Britain but that is due to many factors the least of which is poverty.
    The picture of a twenty stone mum pleading she couldn’t afford food that did the rounds on Facebook a few weeks back is jsut the tip of a very slippery and melting iceberg. Like you say, it’s sensible priorities that are lacking. Not money.

  12. Roger

    Great blog, you’ve put into words what I’ve been thinking , as Harold McMillan once said, you’ve never had it so good

  13. Robert Mason

    Is it really as simple as that? I wonder if it is more a question of education. I wonder if a person can be truly held responsible – can really have freedom of choice – if they have not had the benefit of a good education, the quality of education that all of us here must have had, otherwise we would not be here.

    Just my 2 cents – sorry if it causes any offence!

  14. Reed

    My wife and I help at a church lead Food Bank, throughout the school summer holidays we would regularly see people (clients) who would receive free school dinners during term time but received foodbank vouchers during the school holidays. This made sense to me as they would need to spend more or feeding the children during the school holidays, and possibly if they worked at all they would not be able to work as much during the school holiday.

    On the other hand we also had a client who stank of tobacco and from the nicotine stained hands was a heavy smoker; so could be classed as someone who could be said to not prioritise there spending wisely. Even so smoking is an addiction, an illness that many people are unable to rid themselves of.

    From statistics collated nationally from foodbanks it can be shown that the average person being served by a foodbank does so on 3 or less occasions. This in itself counters the argument that they were just after something for free, as, if that were the case most would return week after week after week.

  15. Bob

    Do you not all see what you are doing – John with your original rant, and all the (sycophantic) responses?

    Can you not see (hear?) how you all sound?

    Of course there are many abusers of the support systems in place; of course ‘we’ would never be drawn into such behaviour. But have any of you really put yourselves in the position of desperation without any support?

    See past the abusers of the system and please don’t make the mistake of ignoring those in real need; don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, or some other crass middle class saying.

    Of course there are those in other parts of the world who are much worse off, but do you really think that helps someone in the all-consuming spiral of decline, wherever that fits in the comparative scale of global problems?

    Many of us had the background and support that helped us, whereas how would we have coped if we didn’t – and before you all jump down my throat, yes of course many were in a dire situation and have pulled themselves up – but, and this is the point, you are the exception, not everyone has those capabilities.

    For those really in dire situations, they have zero self esteem or confidence, so what do they do? They rely on their ‘friends’ for support (hence their need for phones and social media). Sadly those ‘friends’ are probably the last people able to give the support and advice they need, and simply keep them down where they are. It is a spiral that they are in, and simply sniping at them in ‘superiority mode’ about ‘priorities’ (priorities are obvious from a high vantage point, not so clear from the bottom of the pit) is not what I would have thought was best or helpful.

    Sorry, in case you hadn’t noticed, I get angry at superiority attitudes. Please look past, admittedly the majority, of abusers of the system, and don’t discard those who really need the help; they have real value, it is just well hidden.

    1. admin

      Good to hear an opposing view. I’m not suggesting for one minute that the people who claim they can’t afford to feed their children are ‘bad’, merely that they are thinking wrongly…as are the people who attempt to help them (with the best intentions) by giving them food. My point is that virtually nobody in the UK is in genuine poverty (Well over half the worlds population is worse off by any rational measure) and nobody managing their money in a reasonable way here, need go hungry. Compensating for people’s bad decisions by giving them stuff for free may be a short term sticking plaster solution to their immediate problem, but it does nothing to help them over the long haul. You mention low confidence and low self esteem…how do you suppose that is affected by knowing you are relying on a perpetual stream of hand-outs and giving nothing in return?

      1. Bob

        Okay, I take the point, just giving free to anyone is not the answer, but there is a base line.

        By way of example, My wife and I run an animal sanctuary, and often an animal comes to us having been abused in many ways. The first task is to gain their confidence – they need the priorities already mentioned: food, shelter, security. But what they really need is confidence and trust – confidence that the essentials won’t be taken away again, and trust that they won’t be abused again and can rely on the help.

        It takes time, but that combination changes their perception and their true personalities are allowed to come out. They become good members of their community (okay, so its an animal sanctuary, but the principle is the same).

        Now I realise that is not a straight comparison, but those in real need, need the security and trust before they can begin to take charge of their own situation.

        A good employer will help, train, encourage and support their employees – that way the employees gain self esteem and make many improvements – but they need the base help to give them the confidence to work upwards.

        1. admin

          I’m not sure the analagy holds. With an animal, you just want it to feel comfortable, content and relaxed. You don’t expect it to become self-reliant at some stage. It doesn’t matter how dependent it becomes; you want it to be dependent. Unfortunately, there’s no system in place for taking people from reliance to independence, and human nature is such that the path from one to the other is often not a natural one.

          1. Bob

            Two points from that:
            Firstly if you think animals don’t want to be self reliant, you probably have missed all the multitude of nature programmes showing exactly that an animal’s life is generally devoted to surviving and procreating independently – there are wild animal, domesticated animals and human animals – they are not really so different in their natural needs and aspirations. But we are getting away from the main point.

            Secondly, the fact that there is no system in place for taking people from reliance to independence is rather the point – there should be, particularly, as you point out, it is not always a natural path – (but I agree we need to sort the genuine from the abusers). Simply deriding all those for accepting what handouts are on offer is less than helpful, the current ‘systems’ need reviewing in my view – but perhaps we should agree to differ on that.

  16. Gill Braund

    Yet again you are so-o right! For many years now I have been frustrated by the term “below the poverty line”. Priorities in this country have been turned on their head over the last thirty or so years. Just don’t recall when it became ok to make feeding ones children the responsibility of someone else.

  17. Sue Samson

    I agree 100%

    Have you ever thought of running for ‘Prime Minister’ You would get my vote.

    I think all these giving food away venues should be replaced by:

    “Let me help you with your finances and teach you what your priorities really need to be”.
    I will wager that any ‘can’t manage’ family, I would be able to not only manage their money but give them change at the end of the month!

    1. John Harrison Post author

      Without any sense of irony, the same Breakfast TV programme ran a piece this morning from Malawi where 25% of children already die through malnutrition and the recent floods have put millions of lives at risk. Women have to walk for over an hour in high temperatures and then carry grain back home. Some schools have started feeding programmes with porridge(!) which is often the only meal the kids get each day. This is real poverty, rather than the dressing-gown clad, fag smoking, can’t be arsed variety we have here.


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