The photo of two blackening bananas, a tomato, two potatoes, three apples, a loaf of bread, about 200g of pasta, two carrots, slices of cheese, two mini-malt loaves, a can of baked beans and three Frubes is one of the defining images of our times. Posted on Twitter by @RoadsideMum – she has asked to remain anonymous and goes by the pseudonym “Lisa” – it has been viewed 28 million times and shared worldwide.
The stark illustration of life in poverty in the long shadow of the coronavirus pandemic sparked an online outcry that started on Tuesday and shows no sign of going away. Marcus Rashford, Jamie Oliver and Tom Kerridge signed a letter urging the prime minister to review the free school meals process. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall said on Radio 4’s Today programme on Thursday that there needed to be a “full root-and-branch review”. The Child Poverty Action Group, the Food Foundation and many other charities added their voices.
It’s brilliant that food poverty is finally getting the attention it deserves, and indeed the crumbling and often bureaucratic and inaccessible support structures do need to be assessed to see whether they are fit for purpose in 2021. But in order to improve the lives of people living in hardship, the voices of those in the eyes of their own personal storms need to be raised and not talked over by well-meaning people keen to charge to the front of the furore.
My own experiences of poverty still affect me, mentally and physically, every single day, and I am nowhere near financially secure or emotionally stable yet, although I hope to be one day. Yet I am mindful that even I, once described by Patrick Butler as “the modern face of poverty”, live in relative comfort compared to the cold, hungry, suicidal young mother of eight years ago, blogging in the dark on a Nokia E72.
I own a dining table that I didn’t yank out of a skip, and I am warm and well fed. My inboxes fill daily with messages from parents, shielding people, retired women struggling on shrunken pensions, teenagers fresh out of care and military veterans navigating civilian life and the benefits system. I try to use my platform to advocate for and amplify the experiences of people whose stories need to be told in order to galvanise change, and as quickly as possible.
Reviews of school meals have been done a few times now, by Jamie Oliver with his famous Turkey Twizzler ban, by Henry Dimbleby in the School Food Plan in 2013, and again in the national food strategy last year, which both Rashford and I worked with him on. Dimbleby consistently consults those at the centre of the crisis, speaking to food bank volunteers and their clients, doctors, social workers, people living in poverty; he interviewed thousands of people for the national food strategy and produced one of the most comprehensive and realistic documents on the subject. Frank Field did similarly with the Feeding Britain report in 2013, to which I gave evidence in parliament. The advice and research has been done again and again, and the key is to speak to those your recommendations will affect, not at them. Nothing about us without us. Ask people what they need, and respond with compassion.
But I can’t help feel that, well-intentioned as it is, writing a letter calling for a review feels like sitting in a house that is well alight and musing over where you should have put the smoke detector. Children, and indeed adults, are going hungry. More than 4.1 million people live in poverty, with an estimated 2 million more close enough to the edge to fall over it in the wake of the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis. We need an immediate response to put food in hungry bellies.
First we feed the children, then we overhaul the system. That has always been my mission statement, underpinning my work in poverty and against austerity for the last eight years, and it always will be. Reinstate free school meals vouchers for the February half-term immediately, pay people their benefits, both unemployed and in work, in full and on time, and include home-educated children and those with special educational needs in the FSM eligibility criteria. Meanwhile ordinary members of the public can pop a couple of things in the local food bank collection if they can afford to.
As for the “root and branch review” of why people are in poverty in Britain today, I will judge it on how honestly the government includes its own part in it. Cuts to mental health services, social care, domestic violence refuges. Slashing benefits, universal credit rollout disasters, delays in payments. The bedroom tax, the premature deaths attributed to austerity measures, the casual institutionalisation of food banks. The demonising language towards people on benefits in both parliament and the press. It’s all there.
Over the last 10 years deliberate decisions have been made by those in power, those who have never met anyone like RoadsideMum, or even me, let alone asked what our needs are. And that’s what needs to be looked into. Because when the coronavirus shadow starts to finally wane, we will be left standing in the ruins of a freshly damned economy, and there will be thousands of people who will not and cannot survive another round of austerity.
I would hope that I am being cynical when I review the year just gone and fear that the value of human life means very little to this government, but here it has a real chance to prove me – and many many others – wrong. And do the right thing. Just feed the children, and the adults too.