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Using food clubs: visit #2

Today was my second visit to a food club. This time, I’d swapped to one nearer to me, though still a mile away. That’s fine with my mobility scooter, but a long way to walk back with heavy bags, their thin plastic handles digging into your hands – a fact I well remember from when I was young, fit and healthy, and walking only half a mile from the supermarket to my home.

Again, there were no major signs letting people know that the food club was there. But there was a queue of people in the foyer of the specified venue. I wasn’t entirely sure that it was a queue, or that if it was a queue that it was for the food club; there was again a lack of signs (though later I saw a small one indicating where the queue should start) and the positioning of the people around the foyer was only semi-queue like. So I hovered in the vicinity until the food club started dishing out the food, at which point the shambles formed more clearly into a queue that I could join. Whilst it was good that this food club location was indoors, there wasn’t a proper, let alone private, place for people to queue, and we were quite clearly in the way of the other users of the venue.

I opted for only one food bag, as three was too many last time. This really galls me, because 3 for £8.50 – even for poor people like me, who aren’t supposed to understand money or how to budget or what thrift is – is definitely much better than 1 for £5. It did mean I only got two cake-related foods (pain au chocolat and malt loaf) compared to seven last time, which whilst being pretty much the same ratio nevertheless felt a lot healthier. That was perhaps in part because malt loaf, for a cake, is low in fat and high in fibre; and pain au chocolat is – again, for a cake – low in sugar.

I didn’t have the same weight of feeling in attending as I did the first time. But having got home, I began to feel it again as I sorted through the food, and saw that eight ripe-to-overripe nectarines and a box of mushrooms were best before the day previous, and smoked haddock was use by the day before. Is it even okay to eat fish a day after its use by date? The internet tells me that smoked fish is okay up to three days after the ‘use by’ date, which seems to rather devalue the point of such dates. Still, it feels rubbish to be given society’s dregs to eat and know that you’re meant to be grateful, rather than upset that society exists in a way that someone needs (semi-)charitable food because the justice of a liveable life for everyone isn’t there.

There was other food that I don’t like, like mushrooms and courgette. And things that I don’t eat, because I try to avoid processed carbs both for normal health reasons and because they make my pain worse. I suppose I should be grateful that the particular savoury processed food that I got this time seemed to be somewhat ‘higher end’ and therefore not as stuffed with preservatives as the cheap stuff. But I don’t actually want to eat it. Who eats potato-and-pumpkin gnocchi? What do you eat it with? Is it remotely nice? (answer: no, I didn’t particularly enjoy it, and will continue not to buy gnocchi for myself)

So I’m looking at my fridge, and what I had in already (not much) and what I’ve got now. I’m mentally trying to juggle the different use-by/best-before dates and trying to think which things work with what and wondering if I even have one meal I can enjoy from the whole lot. Probably if I pair the cherry tomatoes with the ravioli and cheese then that will be nice. But I need something to wash down the haddock, two bags of salad leaves, courgette, mushroom, and gnocchi. I don’t mind salad leaves, but they’re not an inspiring dinner choice. They don’t make the other stuff worth eating.

Tonight I ate the haddock. I had it with pepper, salad leaves, baby sweetcorn and mangetout. I suppose it should have been nice, if I’d actually liked haddock. I didn’t dislike it to the point of gagging, but I didn’t enjoy it either. The right dressing and right accompaniments could have turned it into a nice meal – for someone who liked haddock. So I ate it, knowing I’d never have chosen it for myself; knowing it made me more ill to have to chop and cook the veg; knowing I have another portion to eat tomorrow with all its re-heated glory.

That lack of choice – I can’t describe the feeling it gives. I tell myself it is foolish and that I am prideful to be bothered or to think that other people should be bothered too about the inhumanity and indignity of it. But I wonder what I would do if faced with someone who thought that this model – handing out food parcels with no user choice – was adequate and in no way problematic. I wonder how I’d react if they said that recipients shouldn’t complain but should be grateful for what they get. I don’t think I could explain the emotion of eating something that you find unpleasant out of your own volition – I chose to go to the food club; I chose to eat the food not throw it away – because it’s that or go hungry. I’m not eating it to be polite to a family member who cooked it; I’m not eating it because I accidentally bought it at a shop; I’m eating it because I’m told that’s all I’m good for, and I don’t have the arrogance to throw it away.

Absolutely I could throw the food away that I don’t want. But that sticks in my throat too, just like that meal of haddock did, and knowing I’ll have to eat it again tomorrow does, and writing this blog does. There is food that I throw away: clementines that barely taste of anything; apples that are mushy; salad leaves that have disintegrated into their own goo; anything that tastes of mould (not proper cheese mould, obviously). I think that’s about it. I regularly remove the mould out of pesto-jars and so-on, though I’m told that’s a terrible idea because the mould will have spread unseen throughout the soft contents. I cut mould off bread and eat the rest, as long as I can’t taste the mould in it.

But at least I bought that pesto jar in the first place, and it’s my fault for not eating it all fast enough. At least I made that bread, and it’s my fault that I didn’t slice and freeze it before mould took hold. The active choice to do that has nothing to do with the forced choice of eating gone-off, over-ripe, unwanted food because this country decided that having enough money to live off is not sufficiently important to make it a reality for every member.

It's going round and round in my head, unsettling me. I can feel it in my throat; that tense, unhappy, nearly-crying feeling. I shouldn’t have to eat food I find unpleasant just because I’m not well enough to work. I should, like you, get the humanity and pleasure of choosing my own food to eat. I understand eating what you’re given when it’s a crisis and it’s genuinely not possible to offer choice (though maybe it still is. If you’re cooking batch meals for many people, in many big cooking pots, it’s not that hard for some of those pots to have different contents to others. You don’t have to throw absolutely everything into one pot). But the point here is that we should, as a country, be working for justice.

In Biblical times, poor people could go gleaning at harvest time. Do you know what that meant? It meant they could choose which field they gleaned in and therefore what food they brought home. Sure, there were limited options, and if you didn’t like wheat OR barley OR oats then you were stuck. If you hated both grapes AND olives, then maybe your fruit options are a bit more limited. But if you liked one and not the others, then you could go get that one. You had choice. People would also be given money, which they could then use to go and buy what they wanted.

It's not impossible. Other food clubs run a model where the users get to choose the food that they have. If they don’t want something, they don’t have to take it. They are given dignity and choice. It is recognised that we are not robots and that some of us like some things and don’t like others. That matters to us. It’s not much, but it’s a small gesture in the direction of recognising that we are human, and in the world we live in, that’s a big deal.

So I guess maybe part of my distress is that it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s not just that there should be justice and that Christians should be calling out on government in defence of those in poverty and need. It’s that when charity is done, it can be done better than this. A decision has been made to take an approach that dehumanises people, and that decision did not have to go that way. Someone probably decided that it was worth it, because it reduces the space and time and number of volunteers needed, and therefore more can be done with limited resources. Though on the other hand, a lot of time and effort presumably goes into formulating those parcels and trying to get a balance of calories and nutrition and not too much in the way of carbs and sweet stuff, whilst being fair to everyone based on whatever was available that day. Maybe it actually would be less labour intensive to let people choose their own food. Either way, let’s work for better, people. Let’s agree that this approach is not good enough and is only done because some unspecified resource constraints forced it, and it will be rejected as soon as at all possible.

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