In October 2020 former barrister and legal skills lecturer Snigdha Nag wrote a viral twitter thread imploring the internet to “stop quoting pasta prices”. In 2022 as we are submerged in a ‘Cost of Living Crisis’ and food poverty is a reality for millions the government’s response is to gaslight us. Now Snigdha wants to know would the trolls please just stop?

The cost of living crisis, which began this spring, is likely to become the most important social and political issue of the summer and beyond. The cost of food items are creating fears of widespread desperation and deprivation. The government response, just like the £400 bung to households to cover the increase in energy costs, is a shambles and is ill-conceived. On the 19th of May, Kit Malthouse MP appeared on LBC stating,

“I wrote to chief constables just a year or so ago saying they should not be ignoring those seemingly small crimes.”

Which crimes would that be? Desperate people stealing food. In the middle of a crisis of spiralling energy, fuel and food costs. Malthouse has been quoted on Times Radio saying: “I have to challenge this connection between poverty and crime. What we’ve found in the past, and where there is now growing evidence, is that actually crime is a contributor to poverty.” [Citation needed, Mr Malthouse]. 

Malthouse’s comments directly undermine the advice of the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Andy Cooke, whose recommendation that the police use “discretion” was rubbished by Malthouse as “old-fashioned.” Malthouse has no issue with a return of Les Miserables, only UK style, where a once starving man is pursued for the rest of his life for stealing a loaf of bread. Unless Dickens is more Malthouse’s bag.

The difference between the haves and have-nots is particularly stark right now, as we discover through the Sunday Times Rich List 2022 that the UK has a record number of billionaires. As Otto English (the journalist and author also known as Andrew Scott) put it: “Your fact of the day. There’s roughly one British billionaire for every 7 Trussell Trust food banks in the UK.” There are 177 billionaires. As our American cousins might say, “do the math.” 

The Conservative Party don’t want people to realise how the misery of people being unable to eat and unable to heat their homes is down to their policies and ideology. They will shrug and say “there’s nothing we can do about inflation,” when in April it reached a 40 year high of 9%. But they removed the £20 uplift to Universal Credit, increased National Insurance contributions. Their treatment of disabled people has been criticised by the UN. And they have suspended the “triple lock” on the state pension. The party of low taxation, as they would see themselves, have in fact imposed the highest tax burden in 70 years.

How do they go about ensuring you don’t link the explosion in food bank numbers and food bank use? By blaming the very people who need this lifeline to get by. Even worse, they are aided and abetted by bad faith actors on social media. It begins by quoting the price of a bag of dried pasta, usually from a discount supermarket. 

Back in October 2020 I noticed a number of these posts, which seemed to receive a large number of likes and retweets. It prompted a long thread which I posted on Twitter. I began:

Take a look at these suggested meal “solutions.” They always have these things in common;

  • They never budget in seasoning,
  • They recommend only the cheapest of ingredients,
  • They wrongly assume you can buy individual cloves of garlic or bay leaves.
  • They never ever remember you might need oil to brown mince with, or cheese to grate on top of your pasta. 
As I said in my thread: “Why should people on low incomes eat the blandest possible food? Why should they have to choose between heating their home or cooking food? I am sick of the Let Them Eat Porridge/Spuds/Pasta posts of this week.”

Porridge, of course, was infamously touted by journalist Isabel Oakeshott, whose partner is the multi-millionaire property tycoon Richard Tice. Oakeshott is fortunate enough to be in the position where her greatest grievances include the rising cost of private school fees, and the hardship of wearing a mask in a pandemic.

Yes, a bag of potatoes is cheaper than supermarket oven chips, but then you need a peeler and pan, the mobility in your hands to wash, peel and cut the potatoes into chips, then the oil to fry them, the electricity or gas to cook the chips. What’s the weight of 1kg of potatoes once peeled?   

The fallacy of splitting up multi-packs of food is another way in which costs are downplayed. Paul here cites an 88p can of tuna; but if you cannot afford the £3.52 for the multi-pack of 4 at the time you are shopping, you cannot benefit from the cheaper price per can. I would also like to know where Paul went to obtain a microwave oven for free, since he has not included this item in his 55p total. 

Failing to include costings for energy is a frequent, and I would suggest deliberate error by our so-called cheap cooking experts, which I dealt with in my thread: “The biggest con is how energy prices are so much higher for people on low incomes or are unlucky enough to live in rented accommodation where the previous tenant incurred debt. These people pay much more for energy, leading to the choice of heating vs cooking hot food.” Paying for power on a key is always more expensive per unit.

The narrative that people struggling to pay their bills are stupid or feckless or lazy is one which comes back, time after time. Lee Anderson MP caused consternation recently with his remarks: “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’s argument about need is easily rebutted with the stark facts, as evidenced by the number of food banks set out above, and with the news that the Trussell Trust’s foodbanks provided 2.1 million parcels from 1 April 2021–31 March 2022. More than 830,000 parcels were for children. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that ⅕ people are living in poverty despite the United Kingdom having one of the largest national economies in the world. 

Anderson also claimed that 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.” This claim doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny when you realise he is relying on a stunt he pulled in November 2021 and documented on his Facebook page. Take a look at the pictures; canteen size serving dishes, huge stainless steel bowls for prepared ingredients. Anderson had the money up front to buy ingredients at a large scale: he had willing volunteers to carry, prepare and cook the food; he had equipment fitting for cooking at scale and the means to pack away and store the finished dishes. The Conservative Party will have you believe they are the party with fiscal and economic competence; yet Anderson cannot fathom the economies of scale and division of labour. 

George Eustice, the Secretary of State for Environment, suggested that “generally speaking, what people find is going for some sort of value brand rather than own branded products they can actually contain and manage their household budget.” The idea that people struggling to make ends meet are unable to make this deduction is deeply patronising. This either shows that Eustice is completely out of touch, or worse still, cynically providing right-wing media outlets and social media trolls with a new way of blaming poor people for their lack of funds. 

One common angle for the #BackBoris brigade, desperate to prop up the Big Dog, is to criticise people for smartphone ownership. This is a contemporary classic of the genre as posted on Twitter. 

Every time this subject comes up, someone with very little thought will post the inevitable “gotcha” that people who claim to be struggling would be far better off without a mobile phone. Back in October 2020, I tried to deal with this argument: “Look around yourself, austerity has meant Jobcentres and local libraries have closed. So the free internet access which had once existed has disappeared. Don’t begrudge a job seeker a smartphone. They need an email address, mobile number and internet access to get a job.” My local jobcentre has been gone for years, and my local library has taken the computing and printing facilities away. Yet I live among the supposed  “metropolitan elite” of London.”

As you will see from Kathryn’s tweet above, the issue of flat screen or large size TVs is often raised to counter the existence of poverty in the UK. I responded in my thread: “For years and years the ONLY TVs available are flat screen. So stop all this nonsense about phones and TVs suggesting a lack of poverty.” The size of the screen is a red herring; if you are buying a TV on a special deal at ASDA, Aldi or Lidl, you’ll be able to afford a budget brand large screen model for less than an average size screen made by the leading brands. And if you cannot afford to go out, is it such a terrible thing to have a big screen to watch your favourite programmes on?” 

Aldi and Lidl are the discounted supermarkets whose prices food poverty deniers love to quote on social media. It’s a variation on the “let them eat basics brand” theme. I often shop at these stores, and find them to be great value for money. I am sure that if there was such a shop in everyone’s locality, those struggling financially would shop there. But have people like Joanna looked up the map of locations for these stores? Back in 2020, my response to such people was: “Suggesting that everyone can gain the most discounted and rock bottom prices for food is rubbish. There are people who are working when food gets reduced. Others don’t have discounted supermarkets nearby. How would you know what pricing others have available to them?”

Not to mention the fact that, for a light lunch, a soup made from chicken stock, sweetcorn and dried noodles might be sufficient. However, it is a carbohydrate reliant “belly filler” rather than a nutritious and balanced meal. Given that chicken sandwiches were the meal the day before, I am not seeing much fresh fruits or vegetables. 

The “why don’t they shop at Aldi?” argument falls down when you consider the matter of transport. My observations were: “Not everyone has a car or can afford to run a car. Therefore access to the most discounted prices is impossible. In many rural areas public transport fares are relatively expensive. So posting the cheap prices available in Aldi and Lidl (which I love) is unhelpful.”

More worryingly, there appears to be a sector of Conservative activists and commentators who want to inspect people’s home finances, because they arrogantly think they will find unnecessary luxuries or will be able to advise on cutbacks. If you are struggling for money, it appears your finances should  no longer be private. 

We even have first year undergraduate students offering their two cents worth, as commentator Sophie Corcoran shares her insights. 

You can’t “break the cycle of poverty” when benefits and pay levels are too low to buy and cook food. You can’t make a household budget with nothing. In the words of food poverty campaigner Jack Monroe,

“The square root of f*ck all is ALWAYS going to be f*ck all, no matter how creatively you’re told to dice it.”

I’m by no means rich, but I am comfortable. I can see how our food shop has crept up in price, bit by bit. And the gas bill arrived yesterday, and it is clear I am paying much more. So what is this like for someone who is actually struggling? Other than “Elsie,” the pensioner who rides on the bus to stay warm during the day, very few of those affected by this crisis appear in the media. Having said that, given the initial clamour to either deny the existence of Elsie and later to discredit her when her existence was confirmed, who would blame anyone for being reticent to share their experiences?

Just as the 120+ fixed penalty fines for Partygate show that the Conservative government do not think the rules apply to them, they are equally happy to insulate themselves from rising costs. The restaurants and bars at the House of Commons have been subsidised to the tune of £17m in the last three years, and the House of Lords (where peers are paid £343 for each day they sit) have spent £8m of taxpayers’ money over the same period to keep their food and drink costs down. Even the Prime Minister has been caught getting his meals delivered by a butler on a bicycle, scoffing £27,000 in organic takeaways which were paid for by a Tory donor. 

This government has shown their detachment, disdain and lack of empathy for all of us. Yet the trolls continue to assist them, whether it is announcing on Twitter that they “don’t care about Partygate,” or dismissing the near exponential rise of food bank use. It’s awful enough that our own government is gaslighting us – would the trolls please, please stop?

Snigdha Nag is a senior lecturer in postgraduate legal skills at a university in London. Other than the law, she is interested in equality and diversity, social justice and politics. A passionate foodie, she can be found tweeting about food and politics via the handle @snigskitchen

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