I remember studying the Victorian era at school all those years ago and thinking it was unimaginable that through some misfortune you could be flung into destitution, with no safety net to protect you. It seemed so brutal and uncivilised.
I remember also being shocked as a child to discover that the NHS didn’t always exist – that if you were sick, your chances of getting well again depended on how rich you were. This seemed grossly unfair to me, fairness being a preoccupation as a child from a large family, where sharp elbows and strong debating skills were essential in securing my rightful share of phone use or getting to choose what was on telly from time to time.
But poverty was, I thought, an unavoidable fact of life. Some people were rich, some were poor, the majority somewhere between the two. I didn’t question the inevitability or otherwise of this until much later on, despite only being a generation away from a long family line of poverty. Both my parents had benefited from a free university education in the 1960s, and managed to earn well out of the burgeoning science and technology industries, and we were lucky enough to live in relative comfort.
Even when we started Eat Well MCR in March 2020, the purpose was to prevent food waste. I wanted to use up the food in restaurants and cafés that would have otherwise gone in the bin because of lockdown closures. I quickly found myself with a restaurant full of donated food, and began preparing meals for NHS staff working in nightmare conditions. However, within another week we were part of Manchester City Council’s emergency food response, cooking and delivering meals to rough sleepers the council was temporarily housing in hotels, and then other organisations that had been working with people experiencing homelessness and food poverty for years.
One of the most shocking discoveries for me was the huge numbers of homeless families, housed mostly in B&Bs, with no cooking facilities, save for perhaps a kettle and microwave in their room, and no refrigeration. Even with financial support, or access to food banks and food parcels, there was no option to cook anything for their families.
It was naive to think this was the pits because a couple of years later, we’ve plumbed even greater depths, as more and more families cannot afford to use the gas or electricity required to cook, and food banks are now trying to provide food that doesn’t need heating or cooking. That’s if they’re not running out of food entirely. The food system in this country is arse-ways up.
I’ve been skint, sure, but always lucky enough to have a safety net from family and friends in desperate times. But notwithstanding my lack of lived experience, it is clear to me that not having your most basic needs of food, shelter and warmth met is an avoidable trauma. It should feel a disgrace that it is visited on anyone in this country of plentiful resources.
I know a number of couples with children who both work full time but who have had to use food banks for the first time recently. Worse even than the daily stress of trying to balance a budget is the feeling that they have in some way failed their families. They absolutely have not, nor has any one who needs support to make ends meet. They have been failed by a system stacked against them.
We at Eat Well MCR don’t have the solutions to food poverty but there are think tanks and politicians that have the policies that can stop it destroying more lives. We can, however, continue to try to offer small acts of care in the form of a meal, made with love by the wonderful chefs and restaurants in our collective, to people around Greater Manchester facing growing hardship.
I’ll be cooking a huge Eat Well MCR communal Sunday roast on 11 September, served up on long tables on the Dock 10 Mezzanine, MediaCityUK and catering for 200 people across two sittings, at 12-2pm and 3-5pm. It’s part of We Invented the Weekend, a celebration of Salford’s contribution to the weekend for working people.
Each ticket bought contributes towards 50 extra Sunday roasts that we will deliver to people experiencing food inequality and hardship at Salford Food Bank. Good food should be accessible to all and we will continue our mission to provide weekly delicious meals to those who might need to be reminded that they are worthy of care, whatever their circumstances.
Mary Ellen-McTague is a chef of more than 20 years experience and writer. She has cooked at Michelin-starred restaurants, including Sharrow Bay and the Fat Duck, with Heston Blumenthal, and set up her own restaurants Aumbry and the Creameries. She is a co-founder of Eat Well Mcr (eatwellmcr.org). For information on We Invented the Weekend see weinventedtheweekend.com