On the breadline

The income our vendors earn from selling The Big Issue is often what puts food on the table.

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People across the country have been forced to navigate increasing austerity like never before. 2022 had the sharpest drop in household incomes on record, thanks to a dramatic surge in inflation.

Whilst economists are claiming we should (narrowly) avoid a recession, stability remains hard to find. Insecure wages and restricted benefits systems, alongside ever-increasing living costs, means that UK households are having to cut back on essentials such as food groceries and energy bills.

For many low-income families and individuals, the recent rises in living costs will be a route into poverty, if they weren’t there already. Big Issue North vendors are amongst some of the most at risk.

The income vendors earn from selling The Big Issue is often one relied on to put food on the table. On average, a vendor earns £60 per week. Many have no other source of income. Selling The Big Issue is a formally recognised form of self-employment, so vendors don’t receive paid leave or sick pay. The average food bill per week is nearly £40 per person, meaning that a vendor needs to sell 20 magazines to cover costs.

The impact of even one week of poor magazine sales can be devastating, especially for those with other financial commitments. Food is often sacrificed for essentials such as rent and utilities.

Bjorn started selling the magazine in Leeds last year. He recently turned 70. “I don’t sell every day, as I look after my grandson, but my pension is very, very low, so selling the magazine helps me to earn a bit extra to buy the necessities … [and] gives me that little bit extra for food with our soaring prices.”

We know that the impact of food poverty and insecurity is more far-reaching than the physical effects of being hungry. The anxiety surrounding where your family’s next meal will come from can be debilitating. The Institute for Public Policy Research found that poverty is driving more than 1.3 million cases of depression described as ‘medically avoidable’.

Food poverty is linked to higher rates of stress. It can cause feelings of isolation, stigmatisation, and shame. Part of this comes with having to shop at places with low social capital, or having to purchase ‘value’ or ‘budget’ brands or products and feeling bad for having to do so. These negative feelings are exacerbated among those who must rely on food banks.

Our latest vendor audit revealed that 29 percent of vendors have used a food bank. 30 percent have used soup kitchens. This is compared with an estimated 8 percent of the general population. Men are much more likely to use these services than women, with 33 percent of male vendors and 21 percent of female vendors having used food banks, and 43 percent of male vendors and 9 percent of female vendors having used soup kitchens.

Not having some of the most basic human needs of food, shelter, and warmth met is traumatic. Access to nutritious food regularly has an immediate, positive impact on someone’s quality of life. It improves their mental health, self-worth, and confidence, in addition to their physical health. We know first-hand how supporting someone to feel better about themselves can affect the rest of their life. 57 percent of vendors said that selling the magazine directly improved their confidence and motivation. This helped them to make changes in other areas.

We are working to explicitly support vendors like Bjorn, and to tackle food poverty and insecurity. Our latest fundraising campaign is called Food For Thought. It is dedicated to raising awareness and financial support for our vendors who, despite their best efforts, are struggling to make ends meet.

The costs of living are increasing. Every penny raised through Big Issue North goes either directly into our vendors’ pockets or is reinvested in support for them.

Read more about Community Grocers in this week’s Big Issue and online.

Each week, around 350 people sell The Big Issue in the north of England, visiting our regional offices to buy the magazine for £2 before selling it on the streets for £4. Learn more about how you can support Big Issue North vendors here

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