Hookey Grub – Do We Really Need to Steal Food?

I used to be in a band with a man who enjoyed a bit of petty shoplifting for fun, in the same way one of my all time favourite comedians Micky Flanagan does. In January I saw Flanagan perform his ‘Works in Progress’ show in the Leicester Square theatre and he dedicated a few minutes of narrative on stealing things like sausage rolls and chewing gum, just for shits and giggles. I was in pieces because this is exactly what our old keys player did, the way he delivered it was hilarious too. He also used to tell us of how when he was a mental health student nurse he used to make things like spider soup with his flatmates because they spent all their money on booze.

Patrick Butler reported yesterday in the Guardian Blog that citizens with no previous criminal history are resorting to shoplifting  items of food as a result of the financial squeeze placed upon them by the benefits squeeze. There is also a growing market trading ‘knock off food’, where you could buy two packets of bacon for £1.50. One man said: “At the end of the day if I’m skint… I don’t agree with it. But… £1.50 for two packs of bacon… I felt grotty for buying it but at the same time, it did us for a couple of days”.

I truly believe there is a cultural problem when it comes to food in the UK, I abhor the super commercialisation of junk food and the effect it has on children especially. Kids can go to school with a couple of quid in their pocket and buy a 35p energy drink and copious Bobby’s snacks, shite for the stomach and mind. Every high street has a mutant fried chicken shop, you can rarely travel a few miles without seeing the evil M arches and most supermarkets pride themselves on offering up BOGOFS (‘buy one get one frees’) on the worst types of food. Micky Flanagan also told us how he loves the cheapest, nastiest, bowel scraping sausages. His wife won’t let him eat them so when he has some time to himself (after a quick wank) he goes to the local shop and buys the sort of sausies that are served on the sidelines at kids football matches. I haven’t eaten Richmonds for years but they do taste good, I’ll make you right Micky F. I’ll never eat them again for a mountain of nutritional and ethical reasons.

Last night, Rick Stein’s India was on, Rick has a wonderful disposition and one of the most interesting parts of the show was when he visited the slums. His guide told us that some doctors and lawyers choose to live in the slums of Bombay over paying high rental costs, they enjoy the community and enterprise that exists there. There is enterprise in abundance; open one door and there is an embroidery factory, open another and there is a small office. Go round the corner and someone is operating a blast furnace, go next door and a man is cooking his lunch. The first thing he does is offer to share with Rick. Rick feels bad, he says he will buy the chapati (which is the best he has ever had, no lie, I could tell by the look on his face!) off him. The man isn’t interested, Rick’s guide says sharing food is so important to the people of India, there is no shame in being poor and living on basic food, they always make the best of what they have.

The man was cooking a chapati and some vegetables over a single wood burner. He had slices courgettes, onions and garlic frying up and wrapped them in the bread, lunch served. In the UK you might pay £2.50-3 for a decent veggie wrap and it might not always be fresh. Watching how these people live and eat in the slums shows us just how dysfunctional and spoiled in a Western way we are when it comes to food. Making bread is not difficult and it certainly isn’t expensive. Even if you don’t want to spend a couple of quid on yeast, you could make a sourdough starter and would only need to buy flour and salt. For flatbreads, the flour goes even further.

The way our supermarket shelves are stocked says a great deal about our eating habits, ready meals a plenty. When the horsemeat scandal broke I watched Question Time and noticed not one person questioned their personal decisions when it comes to preparing food. I know the government and corporate monoliths are responsible for providing honest, safe food but I never ever buy prepared food. I know everything that goes into my meals. I lived on a £30 a week food budget for quite a while, feeding me and my son. If I couldn’t afford decent meat, I ate vegetarian. I had to completely reassess my attitude towards food and soon realised I wasn’t entitled to any luxuries just because I had been used to them before. I despise what the government have done to the benefits system but I do believe, as a nation we don’t have enough basic skills when it comes to food, we also eat too much and the nutritional guidelines on food packaging don’t help paint a clearer picture either. Realistically, a few spices, a couple of bags of pulses/beans, some flour, water, oil and rice can make great food with many varieties, add eggs and milk into the mix and you can more than double that repertoire. We eat to nourish and in hard times it is important to learn new skills and become inventive, become more healthy, if nothing more than to help alleviate how tough being impecunious feels.

One of the things I’ve learned when life deals you a shit hand is how important it is to adapt and grow, not try to carry on living as you were before. There is nothing that can be done outside of successful campaigning to reverse the government’s stance on benefits claimants, people are stuck. But they don’t have to be that stuck, especially when it comes to food. It seems there is a collective psychology amongst the inhabitants of the Bombay slums, something the British do not possess. The United Kingdom is very much an individualist nation.

As Rick Stein’s India showed it is possible to eat good, nourishing food very cheaply but is most definitely a cultural thing. The people of the slums probably learned how to cook at the same age most kids in the UK learned how to use an iPad, around 3. Cooking is coming to the fore in the UK with the advent of celebrity chefs and Jamie Oliver really is trying to push us in the right direction with shows like ’15 Minute Meals’. But preparing basic food from scratch isn’t a culture we necessarily inherit, like the Indians, Italians, Greeks or Spanish do. When I go to Greece or Italy, I see very few chain food stores or takeaways, mostly family run bakers and lots of fruit and veg stalls, there is a pride in fresh and authentic food.

When I read Patrick Butler’s piece on food poverty in the UK I did feel bad for the plight of those who are struggling without that extra £11.58 a week and feel the need to shoplift coffee or buy knock of food. I feel bad because the bad ass tories are doing their best to squeeze the spirit out of poor people, in a drive to force moral change, which in itself is amoral in a sense. I feel like setting up a nutrition stall outside a major supermarkets with a camping gaz burner and showing people there is a way to eat well on sod all and there is joy to be found in being inventive. I’ve been poor before but I was very proud with it, kind of like the residents of the Bombay slums. Food should bring us together, never be a source of worry even when the purse strings are tight. But if you’re nicking sausage rolls for kicks, that’s a completely different story………….