On the menu today: stir-fried noodles with vegetables. “Any vegetable you like or can get your hands on,” is the recipe the students follow. Carrot, broccoli, pepper, cabbage. Plus three cloves of garlic and possibly sesame seeds for decoration.
Brenda Bridges – apron on, hair in pigtails – holds a handful of bean sprouts over her forehead as she looks questioningly at the teacher. Just throw this in? “Yes, and keep stirring well over high heat,” says the teacher, Amandeep Verdding.
With about ten others, all busy behind their own little kitchen island, Bridges takes a course in cheap and healthy cooking. The organizer is Made in Hackney, a vegan cookery school offering East London residents free courses and meals. The aim is to introduce more Britons to plant-based food and thus kill two birds with one stone: curb climate change and fight poverty. Two to three people can eat the noodles that Bridges prepares for around £3.50 (€4.10).
This course came at exactly the right time, says Bridges, because she has to be thrifty. She has four children at home and finds that the costs of daily life are increasing. She points to the bottle of olive oil on the counter. A few months ago she would have paid less than 2.50 euros for it, now more than 4 euros. She has been going to the cheapest supermarkets for a long time, she knows the prices more or less by heart. “Why pay a pound for a bag of carrots somewhere when I pay 29p for it at Aldi?”
Prices in the UK are rising faster than in most other European countries and the US, due to a combination of negative factors. The UK – like the EU – suffers from high energy prices and – like the US – an unusually tight labor market. As a result, wages rise and this in turn stimulates inflation. Prices in the UK were 9.4 percent higher in June than a year ago. Consumers are adapting and spending less money on things they don’t need right away. An estimated 4.4 million UK households, one in six, are struggling to make ends meet.
Brenda Bridges loves the dishes she discovers at Made in Hackney. “Especially that you can actually make everything without packages and bags.” She now deals with food in a different way, she also says, she used to throw out quite a lot. “I learned here that you can freeze almost anything. Bananas, vegetables, spices. You can, for example, put herbs in such a container for ice cubes and always take out what you need.”
The participants of the course are especially afraid of October, when heating returns and energy prices rise again. The UK regulator is allowed to adjust the maximum amount consumers pay for gas and electricity twice a year. In April it rose by £700 to almost £2,000 (€2,375) a year, in October due to high gas prices there is likely to be another £1,200, more than €1,400. These delayed increases weigh heavily in the prediction that the UK will have to deal with high inflation for a long time to come.
Also read: To eat or to heat: life has become unaffordable for millions of Britons
Student Oleander Agbetu is already trying to save some money, but it is not easy for her. During the corona crisis, she had to stop her business – she offered craft courses that did not work online. “We only survived thanks to the food bank and Made in Hackney.” On the course, she found the best tip: cook in large quantities. “You eat the rest a few days later or put it in the freezer.” She brought the noodles in trays to take home.
Her teenage son has sickle cell disease, a severe form of anemia. “He needs to stay warm or his symptoms will get worse. So that means high energy costs.” At school, he is the only one in the class wearing a coat. Fortunately, Agbetu has now found a part-time job as a social worker at a general practitioner, but it is not a big deal.
It is clear that the pandemic has worsened Agbetu’s situation. But the British economy has a more structural problem than Covid-19 – and Brexit, as is often added in the same breath. The consequences of the British withdrawal from the EU are difficult to quantify due to the corona crisis, but it is certain that there will be negative effects.
This month, the Resolution Foundation think tank presented a study of the British standard of living, which shows that the income of households in the UK lags behind in, for example, France or Germany: “There is no doubt that the UK is a wealthy country globally, but there are a significant lag behind living standards in comparable countries.” Incomes for most poorer households have been stagnant since 2005 – well before Brexit. The annual increase is just 0.1 per cent. Just over a quarter of Britons would not be able to survive a month if their pay stopped.
The researchers warn of the “toxic mix of low economic growth and persistently high income inequality.” They find that income growth is desperately needed, especially for low-middle incomes and what’s below. A tax cut alone, now fighting the battle between the two candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party, will not be enough. The UK’s National Audit Office also advocates a broader strategy to increase productivity. For example, employees must have better training opportunities.
These conclusions confirm the image by Amandeep Verdding, of Made in Hackney, of the people knocking on the door for help. “It’s certainly not just poor people without income. People with jobs just don’t know how to make ends meet.” British media are already calling food banks “the new emergency services”.
Verdding sympathizes with politicians who give tips to save on groceries. For example, a Conservative member of the House of Commons recently said that Britons should no longer buy A brands, but cheaper house brands from the supermarket. Another said food banks are not necessary as long as people learn to cook properly. It would be more appropriate, says Verdding, if the government provided more support for the development of a healthy diet, for example with courses such as Made in Hackney. “A sugar tax would also help. In many supermarkets, unhealthy junk is cheaper than the healthy choices.”