Heat or eat? It shouldn’t be choice.

fuel_by_jack_monroe

A couple of weeks ago I learned that one in three people in the UK think that this winter they will have to make a choice: warm their food or their home. I heard this as I sat in a chilly room and looked at three tins that I had no way of warming for my dinner. It was an effort to make real, for a little while at least, this terrible dilemma. And it’s one I’ve continued to think about.

The setting was Fuel by Jack Monroe, a pop up restaurant organised as part of the launch of Jack’s new partnership with the npower Foundation to expand their fuel bank network. Jack introduced the night by telling us something of the food and fuel poverty that affect one million people in the UK today. We were then presented with covered dishes for our dinner. Lifting the lid, this was the view before us.

fuel_jack_monroe_tins

And we were left to decide how to respond. Tuck in? Talk about it? Leave?

After the initial ripple of surprise, and a few murmurings about what to do, tins were gradually popped open as people along the table began to try cold baked beans, tinned mandarin slices, and (for a couple of people braver than me) corned beef. I turned to a tin of tomato soup before me and sampled a few mouthfuls. The taste was fine, though certainly less satisfying than if it was warm. But I was acutely aware that these cold surroundings were temporary, and that I had the back up of a hot meal at home. I didn’t have to eat this for dinner. This was a one off; it wasn’t my every day.

It wasn’t even going to be my experience for a night. After about five minutes of letting us engage with, and taste, the unheated tins before us, Jack informed us that a warm meal would follow. The tins were whisked away (unopened ones heading to a food bank I believe) and warm pea soup arrived. The heating came on. We were back in our comfort zone.

Between courses, we heard from Jack, the npower Foundation, and the head of a local food bank about the very real challenges that face women, men and children in the UK today, and how this new campaign is looking to help address that. Jack speaks from cold and hungry experience; it’s impossible to be unmoved by it (read her own words about it here). We were shown a film of unsuspecting customers to Fuel who were literally forced to choose between hot food and hot surroundings – when they complained of the cold, their food was whisked away. When they asked for the food back, the temperature plummeted. The choice was made real for them: heat or eat?

I left the evening glad to have gone, to have heard more about the challenges that face too many people. Jack expressed a desire to have gone further with the experience: left it at the tins, rather than go on to serve a hot (and delicious) meal. And in some ways, I wish that had been the case. That we had been given the compromise simulated on the film, and experienced by so many. The encounter with the tins was, in some ways, too fleeting to hit home. The discomfort was relieved too quickly.

But at the end of the day, I suppose that doesn’t really matter. The point is that this is the reality of too many people. And this campaign is an effort to address these urgent needs, which has got to be a good thing.

Thank you to Jack and the nPower Foundation for inviting me to the event.

I found this excellent article by Natalie Williams helpful for thinking about the wider system changes that also need to happen to address food and fuel poverty. 

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