‘I can’t afford to think about healthy eating’ – a mother’s life

No Child 2020: In the world’s ‘most food-secure’ country, 140,000 children have inadequate diets


Collecting donations from volunteer Rita Carroll, at the Cherry Orchard community centre in Dublin 10, which is acting as a local food bank to those in need. Photograph: James Forde


No Child 2020 is an initiative by The Irish Times providing a sustained focus on child welfare and children’s issues. We explore the problems facing children in the Republic today, and offer solutions that would make this a better country in which to be a child. For more see irishtimes.com/nochild2020

Perhaps the most insidious, damaging and difficult to talk about dimension of poverty is food poverty.

It’s also the one many will find difficult to believe exists. If Ireland is, as reported by the Economist Intelligence Unit in September 2017, “the world’s most food-secure” nation, how can it exist? Even more, how can food poverty be increasing?

As the economy recovers unevenly, inequality has grown and with it, according to the Department of Social Protection, the number of families in food poverty. The department describes it as “the inability to have an adequate and nutritious diet due to issues of affordability or accessibility” and says numbers experiencing it have grown from about 315,000 people in 2009 (7 per cent of the population) to about 537,000 (11.5 per cent) in 2015. About 140,000 of these are children under 18.

It remains, however, the poverty that’s greeted with the most disbelief, harshest judgment and, by those experiencing it, particularly parents, the greatest sense of demoralisation and failure.

But the proliferation of services and organisations providing free and cheap food underlines how real it is.

Mothers and fathers approached by The Irish Times about food poverty – in Dublin and Limerick – were reluctant to talk about it. None would be identified, with some fearful their children could be taken into care if they “admitted” the situation.

“Eileen” (41) is mother to six children aged 21, 19 , 16, 12, six and four, and lives in Cherry Orchard, west Dublin. She spoke to The Irish Times the day before she collects her One-Parent Family Payment.

Her two eldest daughters have moved out of the family home, with one of them in a homeless family hub in Crumlin with her three-year-old son. Her youngest daughter is in pre-school with her other three in school.

She is no longer in a relationship with the children’s father, who lives in the midlands. After €71 for rent to an approved housing body and €10 to the credit union are deducted from her one-parent payment, she has €240 a week. She also gets €560 a month in child benefit.

“It’s very tight. The first thing I do is pay the bills. That’s €25 for the ESB. I have a prepay meter, and the gas for the heating and the cooker is €25. We have Now TV – that’s €15 a month, and the internet is €20 a month.”

No joy in food

She visits a food bank in the Orchard Community Centre every Friday. It was opened 18 months ago by the Society of St Vincent de Paul in response to increasing food poverty, and about 90 families a week receive non-perishables such as canned goods, tea, coffee, pasta, rise and cereals.

She gets her weekly shopping in Aldi or Lidl. “That’s €100-€150 a week and then a taxi home, about a tenner.” The nearest convenience shop, Tommy’s, is a 15-minute walk away and closes at 7pm during the week and 3pm on Sundays.

She says she takes no joy in any aspect of food – shopping, preparation or eating it.

Asked about meal planning, she says she doesn’t have to plan. “The problem is you’re doing the same things all the time because you can’t afford to experiment. You can’t risk waste, and you buy what you can afford. So it’s monotonous.

“So I do spaghetti Bolognese, pizza and chips, chips and eggs, chicken and potatoes. I try to buy vegetables on special offer, but fresh veg is way too dear and it goes off too quickly.

“I always buy a packet of frozen veg. They get fruit at school – apples, bananas. If there’s fruit they like on special in Aldi, you buy it and it’s gone in two days. And the bananas, if they don’t eat them they go black and end up in the bin, and that kills me.

“If I’m low on food – I’m low on food now at the minute – I’ll do something like curry sauce and rice.”

Among the 11 indicators for poverty, three are related to food: not being able to eat a meal with meat, fish or vegetarian equivalent every second day; not being able to have a roast joint or equivalent once a week; and not being able to have friends over for a drink or food once a month.

Eileen is surprised when asked about these. “Meat every second day? Maybe in a spaghetti with mince meat. Very seldom I do a roast dinner. Maybe if chicken legs were on special, but it would be rare there would be a roast dinner here.

“I’ve a son there who will only eat pizza, tacos, wraps and rolls. My 12-year-old is gone very fussy, says: ‘I’m not eating that.’ It’s annoying. I tell them that’s all there is, try to make out I don’t care. I do care, but what can I do?”

“Christmas I found very hard. I lost my mother before Christmas. I dread it anyway, the cost. I was trying to make a nice dinner but then I burnt the potatoes, and the kids said I’d ruined dinner, and then I was crying and they said I’d ruined Christmas. It does get me down.”

She says she doesn’t think about healthy eating. “I can’t afford to. I feed them what I have and that’s it. My health is crap but they are fine, thank God. They never go hungry now and I am lucky because the school, St Ultan’s, gives them a dinner. And the creche gives a hot meal.”

Sweets on tick

When she is short on money, “treats” such as biscuits and tinned fruit are not bought. “I dread the sound of the ice-cream van. There’s two of them come around here and then there’s the sweet-van man as well. Because we live so far away from a shop, he’s bringing in sweets, crisps, biscuits, jellies, minerals, all on tick. I hate when he calls to the door because it’s so hard to say no to the kids when it’s on tick.”

All the family’s clothes are bought in Penneys, and they never have outings to the cinema or for a meal – “not even McDonald’s”.

Asked what the children do at the weekends or school holidays, she says: “They go out on the road or just sit in the gaff. That’s all they can do. It is sad. I’d say they do get depressed.”

They had their first family holiday last summer: a week in Donegal provided by the St Vincent de Paul. “It was lovely,” she smiles, “and for the kids to be able to say they’d had a holiday when they went back to school after the summer”.

She left school aged 14 and “always worked” in shops and cafes until she got pregnant aged 20. “I’ve no Junior Cert or nothing. I’d love to get a job, a few extra bob in the house, but I can’t get a job, not with the kids to look after. I don’t know what I’d do anyway. I do get sad, very sad ... I don’t know what my hopes and dreams were when I left school, but I didn’t expect this.”

Eileen’s experience, shared by many mothers who spoke to The Irish Times, highlights the complexity of food poverty.

While living in a low-income home is usually the main reason a child doesn’t get enough nutritious food, there are almost always other stresses on the family as a result of poverty. These can include low educational attainment, insecure housing, difficulty accessing services, shops and transport, ill health and mental health issues – especially depression and demoralisation.

“A nutritious, socially acceptable and socially inclusive diet is expensive.” Photograph: Jose A Bernat Bacete via Getty Images
“A nutritious, socially acceptable and socially inclusive diet is expensive.” Photograph: Jose A Bernat Bacete via Getty Images

Dr Marian O’Reilly, chief specialist in nutrition with Safe Food, stresses too that, contrary to commentary often offered by those who say a healthy diet is cheap and an unhealthy diet is a choice: “A nutritious, socially acceptable and socially inclusive diet is expensive.”

A curry based on dried chickpeas, beans, vegetable stock and brown rice may be cheap and nutritious, but mothers such as Eileen will end up throwing it in the bin if they were to offer it to their children.

“It has to be realistic,” O’Reilly says. Her 2016 research – based on menus including cereal and toast for breakfast, a meat and salad sandwich and a fruit for lunch, and a pork chop, baked potato and vegetables for dinner, with such snacks as yogurts, biscuits and fruit three times a day – found a healthy food basket for a two-parent household with two children of pre-school and primary school age cost between €121.20 (urban) and €133.48 (rural) per week. Transport costs accounted for the higher rural price.

For a two-parent household with one secondary and one primary school child, the cost was €145.58 for an urban and €159.54 for an rural household.

“The study found healthy food is a significant expense for poorer households,” says O’Reilly. “It could be anything between 15 per cent and 36 per cent of a weekly income. This means low-income families eat less well than their more well-off counterparts.

“Food is the most flexible part of a household budget. We see families cutting back on non-essentials and even essentials when the budget is tight.

“We know for children, and society, the cost of food poverty, is big.”

O’Reilly cites the immediate cost to children: an inability to concentrate in school; anxiety about food and hunger and poor health; obesity; cardiovascular problems; and diabetes. All of these may last into adulthood.

‘Fragile’ children

Although babies born into the poorest households were more likely to be underweight due to the poor nutrition – and in some cases smoking – of their mother before their birth, they are more likely be overweight by the age of nine.

The longitudinal study Growing Up In Ireland published findings in November 2018 that although 83 per cent of nine-year-olds in the highest-income households were “very healthy”, just 72 per cent in the lowest-income homes were.

Some 32 per cent of nine-year-olds in the poorest homes were overweight or obese compared with 22 per cent in middle income and 14 per cent in the wealthiest.

At a Barnardo’s childcare centre in west Dublin, where vulnerable children between two and four years can be referred, staff describe how children can be small and even fragile for their age. Some arrive in the morning “very hungry” and asking for breakfast.

At another centre in Ballyfermot, manager Sunniva Finlay describes how they recently began giving extra food to the children on Fridays as they noticed they were taking food to bring home for the weekend.

A concrete step in tackling food poverty among children, says the Children’s Rights Alliance, would be the provision of a free daily hot, nutritious meal to every child in a school setting. This is policy in countries such as Finland, with the lowest child poverty rates. It is universal – eliminating any stigma associated with “free food” – and regarded as an investment in children.

At present 1,580 schools in disadvantaged areas provide some sort of food – breakfast, lunch, dinner or snack, or all four – with the support of the Department of Social Protection.

The Minister heading that department, Regina Doherty, wants to see hot meals provided in all schools. A pilot hot meal scheme is planned in “up to” 36 primary schools and 7,200 children from September, according to a spokeswoman for the department.

“An invitation will issue to a number of schools within the next two weeks, inviting expressions of interest to participate in the pilot. A decision on extending the pilot to other schools will be made following an evaluation of the pilot.”

It would be a first step, says Tanya Ward, chief executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance. “Fundamentally, though, it is about income and resources for vulnerable families, as well access to good-quality supermarkets.

“We shouldn’t be seeing families going to food banks. It’s about how we organise our cities and our society.”

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