Three-day emergency food bank parcels are reality for many families – can you live of them?

More and more families are using food banks

Food banks have become more and more common for families looking for added support.  Universal Credit has seen a lot of families have their benefits cut or reduced, leaving them more reliant on food banks.  They can have a three-day emergency food parcel to help them get through the week, and with food banks increasing more attention must be given to the state of the parcels. As a result, Essex Live sent reporter Elliot Hawkins to live on the three day parcel and see how it affected him.

This is what was left after my three day challenge (Image: Essex Live)

What is the fair food challenge?

Organised by Colchester Food Bank, the fair food challenge gives people the chance to live off an emergency food parcel while donating the amount of money they would have spent at home. While raising money for an important cause, it also gives people who aren’t in the position of relying on food banks the chance to appreciate the difficulty some families face on a day to day basis.

The food

Colchester Food Bank offers two different food packages – a standard parcel and a family parcel. A standard parcel, which I was given, weighs between 10kg and 15kg and is meant to cater for either an individual or a couple for three days. A family parcel weighs between 20kg and 25kg, and is intended for families of two adults and two children. Both contain the same types offood, just more of it for families.

What did the food bank parcel include?

Food:

  • Pasta x1
  • Pasta sauce x1
  • Baked beans x2
  • Spaghetti x2
  • Ravioli x1
  • Soup x5
  • Potatoes x1
  • Chopped tomatoes x2
  • Lentils x1
  • Mandarins x1
  • Peas x1
  • Rice pudding x1
  • Jam x1
  • Crisps x2
  • Biscuits x1
  • Rice x1
  • Curry x2
  • Fray Bentos chicken x1
  • Tuna chunks x2
  • Porridge oats x1
  • Drinks:
  • There was just one carton of milk and juice (Image: Essex Live)
  • Yorkshire tea bags x1
  • Milk x1
  • Apple juice x1

After making a donation to the food bank, I took home my food parcel, which weighed just over 11kg, and started to think about my three-day meal plan.  With breakfasts, lunches and dinners to consider, I wanted to make sure I knew exactly how much I could eat and when I could eat it.

The three-day challenge:

Monday

It was porridge for breakfast. One of the items included in the food parcel was a bag of porridge oats weighing 1kg and with 50g recommended portions, it’s an ideal breakfast for the parcel as it can last for much longer than the three-day emergency period.  As early as Monday morning, I was made to think about even the smallest things that I would choose without thinking twice in day to day life.  I would usually put sugar on my porridge, but with no sugar in the food parcel it was an instant no go. That meant the porridge was quite bland, but the last thing you can be when living on a budget is fussy.

For lunch, I went for a tin of spaghetti. The rice and curry was only enough to last for two lunches, so I had to pick an alternative for the first day. I had a tin of spaghetti for lunch on day one while it wasn’t the most substantial lunch, a whole tin provides a decent portion and filled me up enough to last until dinner without feeling the need to snack.  There were plenty of snacks that I could have eaten in between meals like the tinned orange segments or crisps, but I didn’t feel overly hungry at this point. I have to admit that I cracked open the pack of biscuits later in the afternoon, but while I could easily eat half a packet on a normal day, I restricted myself to two or three to ensure they lasted the three days.

With a perfectly-sized bag of pasta, it was clear what I was going to have for dinners over the course of the week. I’m a big fan of pasta anyway, so it wasn’t a huge change for me, and as there were about three portions in the bag it worked out just right. It was also good to have a jar of pasta sauce which again contained enough to last right through to the final day. It was another good portion, and I got to the end of Monday evening feeling content. I knew I had my breakfasts and dinners sorted for the week, and enough rice and curry for two more lunches.

I’d only opened one tin and there was plenty of milk and apple juice left, so I was confident that I had more than enough to last the rest of the period.

Tuesday

This would be my lunch for two of the three days. It was the same start to Tuesday with a portion of porridge and a glass of apple juice.  I left for work feeling full and had half of my rice packet and a curry sachet with me for when lunchtime came around. I also took the biscuits in case I needed a quick sugar fix during the day.

I’d never had pheasant curry before, and I have to admit I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was shocked when it turned out to be one of the nicest curries I’d ever had.

Dinner was again covered by a portion of pasta and sauce, and while I went into the final day with plenty of food left, I didn’t feel like I’d undereaten at all.

Wednesday

It’s a good job I’m a pasta fan. By Wednesday morning, the milk and apple juice cartons were running fairly low. While all of the food included in the parcel was sustainable and long life, the drinks had a limited usage period once they’d been opened.  It meant that both the milk and the juice had to be used within three days of opening, and anyone using the food bank would be unable to make these products last longer than the three-day emergency period.  I had enough milk left for my final portion of porridge and enough apple juice for a large glass, but it meant it would be water for the rest of the day whenever I needed a drink.

The other two meals were the same as Tuesday, with the other half of my rice and curry for lunch and the rest of the pasta and sauce for dinner.  I’d made sure I’d left enough of everything for two decent-sized portion to finish the week, and I also had a few more biscuits in the afternoon to keep me going in between meals. And that was it. I’d got through three days of living off a food bank diet and I felt more than content with both the amount of food I’d eaten and the amount I had to spare if I had to continue the challenge.  I didn’t set out with the intention of eating as little as possible, in fact I thought I would have to eat a lot more than I did. But when you compare the picture of all the food at the start of the week with the one of the leftover items, they don’t look too dissimilar.

This is what was left after my three day challenge

What did I eat/drink?

  • Three servings of porridge
  • The carton of milk
  • The carton of apple juice
  • One tin of spaghetti
  • The bag of rice
  • The two sachets of curry
  • The bag of pasta
  • The jar of pasta sauce
  • Half a packet of biscuits

That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it gave me three decent-sized meals over the three days, as well as enough liquid and quick snacks to keep me going. One of the most important things when it comes to living on a very limited budget is to save wherever you can. The good thing about tinned food is that it lasts for a very long time, so if, like me, you only use one of around 20 tins over the three days, you can save the rest of them for a later date.  As people are restricted to around four food bank visits in six months, it’s vital to make the long life food last. That way, you only have to buy the essentials on a daily basis.  Foods like porridge are also great for meals because they fill you up and you can get around 20 portions out of a cheap bag of oats like the one I had.

How did I find the challenge?

While I felt peckish at times, I was never overly hungry. My meal portions were perfectly big enough and I had plenty of food to fall back on if I needed it.  But one thing the challenge really made me aware of is how much I snack. So often I’ll find myself picking at bits from the fridge or the cupboard if I want a quick bite to eat, but you just can’t do that when living on such a small budget, especially for a long period of time.  And while the food bank can’t provide fresh fruit or vegetables, there are tinned alternatives that ensure you don’t miss out on important vitamins and nutrients.  But it taught me that as long as you’re sensible, you can make most food go a long way.

Universal Credit leading to increase in food bank use

Research last year by the Trussell Trust, who provide a nationwide network of food banks for people in need, has shown that food bank usage rises significantly in areas where Universal Credit has been rolled out.  On average, 12 months after roll out, food banks see a 52% increase in demand, compared to 13% in areas where Universal Credit has been in place for three months or less.  This shows that the longer people are living on the benefit system, the more likely they are to be forced to use the food bank to provide for themselves and their families.

Essex Live made a donation to Colchester’s Food Bank centre for this experiment. All unused and unopened food will be returned to the foodbank.

By Elliot Hawkins & Liam Beard for Essex Live