Social Justice

Turnips and working more hours? Food bank workers say Thérèse Coffey is 'living on a different planet'

Food bank workers have hit back after environment secretary Thérèse Coffey said people should work more and eat turnips in the cost of living crisis

coffey/ cost of living/ turnips

"Work some more hours" and "eating turnips" were Coffey's suggestions. Flickr/ Andrew Parsons/ No 10 Downing Street

Thérèse Coffey thinks people should “work more hours” to get through the cost of living crisis. How’s that gone down? “Insulting”, “ridiculous” and “living on a different planet” are the words that sprang to mind when we asked food bank workers for their thoughts. 

Speaking in parliament, the environment secretary said: “One of the best ways to boost their incomes is not only to get into work if they’re not working already but potentially to work some more hours and to get upskilled to get a higher income.”

Coffey also suggested people should “cherish” home-grown produce as supermarkets have seen food shortages in recent weeks. Turnips were her vegetable of choice. 

As you can imagine, those on the front line of the cost of living crisis weren’t exactly glowing in their reviews of her comments.

“I was infuriated. It could not have been further from the truth with what we are seeing in the food bank,” Charlotte White, the manager of Earlsfield Foodbank, says. “So many people are working and so many of them talk about wanting to do more hours and asking for more shifts, and they’re simply not available.”

A mother recently came into Earlsfield Foodbank and admitted, harrowingly, that she had been delving through bins to find food to feed her family. This woman was working. White says it is simply not a question of finding more hours to work – if people are desperate, they will do anything. 

“It’s not a choice,” White adds. “People are having shifts cancelled last minute and they’re being let down on the hours they’ve been offered and that’s why they’re coming to the food bank. It’s just so ill informed.”

Nearly one in three working adults face soaring prices in jobs that provide less than a week’s notice of shift, according to the Living Wage Foundation.

“It just feeds into that whole narrative of people being lazy and wanting to be on benefits when people are trying so hard and they’re trying to work,” White adds, commenting on Coffey’s claims. “It’s ridiculous. It’s living on a different planet. It is so detached from reality. People are struggling more and more.”

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According to the Health Foundation, nearly 60 per cent of people living in poverty are in a household where someone works. Charities and food banks are increasingly seeing more people in full and part-time work needing help. 

Sabine Goodwin, the coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network, says: “The problem is not the number of hours that people are putting into their work but the levels of pay and job security. 

“Independent food banks have reported that increasing numbers of working people need their support. The reality is that work is not a route out of poverty and, in any case, not everyone is able to work. Being able to count on a living income through social security or wage payments is fundamental.”

On turnips, Coffey said: “It’s important to make sure that we cherish the specialisms that we have in this country. A lot of people would be eating turnips right now rather than thinking necessarily about aspects of lettuce and tomatoes and similar, but I’m conscious that consumers want a year-round choice and that is what our supermarkets, food producers and growers around the world try to satisfy.”

With turnips trending on social media, Lib Dem leader Ed Davey tweeted: “Let them eat turnips,” hitting back at Coffey with a snide reference to French queen Marie Antoinette, who supposedly coined the phrase “let them eat cake” when the country was facing a bread shortage. 

Ian Byrne, the Labour MP for Liverpool West Derby, says: “One in three of my constituents in Liverpool West Derby are experiencing food insecurity as a direct result of a decade-long programme of relentless and cruel austerity by the government that the current secretary of state for EFRA [Environmental Food and Rural Affairs Committee] is herself a part of.

“I would suggest the secretary of state focus her time and energy on reversing austerity and providing urgent support to my constituents who are having to go without food and heating as a result of her government’s policies. If all she has in her armoury is turnips to fight the devastation I see, then I suggest she looks at a different career path.”

Mary McGrath, chief executive of charity FoodCycle, adds: “Since the cost living crisis began, we’re finding a much wider range of people from communities across the country like teachers, firemen and nurses are coming to our weekly meals. 

“We are seeing that the growing issue of financial insecurity is hitting many of us including those who could previously feed themselves. We believe in everyone, no matter their circumstances, having access to nutritious meals made from a range of delicious ingredients – not just turnips.”

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