Bess Martin can feed herself on £4 a week – and now she wants to share her tips and tricks with everyone else. Jayne Dawson reports.
The cost of food is on our minds these days. As we struggle with rising food prices and falling incomes there has been a change of attitude.
Food is no longer cheap as chips. We are upset by waste, we are abandoning the big four supermarkets for the once-derided budget stores; we are taking note of prices and seeking bargains.
It’s a general shift but few are taking it as far as Bess Martin. For Bess, a graduate who lives in Chapeltown, Leeds, can feed herself on a weekly budget of just £4. Sometimes it goes up to £7, but for months at a time she has survived on a £4 food budget.
Compared with the average food spend of £56 a week, it’s quite a contrast.
Her rock-bottom spending is a necessity – she has gone from being a student to living on Jobseeker’s Allowance while she does voluntary work and looks for a permanent job – but it is a necessity that Bess has turned into an art form.
In fact she is so good at it that she has joined together with a group of like-minded friends and launched a year-long project called Eating Leeds to share their knowledge about eating cheaply and healthily, and now she wants to persuade other people to share theirs.
So how exactly does she stick to her budget?
Bess says: “It is partly planning ahead and partly knowing where to go. You have to go out and see what you can get, and then make that into meals that will last a week.
“I never buy fruit and vegetables from the supermarket, for instance. I will always go to a small, independent shop or to Kirkgate market because they are much cheaper there.”
Bess will base her weekly shopping around those fruit and vegetables but she also makes sure she has plenty of rice, pasta, pulses and some meat or fish. She also keeps a store cupboard full of large jars of spices.
“It’s important to have these because then you can create flavour in meals. You should always buy big jars, never the small, expensive ones.
“Smaller Asian shops will sell them and they will also often sell big bags of rice much cheaper than at a supermarket.
“I know why people might be a little put off by small shops. Often there will be people chatting by the door and it looks a bit like a club, but if you just go in there you can become part of that community.”
Not that Bess is totally averse to supermarkets. She says that on some things they cannot be beaten on price.
“They are the best place to buy tins. You can get tinned tomatoes very cheaply, I once found them at 8p a tin, and also beans can be bought very cheaply.”
Despite her tiny budget, Bess will also occasionally order a bulk shop online. “I don’t have a car so it pays to occasionally order loads of tins from the supermarket. They will keep as long as I want and I don’t have the hassle of getting them home myself.
“You can also collect points at supermarkets which will make things cheaper the next time.”
Bess has plenty of other tips and tricks to share with Leeds people. It is a good idea to visit the market at the end of the day at any time of the year, she says, but particularly in summer.
“Often there will be fruit and vegetables being sold off at the back of the market very cheaply because the sun has been on them all day, but they are perfectly fine.” Eating seasonally also plays its part: “There is a time of year when corn on the cob is very cheap, for example, so I always buy a lot of that then.”
And having the nerve to be a bit cheeky also helps: “I have been known to ask for a bigger reduction on something .”
The market is also a good place to buy meat and fish, she says. “If you don’t need a whole chicken, say, then you can just buy chicken legs very cheaply and the meat is full of flavour.”
Another tip is to make a meal in bulk and then freeze it in individual portions, so you are not eating the same meal night after night.
“You don’t have to buy freezer containers, you can use empty food containers. If you buy a carton of juice, for instance, then chop the top off and re-use it as a container for the freezer.
“My friend has smoothies for breakfast so she buys lots of different cheap fruits and then bags them up into a mix of ingredients for each day and freezes them, and then she just has to pull them out. It saves time as well as money.”
And if all this is sounding difficult and dull, Bess, 27, says it can be but doesn’t have to be because she and her friends also make eating cheaply a social way of life, for example organising meals where everyone brings a vegetable with them, to cut down on costs.
She is realistic, though. “On £4 a week it’s pretty hard and can get tedious as you can end up eating the same thing almost every day. To me that’s fine but it doesn’t suit everyone.”
But Bess is keen to share her knowledge, even if not everyone needs such an extreme budget
The Eating Leeds scheme began this month and is aimed at anyone who has ever bought, for instance, a single lemon for £1 from a supermarket, says Bess. The idea is to share information on where to buy cheap ingredients and ideas and recipes on how to cook them.
Plus there will be lots more tips – those little money-saving ideas you hadn’t thought of but could be easily incorporated into your own life.
It is a not-for-profit scheme and all the information will go in a blog online, but there are hopes of a book at the end of it.
Each recipe will be tried out by one of the Eating Leeds Team and to accompany it there will be links to the cheapest place in Leeds to find the ingredients, the cost per dish will be calculated and there will be step-by-step instructions for the less common cooking methods.
“We don’t want to make any money out of it because a lot of the ideas will come from other people. We know that a lot of people in Leeds know how to eat cheaply and are enthusiastic about doing it, and we want to gather all that knowledge together.”
You might think most expertise on cheap eating lies with the older generation.
From wartime austerity, to the rationing of the 1950s and the lower living standards of the 1960s and 1970s, older people have had reason to develop canny ways with food, but the Eating Leeds team are all in their twenties.
Bess, an arts graduate who hopes to teach, is helped by three friends with a fourth joining soon.
Currently she is working with Lydia Cattrall, 23; Annie Nelson, 26; and Andy Buclaw, 26.
She thinks her own frugal instincts came from her upbringing: “My mum used to grow vegetables and swap them for meat so it is normal to me. I can’t throw any food away, it has to go into the compost at the very least.”
“It worries us that people turn so quickly to supermarket package meals when it’s actually really quick and easy to make tastier, healthier foods and save a ton of money in the process.
“This is about being healthy as well as saving money, and it is about big and filling and easy meals.
“It is heartbreaking that there are people who spend so much money on food because they don’t realise there is any other way to do it.”
How to eat on just £4 a week
Breakfast - porridge made with water with warmed raisins. “Heat them with water and perhaps a bit of cinnamon and cloves. It makes them go all lovely and sticky and you don’t have to add any sugar.”
Lunch - a baked potato with beans. “If you are taking it to work then cook it beforehand and heat it up in the microwave at lunchtime.”
Dinner - Curry with chicken or fish and vegetables. “I like to add coconut milk and tinned tomatoes as well as spices and vegetables.”
Treats - Cookie dough. “Mix equal amounts of butter, flour and sugar, squidge it all together and freeze for an hour, then break bits off to eat. It’s like the cookie dough in ice cream and it is delicious.”