We’re pricing food for the poor in the UK – that’s why I’m launching my own price index | Jack Monroe

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OOur ruling class may have brazenly rolled suitcases of cheap plonk past the averted gaze of Metropolitan Police officers over the past year of lockdown, but their constituents find themselves increasingly destitute, hungry, demoralized and off the price of the cheapest bag of apples in the supermarket.

It was reported last week that the consumer price index (CPI) measure of inflation hit 5.4% in December, the highest level in nearly 30 years. The CPI and Retail Price Index (RPI) are used interchangeably to document rising prices for groceries and household items in the UK. Yet they tell only part of the story of inflation and grossly underestimate the real crisis in the cost of living.

A collection of 700 pre-specified products that includes a leg of lamb, bedroom furniture, a TV and champagne seems a stark, darkly comical tool to record the impact of inflated food prices in a country where two and a half million citizens have been forced by a range of desperate circumstances to use food banks over the past year.

Smart Price, Basics and Value range products offered as lower cost alternatives are stealthily disappearing from the shelves, leaving shoppers with no choice but to ‘level up’ with supermarket branded products – usually in smaller sizes quantities at higher prices.

I’ve been monitoring this for a decade, writing recipes on my online blog and documenting ingredient prices with forensic details. In 2012, 10 stock cubes from the Sainsbury’s Basics range were worth 10p. In 2022, those same bouillon cubes are 39p, but only available in chicken or beef. The cheapest vegetable stock cubes are, inexplicably, £1 for 10. Last year Smart Price pasta at my local Asda was 29p for 500g. Today it is not available so the cheapest bag is 70 pence; a 141% price increase for the same product in more colorful packaging. A few years ago, the Smart Price range had more than 400 products; today there are 87, and counting down.

Iceland’s chief executive Richard Walker told ITV on Friday that his stores were losing customers “to food banks and hunger”. Not to other competitors, not to better offers, but to starvation and charity. Iceland has pledged to keep its £1 lines at a flat rate of £1 until the end of the year, a commitment to state-of-the-art customers that is rare in the cutthroat world of large distribution.

Iceland has pledged to keep the price on its £1 lines until the end of the year. Photography: Hollie Adams/Getty Images

Last Thursday I was contacted on Twitter by an elderly gentleman who confessed that he had eaten a teaspoon of toothpaste for his dinner to fool himself into thinking he had chewed, swallowed, tasted and digested something . I relayed this, on Hello Brittany, to Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, who said he was “appalled” that such things were happening in Britain today. Appalled but not surprised, perhaps, given that the eradication of social support has been Conservative policy for 12 long years.

People with very little are often the sharpest economists and mathematicians, keeping dozens of prices in their heads so they can withdraw items from the basket at checkout when the total exceeds the paltry sum in our bank account. Juggling late and delayed benefit payments, dropping each bill a little to keep the wolves out, searching for the cheapest school uniform that won’t fall apart in the washing machine, and scrutinizing shelf labels for the “price per 100g” of each product, ignoring brightly colored offers.

I’ve been writing about these topics for 10 years now. I have testified in multiple parliamentary inquiries, led numerous petitions, been consulted on the school food plan and the national food strategy, spoken twice at the Conservative Party conference, and yet the realities of the worst of our collective experiences are dismissed by haughty money men as not fitting their theoretical parameters of lamb and champagne.

So with a team of economists, charity partners, retail price analysts, people fighting poverty in the UK, former staff of the Office for National Statistics and others who have donated their time and expertise, I am compiling a new price index – one that will document the disappearance of budget lines and the insidiously creeping prices of the most basic versions of supermarket essentials.

At the very least, it will serve as an irrefutable snapshot of the reality experienced by millions of people. At best, it may be a wake-up call for retailers who keep their £7.50 ready meals and £6 bottles of wine at £7.50 and £6 for a decade, while quadrupling the price of cubes of basic broth and broken irregular grains of white rice. .

This problem is not going anywhere, and neither am I.

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