Breadline Britain: Torment of going to bed without food

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The Independent Online
A CHILL grey wind is blowing off the Mersey, laced with drizzle and forcing the few shoppers to scuttle across the exposed Central Parade to shelter. Most clutch Iceland carrier bags and little else, and there is a high number of push- chairs and walking aids. It is pretty bleak in Speke.

Many shops are boarded up in the 1960s development, including the only butcher, and some of the best frontages are taken up by a bookie, optician and dentist, the last two reflecting the needs of an ageing population. But there are a couple of greengrocers, a small supermarket and of course the reasonable-sized Iceland store.

At sight first, then, this outlying estate of Liverpool might not look like a "food desert" - the term used by a former government health chief to describe areas without proper access to good, cheap food and where real hunger is once again said to be stalking. But the shoppers at the Speke District Centre are far from happy.

"The prices are too high round here, there's not enough competition and the shop rents are too expensive," said one old lady in a rain hood.

A young single mother, referring to a retailer, was more direct and even less flattering with her comments.

When you realise that this is all that there is to service a population of 13,000 - the size of a small market town - you can appreciate where their grievances originate. This is an island community, eight miles from the city centre and bounded by a main road and Liverpool airport.

The last big-name general supermarket went when Kwik-Save pulled out two years ago, and with it went the local bank, meaning that the people have to take a 95p bus ride to the nearest one to pay their bills. And round here that kind of money matters.

A recent survey found that the average household income was pounds 8,500, making it the second lowest in the country. Almost half of these households receive income support, and a staggering 70 per cent get housing benefit or council tax benefit.

Anthony Peloe, 50, is one of the many out of work and says he has seen the area go down badly over the past three or four years because of a spate of local factory closures.

"You have people who come and take some of the shops for a few months around Christmas and then move out again," he said. "They always blame the vandalism." He and his wife, Maureen, often travel to nearby Garston to get a better, and cheaper, selection.

For a single mother, Angela Humphries, 28, it is worth spending pounds 5 a week from her benefit of pounds 70 to take the bus for a weekly shop for herself and her two sons, aged three and eight. Even then she says she can afford to serve a "proper" meat and veg meal only once a week.

"The rest of the time it's soup, scouse [a local variation of the theme of shepherd's pie] and slops - anything to eat," she says, adding that her youngest, "can live on fish fingers".

It's not that she doesn't realise the benefits of proper nutrition: "If you feed them properly then they are healthier, so you don't have to go to the doctors for things for them."

One local shop is the Colin Sykes Foodstores, a family-run business. Colin, a son of the owner, disputes that their prices are very high. "We offer them better quality and they appreciate it. And we are extremely competitive," he said.

The local official view, however, firmly backs up the idea that Speke is the kind of area that the former health chief was talking about.

"There are people here who are malnourished and there are people who go to bed hungry," said Fiona Winders, community affairs manager for the Speke-Garston Partnership, a pounds 100m regeneration project that has grand plans to put the area back on its feet.

"These people are dependent on an area where access to food is inadequate. Their income doesn't enable them to access a healthy diet," she said.

Her view is that this is all a problem of poverty, and she has an impressive bank of research to support it. Among this is a project with Liverpool University, which shows that if people do get more income, then the first thing they spend it on is better quality food. "The old beer and fags argument just doesn't work," she said.

For Speke at least there is hope. The plans now afoot aim to completely remodel the District Centre in a way that would attract passing trade and so bring back some of the big operators to serve the local community as well. If the decisions on funding go the right way, then serious work could be underway by 2000 on a comprehensive redevelopment that would include a new school and health centre.

But how many other "food deserts" have the prospect of a brighter future?