Chip-plan diet satisfies hunger on the breadline

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"Chips with everything. They fill you up," is the way Marie Vincent's sums up her diet and that of her three young children, writes Glenda Cooper.

Managing on a budget of just over pounds 100 a week (pounds 78 Income Support and pounds 27 Family Allowance) for herself, Nicky, seven, Paul, three, and Roxanne, one, is difficult, she admits. And with bills coming in that have to be paid, food is the first necessity to suffer.

Marie, 22, could not afford to eat healthily in her three pregnancies and regularly missed meals to keep her other children fed. Although all her children were average birthweight, her son Paul is now experiencing developmental difficulties which she attributes to their poor diet.

This is not because she knows nothing about nutrition: "Of course I'd like to give them salads and things like that, things they should be eating, fruit every day, but you just can't afford it on the benefits they give you," she said. "You've got to pay the electric and the gas and I put away some money in phone stamps every week. Then what's left goes on food."

A normal menu for the Vincent family would begin by either skipping breakfast or having a bit of toast. Nicky and Paul have their lunch at school and playgroup, and Marie would have some soup. Then for tea "chips and a sausage or chips and fish fingers - basically chips and something."

Apart from worrying about the children's diet, Marie's own eating habits were even less healthy when she was pregnant. She began by skipping meals when money was short: "The kids would always come first you see. I couldn't take food from them."

"When I cook for them, it put me off, which made it easier. After standing there cooking chips and things like that, you don't feel like eating that yourself."

"I probably had a healthier diet during my first pregnancy but once I had other children to feed, my health came second and I would miss meals or eat toast or drink lots of tea to stop my hunger. I'd love to eat fresh fruit and vegetables but a bag of crisps is more filling and much cheaper."

Relieved that her children were eventually born with average birthweight, she is still concerned about the future, particularly as Paul is developing more slowly than other children: "I still worry that I'm setting up [the children] for bad health in later life by not being able to provide them with the healthy food they should be eating while they are growing and developing. But what can I do?"