Gruel diet 'too costly for benefit families'

MORE than 1.5 million families on benefit cannot afford to feed their children even a Victorian-style workhouse diet, new research by the charity NCH Action For Children suggested yesterday, writes Mary Braid.

The study estimates an 1876 workhouse diet of bread and gruel, meat and potatoes would cost pounds 5.46 per week per child at today's prices: 30 per cent more than the estimated pounds 4.15 which Income Support allows for a child's weekly food.

Action For Children has written a letter to the Prime Minister asking him to consider the 'devastating effect poverty, homelessness and inadequate social services provision is having on millions of children'.

Yesterday Tom White, its chief executive, renewed the call for strategic co-ordination of children's services to protect the most vulnerable. Mr White said one in four children in Britain lived in poverty and charities were increasingly being asked to 'carry the can'.

Frustration with that burden is reflected in the charity's new advertising slogan: 'We have been carrying the can for 125 years.'

Rebecca Jones, 27, a single mother, who is raising her eight-month- old son Rowan on income support in temporary accommodation, said she was surprised by the survey's finding. 'But by the end of the week you are hungry and a bit stuck for something left to eat.

'I get pounds 73 a week to keep myself and Rowan. He is first priority but I have to watch my diet as well because I am still breast feeding him. It is unreal what they expect you to live on. I don't want Rowan to grow up on baked beans, chips and beefburgers.'

The 1876 workhouse diet consisted of 5oz of bread and one-and-a-half pints of gruel for breakfast; lunch was 4oz of bread and one-and-a-half pints of pea soup, or 12oz of suet pudding or 5oz meat and 8oz potatoes; supper consisted of more bread with a little cheese or milk or broth.

Yesterday's study said a recent report by the Family Budget Unit suggested that at least pounds 10.32 a week should be spent to give a toddler an 'adequate but modest diet'. This sum rises to pounds 12.07 a week for a child under 10, and pounds 16.60 for a child over 11.