Flash Says…

Some people go gooey eyed, weak kneed and have leaps in their stomach over pop stars. For others it is a favourite actor or even author. When I was growing up, my idol was Jeremy Clarkson. So what do I make of his excuse that a cancer scare was behind his well-publicised violent attack on a colleague?

I grew up reading Clarkson’s opinion column during the 1980s, in the back of my dad’s Performance Car. It was always an entertaining piece, strapped with passport photos of an aloof but alluring figure: a mop of curly hair, cigarette hanging from his mouth – sexy in the same manner as Slash from Guns ‘n’ Roses, but for car fans. Clarkson became my celebrity crush as I grew up with the original Top Gear TV Programme – a show characterised by Chris Goffey’s beards and jumpers, which by contrast made my idol seem cool and exciting.

When I went to university I was quickly drawn into another “geek” community – playing online text based games called MUDs. These are a bit like Dungeons & Dragons, for example “You are in a room, you see a gate with a garden beyond it and a winding stone staircase into the attic: what do you do next?” When I signed up to play, I suddenly had to choose a username; my instinctive choice was that of my hero. For years I was known to several hundred people solely as Clarkson, and a flower that I created in that world was known as the Clarxonian Lily. I had laid down my marker among my friends and peers as Jeremy’s fan girl.

Then, I met the man.

I went to London’s International Car Show during my first month at university – October, 1994. It’s best to go on Preview Day, when crowds are smaller and there are few children running around. For example, Ferrari allowed me on their stall that day, when for the rest of the show it would be roped off and defended against the general public. But Preview Day is expensive, so for months I’d saved up, cut coupons from newspapers, in order that despite being a student with absolutely no spare money, I could afford to indulge this passion – just.

On entrance, I checked my programme and immediately rushed to the Top Gear stall with butterflies in my stomach… But the stage was roped off, deserted. There was no life and nobody to speak to.

The rest of the car exhibition was fantastic – I even crossed paths with Luca Di Montezemolo, the Ferrari president, which was a highly memorable moment for me. Yet there was something missing from the whole experience. I decided to spend money I didn’t really have, in order to return a couple of days later and hopefully, finally, see Clarkson.

As my second visit was on a public day of the car show, I joined a crush of people, from the moment I queued for the turnstiles to the time I breathlessly reached the Top Gear stall for the second time. I stood through Quentin Willson’s lecture on what to look for when buying a used car. (Yes, I know: check for gritty oil and misaligned mileometer digits. Very laudable.) But I was here for forthcoming superstars, not guidance on buying a second hand Fiesta. I had come to see my idol in the flesh. The butterflies were still in my stomach as I jostled for a view among an audience of lanky petrolheads.

Here I was on my second visit to the show in a week. This was a public day, but still expensive, and I’d had to bite into my student overdraft in order to afford the ticket. Here was the Top Gear crew on presumably their first visit to the show: JC in trademark denim, flanked by rally driver Tiff Needell and used car expert Quentin, ready to take questions from the floor. At last, my moment arose.

“Hi Jeremy. I came to see you on Preview Day, but no one was here. Where were you? ”

“We were having a pint in the pub across the road! Weren’t we, guys? It was lovely, nice beer, good food, we had a really great afternoon while you were here!”

All I could think was: “Oh, you complete wanker.” My butterflies were slowly being crushed, one by one. Did he realise how many hours of part-time work, fitted around my studies, that my ticket had cost? It really wasn’t funny.

Next, the presenters asked for our dream cars. I ventured mine. “Dino 246 GT.” “Poof’s car” was Jeremy’s immediate laughing dismissal. Oh. Remaining butterflies were firmly stomped.

Even so, I still went to that pub across the road in the hope of encountering my idol after the show. Nothing doing. I still, perhaps and naively, thought I could reach him.

That. was the moment when I realised that Jeremy Clarkson was nobody special. It’s more than “he’s just this guy, ok?” as he is a very loudmouthed person who is a bit of a prat along the way. Many people (some might say I also fit that bill) are willing to speak on TV, so it’s not a surprise when their persona is exposed, to whatever extent. But few people manage to make a living out of it, or to put it another way, for their views to be actively offensive but still sought out. The only comparison I have is Katie Hopkins writing for the red tops, and she may be controversial but is hardly popular. I can’t imagine anyone “aspiring” to her standards.

Eight years after that car exhibition, a new format of Top Gear hit our screens. It was initially must-see TV and like many viewers, I went out of my way to make time for it (setting a VHS recorder, in what now feels like another era). But a decade or so further along, the show has lost its path, its passion, and simply become a rich boys’ playground. Jeremy is acting like a silly teenage lad at a funfair – but he’s in his 50s. And I’m not an excited teenager any more who can blindly overlook bad behaviour. Nowadays, I rapidly switch off. Laddish analogies are no longer required. Act your age, chaps.

Progress to 2015 and consider the much reported “fracas” which ended Clarkson’s time at the BBC: a 30 second assault on someone who didn’t fight back, the attack only ending when others intervened; the victim going, bleeding, to hospital. Well, that’s not something that can be excused as a quick moment of hot headedness, or perhaps a silly drunken slap; that’s assault. I have visions of Clarkson pinning someone against the wall. At 6 foot 5 inches, he has an imposing stature. As for shouting “the most offensive language” so loudly that it was heard elsewhere in the hotel, I can only perceive that as intimidating, possibly bullying, behaviour. Of course I wasn’t present, but in my opinion there is no coming back from such an attack on a colleague, especially if you’re already on your final warning. And all this over wanting a hot meal rather than a cold platter. Who do you think you are? How little do you value your co-worker that you would so forcefully lay into him? There is nothing that can be said to mitigate this, even considering Clarkson’s prompt acknowledgement of guilt.

Clarkson had to go, and it was not a moment too soon. He used to be a hero to the teenage me. Now, he is exposed as an impetuous thug. He called himself a dinosaur. I’d call him a caveman.

Jeremy, if you’re reading, I’d truly love to hear your thoughts. Yes, you have a larger than life persona and that’s what makes you money. I’ve been on radio & TV myself and I totally understand that sometimes it’s possible to be yourself but on other occasions you get cast in the role of devil’s advocate, or even a comedy character with an exaggerated opinion to represent, in order to bring in the money and fit in with the show. That’s how it works; I do get that. But that doesn’t mean that you can be demanding off screen or continue any prima donna demands once the film has stopped rolling.

The assault on your producer Oisin Tymon sounds dreadful, inexcusable under any circumstances – cancer scare, bereavement, divorce notwithstanding. I’m genuinely sorry that you were going through a hard time; I wouldn’t wish any of those issues on anyone. But like many other people, I’ve experienced similar difficulties too, and yet didn’t assault anyone. Your laddish jovial banter can only carry you so far, and with public attention comes responsibility. As a fan for most of my life, I’d honestly like you to engage with me and let me know: are you a man, or a caveman?

I would so love to be proved wrong – for the sake of my childhood memories.

Some of you may be aware of my sideline as founder of the Pylon Appreciation Society. This week, electricity pylons have been in the national news as the new T-Pylon design was unveiled in Nottinghamshire.

As a pylonophile (?) I have been asked for my opinion, leading to a hectic few days, and more than ten live interviews across BBC radio stations.

I also had the opportunity to contribute to some print articles, and you may enjoy Meet the Pylon Spotters, a BBC feature article which included an interview with me, as well as These new electricity pylons will make Britain a duller place which I wrote for Guardian Comment Is Free. I’d particularly welcome comments on the Guardian piece as it was my first for CiF and I am naturally proud of it.

While electricity pylons may not inspire everyone, the Pylon Appreciation Society, which I’ve run for over a decade, has more than 600 members, of all ages and backgrounds. If you’d like to join us, be it as someone who enjoys a casual glance and a quick photograph, or a techie who seeks to understand the engineering structures in more detail, you would of course be more than welcome.

It has been a very busy few days, and I’m glad for the chance to share my passion more widely.

Fear of Brown Envelopes – a state of anxiety caused by receiving a dark manila DL envelope, with a return address of the Department of Work & Pensions (DWP).

Without exception my disabled friends are united by concern about benefit cuts, often worrying about bad news. At Christmas bonus time, or when the new tax year starts, people tweet to remind each other not to panic when something ominous and brown lands on their doormat.

Many disabled folk are also scared of being “reported” – programmes like “Saints and Scroungers” and “Benefits Street” don’t help the public perception. Even if it is completely unfounded, when a report is made (by someone hiding behind anonymity) the disabled person’s benefit claim is re-assessed. Why, if we are legitimately disabled, do we fear re-assessment? For that, you need to consider the difference between Disability Living Allowance (DLA) and the newer Personal Independence Payment (PIP).

Many people with a long-term condition which is unlikely to improve, like me, are on an ‘indefinite’ DLA award. When I was assessed, it was awarded on the basis that walking 50 metres – while then sometimes was possible without mobility aids – would be dangerous for me, and/or cause me pain, which needs me to rest and recover as a consequence. I’ve always described this as “the less I do, the better I am”. However, the newer PIP system merely asks whether I can “mobilise” a distance of 20 metres, by whatever means. Of course this lower criterion is intended to reduce the number of awards made, and save the government money. Sod the fact that it’s further than 20 metres to my nearest shop, bus stop or postbox, and I often can’t park within 20 metres of my doctors’ surgery or hospital clinics either.

There are other issues with PIP which are well documented elsewhere; such as the cost to bring in PIP (supposedly done to save £1.2bn a year, it’s actually costing £1.6bn more); despite only 0.5% of DLA claims being fraudulent (according to the government’s own figures) they intend PIP will reduce disability claimants by over 20%; as well as the ridiculous suggestion that 20m is as far as anyone needs to be able to move. So now you can see why many lifetime DLA recipients fear they will not be awarded PIP at reassessment. It is clear that many people will still have their disabling condition, but will lose the support that benefits provide.

And if somebody, maliciously or well-meaning, reports a disabled person to the DWP, that person will be reassessed. Not against the criteria of the award they currently hold, but against the new, harsher, criteria of PIP.

This next comment may sound silly, given that friends, neighbours & even strangers tell me how confident and strong I am – but I too harbour that fear. In fact I thought seriously before writing this blog, hoping nobody with ill-intent is reading. My DLA is my only income – for everything else I rely on my husband’s support. And I depend upon it. Not only is it important for practical things, but I also need it for self-esteem: to validate the fact that it isn’t my fault that I can’t work, that I am in genuine need, that the state recognises this and supports me with a small amount of money (which I use for minicab journeys and extra hours for my PA-cum-cleaner) .

So, when I go out to the corner shop of an evening, sometimes just popping out quickly without my stick, if there’s an unfamiliar face hanging out on the street corner, or a car parked nearby with someone waiting in it, it *always* crosses my mind that they may be spying on me. Waiting for me to slip up. I wonder if my limp is obvious, or if it’s too dark for them to see the grimace on my face or the way I’ve stuffed a fist into my back to keep myself upright through the pain. Watchers don’t know that I’m only going to the nearest shop (less than 50 metres) for a single lightweight item. Or that if that shop has run out I have to return empty handed, because the next shop, just across the road, is too far for me to visit and return from without going back for my stick. And they certainly won’t know how much I’ll have to rest afterwards (after all, nobody sees you behind closed doors, only for the limited time when you’re well enough to get out and about).

Maybe this sounds like a pity party, but I assure you the fear is real. Some day, all DLA recipients will be transferred to PIP, and I’m worried that I’ll be one of the genuine disabled people who will lose out. After all, somebody will, and I have the disadvantage of “looking normal”. And if I lose my highest rate mobility allowance then I lose my entitlement to a blue badge, meaning I won’t be able to park in a space wide enough for me to get in and out of the car door. I’d also lose many other local travel benefits. And as well as the mobility aspect, there are my care needs too – currently I have a wonderful PA who keeps me and my house straight. Without these things I – a strong, independent and often outspoken woman – could end up stuck at home, feeling isolated and increasingly depressed. If it could do that to me, imagine the impact on someone less confident or unable to advocate for themself.

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering what the point of this article will be. Well, this was all triggered by an incident yesterday. I was feeling quite well for a change, and decided to do something productive with the energy. So I loaded the dishwasher, as a surprise for my husband and in an attempt to make the kitchen a little less grungy. It took perhaps a minute to shift a few bowls and pans from the worktop to the machine underneath. Partway through, it began to hurt. When I finished, I had stabbing, burning pain in the back of my pelvis. I went to sit on support cushions, to double dose my meds and rest. It took nearly an hour before the pain had subsided to a point where I could get up again.

One minute of activity. One hour of rest as a result. You can see why physical disability often leads to depression. Then I realised: this happened in private, without witnesses. Nobody else would ever know, they only have my word for it. And because I “look normal”, why would any person who sees me think I am less than able to undertake even such simple routine chores?

So I too, like so many of my disabled friends, live in fear of brown envelopes. This should not have to be the case.

If you have been interested by this article, I encourage you to consider sharing it, and to remember that you can never tell how someone is feeling just by looking at them.

I have a keen interest in food. This was instilled by my much missed dad, who took me to Michelin starred restaurants from primary school onwards, and encouraged me to love what I ate and drank.

This passion for gastronomy has spilled over into a love of watching food programmes, and the odd over-ambitious garnish at home. Still, at least presentation was being considered!

There were many funny moments with my dad, like at home when he would get very uppity about doing his ‘mise en place’; and when in hospital the dietician was concerned he wasnt eating, I had to rein him in from being as brutal as he intended about her bulk-catered food. The dietician asked about the last meat he ate at home, which by chance had been a farm-shop guineafowl… I tried not to laugh and to say ‘well to be fair it must be hard to provide for a whole hospital on a budget’ but she got the idea as to why my dad wouldnt eat a generic and gelatinous Gala Pie. Actually my family were often on a tight budget, but that just meant that they appreciated that meat wasnt something you could eat every day, and that you had to shop around and eat seasonal local produce. (“They were lucky…” But stop me before I slip into the Monty Python Four Yorkshiremen sketch…) Still, there were also many excellent moments when I tried food in my youth that youngsters wouldn’t normally encounter – veal, for example. And one of the dinners my mother regularly put in front of me was a good quality steak in a bun, with fresh onion, tomato, and cucumber relish. No fishfingers or chicken nuggets for us. When I decided to become vegetarian, aged 11, I could at least base my decision on morals, having enjoyed a range of tasty meat dishes, and knowing what I was rejecting.

Anyway, my family taught me to appreciate good food from a young age, to enjoy the best we could afford and that good food was a luxury, and I will always be grateful to my dad in particular for that. Indeed, on the anniversary of his death every year I go out for a decent meal or experience that he would have enjoyed.

Physical disability makes cooking rather difficult for me, but I persevere as it is a passion. I have two folders of recipes – sweet and savoury – which are printouts or written by hand, then annotated with personal notes relating to my own issues, equipment or oven. If something is unsuccessful then it is ripped out of the folder! If it works – or sounds good and Im likely to try it soon – it stays. I use the folders for reference for favourite regular dishes and snacks as well as inspiration for dishes that I’ve wanted to try for a while.

I love watching Masterchef in particular. Ive watched so many series, from UK, Australia (my fave), New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, Ireland… Every weekday, I watch a couple of hours and always try to figure out what I’d do with that mystery box of strange ingredients. In fact it struck me recently that when I watch their masterclasses and take copious notes, then try out those dishes in my kitchen, that perhaps this is my own equivalent of an OU study course!

Ive also eaten the food of several UK masterchefs, and talk to some of them via twitter, and I have foodie friends to bounce my food ideas off – all of this is inspirational!

Sadly I dont feel I can ever aspire to Masterchef because even if I reached the cooking standard, my physical limitations are just too great. Even if I did participate, I could never work in the trade. But let’s pretend, ok? Because I like to dream along to imagine what I would create when I watch the challenges, and plan what I’d do for the judges if only I could.


Let’s assume Im aiming for more than a home cook standard. I know it is critical to taste, season, etc. and some of that can’t be taught. But if you were planning to go on Masterchef (say), which dishes and skills do you think you should have down pat? For example with invention tests I think if you can make a basic pasta, or a basic pastry case, you can make a good enough sweet or savoury dish to get through the earliest rounds.

Another spanner in the works is that I’m vegetarian. I am not against cooking meat or fish products for other people but obviously can’t taste those dishes so it is a disadvantage. I have cooked steak and scallops but I ought to at least master things I can taste and enjoy first of all – which means I’m not worrying about filleting a fish at this stage. That said, I’ve noted how to do it (and how to prep other things like squid or rib-eye beef) from the TV, so I could at least have a stab at it if I had to! But I think much of the joy of food is sharing, so I want to learn things that I can taste and share equally.

So, on my list of skills / dishes to learn (though I already know some, but for completeness), are:

* pasta – plain sheets, but also cut into tagliatelli or used in raviolli or tortellini
* risotto (dare I say, I’m quite good at this already!)
* pastries – short, puff, choux, and maybe filo?
* basic souffle (which includes making creme pat)
* choc fondant
* creme anglaise
* ‘mother’ sauces
* fondant vegetables
* gnocchi
* flatbread

These are all with a view to expanding my skills, but also are items that take no more than an hour to cook. Otherwise bread, macarons etc. would be on there (though again, I can have a reasonable stab at those). Feel free to suggest anything, however basic, that it is critical to master in order to have well-rounded cooking skills.


As mentioned, I am physically disabled. In terms of cooking, I’m mostly affected by joint pain and physical strength. For example chopping (wrist weakness), standing to stir (back pain within 2 minutes), lifting a pan and straining it (I’m likely to scald myself) etc.

I have been wondering ‘if I ever went on Masterchef what reasonable adjustments could I ask for?’ and this leads on to how to make things easier at home, of course. For example, my PA chopped a block of chocolate into small chips in advance so I could make biscuits with it; that would have really hurt my wrists for several days if I had done it.

So I am wondering what else I could get my PA to prep for me? Not at the time of need, as that is obvious – but because I don’t know exactly when I’ll have the energy to cook, which things can be prepped a day or two in advance and still be perfectly acceptable?

I know many disabled people buy frozen pre-chopped veg, but I eat a lot of raw, salad and lightly stir fried or blanched food. I don’t enjoy veg that has been frozen or is anything less than flavourful and al dente. (That said, I do already chop and freeze spare herbs, for throwing into sauces.) I heard that diced onion will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for up to five days with no issue. Unfortunately my favourite vegetable, fennel, would go brown once cut (unless acid works on it like with apples?) Are there any other chopped veg “gotcha”s?

Anyway, I would be glad to hear firstly of vegetables (and raw herbs and spices) that can be prepped in advance, and how they should best be stored and how long they will last; and secondly of any labour saving devices that you can think would make my life easier in the kitchen. I’m not talking about the cripple’s dreaded christmas present (“how lovely, another kettle tipper!”) but practical things that I might not have considered.

Note that I do have a mandolin and some other gadgets but it still hurts my back to stand and do anything for more than 2 minutes, and a mandolin is a bugger to wash up! But there must be quick and rough solutions involving, I dunno, food bags and a hammer? which I could do with learning to make my life easier.

I think what I truly need is a Thermomix – but unfortunately you get what you pay for and the cost is prohibitive. Does anyone know if the older models which sell for £300 on ebay are worthwhile? This is the only solution I can see to relieve the pain from standing and stirring over a bain marie, or similar…


I presume there isn’t a free online course and community where I can study this stuff and compare notes? Particularly as a screen grab wont tell you if the seasoning was good or the sauce hit the mark? But is there any online community for this? I’m interested in learning at home at my own speed though, not adult classes at my local catering college. (Also, Ive eaten at the local catering college’s Fine Dining Restaurant… Let’s just say ‘er, no’.)

I enjoy learning techniques from Videojug, Instructables and other websites, but where these are submitted by peers, it is hard to know how authoratitive they are, or if I’m missing a trick. I find I learn most from the Australian Masterchef Masterclass programmes, but these are only broadcast once a week, and I would love more in the same vein that I could study.

Lovely foodie, cook and chef friends, please help!

This week, the World Cup kicked off. It was ceremoniously started by a paraplegic who wore a robotic exoskeleton. After weeks of practice, he managed to kick the ball a short distance. What does this really achieve, if anything?

Image from BBC news of paraplegic man preparing to open the World Cup

I’m not impressed. Several young, fit people were chosen to train for this opportunity. In the event, the paraplegic person had to wear a brain cap, a rucksack containing a maximum 2 hour battery, and was wired up to sensors that they’d spent weeks training their bodies to understand, little by little. They still had to be helped by a team of people, and the activity they managed was a huge effort after weeks of training. Maybe one day this will help people who can’t walk; for now, it’s just for show.

I’ve encountered this issue as a Formula 1 fan. Frank Williams, leader of the Williams F1 team, became tetraplegic as the result of a road accident in 1986. He has been a common sight among the Formula 1 paddock, wheeling himself around the pit lane, but more recently he gained attention for using a wheelchair to help him artificially stand.

I find this really interesting. I believe that people with impairments and conditions of all types should be helped by the most appropriate tools and equipment – whatever that is. As you may know from my article about the cost of wheelchairs, unfortunately people do not automatically qualify for whatever equipment they need, and often have to fight for it or fund it themselves.

I am a disabled person with many friends who have a range of impairments at different levels, and the consensus seems to be that tools to make people artificially stand or ‘walk’ are missing the point. They make non disabled people think we can be ‘fixed’ when only certain people can use these tools, and then in specific and limited ways.

Frank Williams says that he prefers to stand so that he can shake hands and make eye contact in business. Sure, I can understand that, but this is suggesting disabled people should be made acceptable, normalised, as much as possible – when what would generally be more useful would be to get non disabled people to understand and accept us as we are, to be comfortable to look us in the eye when we are not at the same height. We are just as valid and just as able to conduct business as non-disabled people – why should we stand to attention to make others comfortable?

Frank says there are health benefits to his device, and I’m always interested to hear of these. If using a standing device helps with blood pressure, for example, why aren’t more people helped to have this kit? Although, many disabled people can’t work or are under-employed and couldn’t afford a device like that; as I’ve already highlighted, it can be expensive just to get the basic chair that you need. Most people would be grateful just for a riser that helps them reach higher shelves in supermarkets.

In my own case, I struggle to keep up my blood pressure so my consultant’s advice was just to drink isotonic drinks rather than anything more advanced…

The idea of these tools (such as the “Walk Again Project” seen in the World Cup) is uneasy for me. The amount of energy needed by people to wear a brain cap, and to train their body to respond to stimuli over several weeks, seems like a huge effort when we have tools to help already. They are called “wheelchairs”. Seriously, it is hard enough, even in the UK, for someone with genuine need to be able to justify and/or fund a chair which gives them a normal life. Seeing people trying to walk, be it Frank Williams or an athlete kicking off the World Cup, gives unrealistic hope.

If a wheelchair riser helps Frank’s health that is great. Maybe he could use his public standing to fundraise for even more essential equipment for disabled people’s wellbeing! But if Frank uses it to suggest it is better for business to be able to stand & look people in the eyes, etc, then sadly he is perpetuating the perception that disabled people are somehow ‘lesser’, and rather than trying to educate people to work with us, he is admitting defeat and trying to be ‘normal’ and appear as non-disabled as possible. For those of us who have no choice in the matter, it is depressing to see that might be the attitude from a role model like Frank.

And how will that World Cup kick have looked to people in Nigeria, where Polio victims scoot around on home made skateboards for lack of money?

Surely if we really care about developments in access for disabled people, there are other ways to fund and express it. Let’s try to make sure, as we go, that people are truly enabled.

Ever wanted to donate to a food bank, but not known what to give or how to help? A food bank was set up in my area during 2013, but then for months I held back because I wasn’t sure quite how to donate. I read several online discussions which reached different conclusions, and the more I pondered, the more complicated it seemed! I wanted my donation to be appropriate, but ended up over-thinking it. Eventually I phoned my local food bank to find out – and here is what I learned. Read this article, find a food bank, make a shopping list, get donating!

Food poverty is a topic close to my heart. When I was a student, there were no food banks – but there were many occasions when I had no money for meals. I walked down busy streets in the evening looking for dropped pennies, then went into the supermarket just before closing time, hoping for some discounted bread so that I could afford toast to go with a 3p can of baked beans. One night I stood outside the Beigel Bakery in Brick Lane, counting my pennies, trying to work out what I could afford to eat. A passing stranger pressed a pound coin into my hand, said “Get yourself something sweet” and walked away as I called out thanks. That night I bought six beigels, some with filling, to share between myself and my partner; it was the only thing we ate that day. It is telling that twenty years later, that stranger’s act of kindness is still imprinted in my memory. So, now that I’m able, regularly donating to a food bank is my way of paying it forward. We never know when we will find ourselves in that position, and you can be sure that people using this service are not there by choice.

What I bought for a food bank with £20. If you’re not sure what to get, start here.

Find your local food bank and ask what they need.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Locating your nearest food bank is probably best achieved by typing your locality and “food bank” into google. Otherwise, the Trussell Trust runs many of them, but several are run by other groups or individuals – mine is organised by a Children’s Centre. If you’re still having no luck, try asking a nearby church, or your local council, who should know where food bank services are provided.

When I initially asked what would be most appreciated, I was told “anything! We would be grateful for anything at all, thank you!” While this is a kind thing to say, it isn’t actually helpful – it didn’t tell me what would be inappropriate, or if there was anything they might prefer me to supply. So, although I would urge you to ask your local group what they most need – as well as what they have plenty of – I provide a list below, giving you some items which will always be welcomed, as well as a heads up on which things you should check before including.

It is important to be aware of the needs of users in your community, so here are a few points for thought:

  • Fuel poverty – not everyone can afford to run a stove, so include some items which can be eaten cold, or just require boiling water. There may also be service users who are living in temporary accommodation and don’t have access to a kitchen – make sure you include things for them to eat.
  • Short term vs long term need – does your food bank cater for people over the longer term, or those who have lost benefits for a few weeks but will be ok thereafter, or a mix of both? People with short term needs will probably just require basic food items to get them through. Those with longer term needs may not have cutlery, cooking equipment, can openers, and may also need additional items for cooking such as vegetable oil and salt.
  • Following on from the last point, if your food bank doesn’t ensure everyone has access to a can opener, then it might be better to provide some canned items which come with ringpulls.
  • Weird and wonderful items – assume that people using food banks have only basic cooking skills, so they won’t know what to do with that jar of octopus tentacles that’s been at the back of your cupboard for months, nor do they want olives or caviar – they’d rather you spent the money on something simple and filling that will go further.
  • Special diets – because I live in a very multicultural area, I had initially thought that I ought to consider halal food items. In fact, Muslim people tend to seek help from the community at their mosque, rather than a food bank – so this is less of an issue. My local food bank merely distinguishes between vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets. I asked about other special diets such as coeliac or dairy free, but they see very few people with these requirements and are able to cater for them from their regular stock. So I would suggest you include a good selection of vegetarian food – in any case, this is more affordable than meat and fish – but don’t spend money on expensive halal / kosher / gluten free items, unless your local food bank has said that this is something that they need.

Remember that food banks receive lots of donations from Harvest Festivals, and at Christmas time. However, it’s during the summer holidays, when parents have to feed children who would otherwise eat at school, when their needs can be forgotten. If you are able to make a regular donation – be it monthly, quarterly, or just annually – then please think about the time of year and find out when your food bank’s stocks run low or when there is the greatest need.

Basic / value priced items are perfectly fine. In fact, they are preferable in many cases. It’s simple: a food bank is providing SOMETHING to people who have NOTHING. They are not going to be brand-conscious or judgemental as to what has been offered. If you have a choice between buying two cheap bags of pasta, or one branded bag of pasta, buy the cheaper ones – that way twice as many families will be fed. Even if you choose to donate the most expensive Scottish salmon, a can of cheap tuna may be handed out in preference if that is what will expire soonest. So spend your money wisely and get as much as you can (of a decent basic quality) in order to help as many people as possible. Even just a few pounds will go a long way.

Always needed:

Essential food items which can be eaten cold, or made up with boiling water from a kettle, for example:
• Smash (powdered potato)
• Couscous (plain or flavoured)
• Instant noodles
• Tea and instant coffee
• Rice pudding in cans
• Cereal
• Longlife milk
• Longlife fruit juice

Canned items that can be heated and used to make up a meal:
• Meat and fish, such as canned tuna or frankfurter sausages
• Canned vegetables, such as potatoes, carrots, peas, sweetcorn
• Pies (e.g. Fray Bentos or Princes’ Steak and Kidney)
• Canned desserts, such as sponge puddings

Cooking oil is always in demand.

Usually wanted:

The following basics are very useful. I’ve only put them in the “usually” list because many food banks are inundated with certain items (such as sacks of rice, or cans of beans) and may prefer to receive an alternative. So if you’re not able to check, these items will almost certainly be appropriate and welcomed, so please donate them; but if you are able to find out what’s in demand, that would be even better. I know our own food bank have enough cans of baked beans for several years!
• Rice (these usually can’t be split into individual portions, so buy several smaller bags rather than a large sack, even if it seems less cost efficient)
• Pasta (any type that can be cooked in hot water)
• Canned pulses such as lentils or beans
• Canned tomatoes

Toiletries are usually given out by food banks. I’m told that men’s needs are often forgotten. Also, I was told that nappies are the one thing that are always needed and will definitely be used. So I would suggest:
• Shampoo / 2 in 1
• Shower gel
• Disposable razors
• Nappies (disposable, unisex)

Flavourings help to bring plain meals to life, and are inexpensive. They are important if your food bank provides long term support for people who will no longer have these in their cupboard:
• Mustard
• Salt and pepper
• Stock cubes
• Herbs and spices
• Tomato puree

Children’s lunchbox items are usually welcomed too, such as:
• Cereal bars
• Dried fruit
• Juice boxes

Check before donating:

Sanitary items are often welcomed, but not always. Some food banks have a supply of toiletries and say “take what you need”; others provide pre-prepared bags and would not feel able to have that conversation with whichever member of the household has come to collect groceries. So always check that your own food bank can use these items. However, if they say yes, I would make sure to include some in every donation. Give pads, not tampons, as a pack of pads can be used by young teenagers as well as mothers, and those of all cultures and beliefs. Don’t be tempted to donate Mooncups or other unconventional items – when you’re at your lowest ebb and having to ask for help at a food bank, you don’t want someone’s hippy ethics forced upon you. It may be well meaning, but this is not the time for it.

Baby formula and foods may also be welcomed, but they are expensive, so before buying, check that your food bank accepts them and currently has a need for them.

Pet food is accepted by some food banks, but not all. My local organisation takes the view that they are there to feed people. (If someone opts to give their tuna to the cat, that’s their choice.) If you have excess pet food to donate, check out local animal rehoming centres instead.

Sweets and treats: Many food banks will take these, and appreciate the importance of a treat to boost morale now and then – who doesn’t love a choccie bikkie? However, some organisations prefer that only healthy food is donated (some even request only wholegrain cereals!) While I think it is good to include something to enjoy as well as essential food items, I recall sending luncheon vouchers as a gift to a homeless friend. I asked her to please spend 50p of the £10 vouchers on something she’d enjoy – a bar of chocolate, for example. I really wanted her to have something to savour for a moment. But she told me that she just didn’t think she could honour that – she needed the money too much, and that 50p could be another bag of pasta. So if you are planning to include treats in your food bank donations I would encourage you to add them as an extra, rather than instead of essential items which could send someone to bed with a full stomach. And make sure that whatever you donate will be welcomed.

Non-food items such as toilet roll and laundry powder might be accepted, but it depends on whether your food bank has the capacity to administer them, and whether they are providing long term assistance rather than short term aid. If you’re not sure, I would leave them off. As a student I used to scrounge loo roll from public toilets and wash my clothes by hand in the sink, so if people have to make do without these items it is better than going hungry. Unless you know they are welcome, spend your money on food.

Fresh food can sometimes be used, particularly items like apples and potatoes which can survive for a couple of weeks. Again, check whether your food bank has the capacity to handle them – you might be better off donating excess from your garden or allotment to a charity which provides hot meals to homeless people (ask local churches to find out where).

Don’t give…

Opened and out-of-date items probably won’t be accepted, but it is worth checking before you chuck them out. If the date was a “best before” rather than a “use by” and is not far over the limit it may still be useful. Opened items can’t be used unless they are individually wrapped.

Baking mixes should be avoided unless they only need water to be added. Giving a cake mix may seem kind, but the recipient may not have the eggs, oil or milk necessary to make up the pack. Don’t donate anything which requires the addition of extra items.

Alcohol – food banks don’t wish to accidentally enable alcoholics. This includes items such as Christmas puddings – make sure that nothing you donate has booze as an ingredient.

If you have no money but would still like to help out…

If you’ve been inspired by this but really don’t have any money spare to donate items, here are two other ways you might help:

Volunteer! Do ask whether you can help in some way, if you’re able to donate your time. It might be collecting from local groups having a food drive, sorting items or making up bags – you don’t necessarily have to engage with service users if you don’t feel comfortable with that (although, why not?)

BOGOF! If you see a “buy one, get one free” offer in the supermarket, why not choose that item instead of your usual brand, and set the free one aside to give to the food bank? As long as it’s a longlife item, it can probably be used.

And if you really have no money – and are having to decide whether to eat, or spend your rations on other items – please use a food bank if you need to. Some require a reference from your GP, benefits office or social services, but others – like near me – will take self-referrals, or those from other community organisations. Don’t be afraid to find out – it’s better than going hungry, and as I’ve proved, it can happen to anyone. There’s no shame in needing help, especially under the current government’s appalling austerity measures. Please, seek assistance if you need it.

On behalf of anyone who needs to use a food bank, thank you. I remember that kind stranger from my student days, and I’m sure the families fed by food banks will be touched by your generosity too.

Have you found your local food bank yet? Why wait? Go and add items for them to your shopping list! Let me know if you think of anything I’ve missed.

Online shopping can be a lifeline for disabled people. If you’re not able to spend an hour pushing a trolley round the supermarket every week, you may depend upon companies to deliver your groceries. But who does best at catering for disabled customers? And what happens when it goes wrong?

I have mobility difficulties, and fatigue, from my condition. I don’t have the stamina to do a weekly shop in store, let alone push a full trolley or carry more than the lightest items from my car to the kitchen. But arranging for a grocery delivery isn’t simple either – I need to pace my rest and activity cycle around it, as well as my medicine schedule, to ensure I’m awake and as alert as possible in order to handle the delivery. I’ll clear the table, then rest; accept the delivery, then rest; put chilled items away, then rest; put store-cupboard items away, then rest – you get the idea. My entire day is dictated by the delivery. I’m not sure that non-disabled people realise quite how much other people need to plan in order to make the best use of the limited energy or capacities that we get, but it isn’t trivial.

I’ve tried every online supermarket that delivers to my street in east London – Asda, Ocado, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose. Each of them had different issues, but there are only two that I would try again, and one that I would tell every disabled person to avoid – I think you’ll be surprised at the outcome.

The disaster: Waitrose
Where do I begin? The complaint letter for this week’s delivery ran to 5 pages, so this will be a brief summary.

My delivery was due between 2-3pm on Thursday. When it didn’t show up, I phoned to find there were delays of up to 2 hours across London, due to heavy tube-strike traffic. Ok, these things happen – but I had clearly stated on the order that I am disabled and plan my schedule around the delivery. A call would have been nice – and what I would expect from a brand like Waitrose. By 5.30pm there was still no delivery so I rang back, and was told it might come that night (I gave them a deadline of 9pm), or else it might come the next day at 6pm, in which case they’d ring me after 2pm to let me know. Nothing came that night, so at 9pm I ate the only meal I had in the freezer, a chilli. Unfortunately I had oral thrush so it was agony to eat anything at all, let alone spicy food, and I went to bed having eaten maybe half a small meal that day.

On Friday, I was up by 2pm, but heard nothing. At nearly 7pm I chased to find out where my delivery was, and I was told it would come before 9pm. It finally arrived at 9.16pm – more than 30 hours late – by which time I was exhausted, wanted to be in bed, and again hadn’t eaten all day. Then I discovered that an unacceptable substitution for my drinks had been made, and in addition items totalling over £19 were billed but missing. This meant that I would have to get an in-store shop done in any case, since most of my planned meals couldn’t be completed.

At every stage I had to chase Waitrose for information. I always stated that yes, I understand that these things happen, but I need to be kept in the loop so I can schedule my rest. I also told them that I needed food to take my medication, and milk for my meal-replacement breakfast shakes. I explained how critical it was to know what was happening – even if it was just to say “we haven’t forgotten you”. Everyone I spoke to sounded kind, sympathetic, said they completely understood my needs, assured me they were on the case… then didn’t call back as promised, and the delivery didn’t come when they’d said to expect it. They kept me hanging on for two days – and that destroyed me, physically, from exhaustion and pain. I spent most of the weekend in bed recovering.

Although Waitrose volunteered a £20 goodwill voucher, I’m not sure I’d trust them again so it might never get spent. Good communications are crucial when things go wrong, and this was an experience that I never wish to repeat.

Access fail 1: Ocado

I used Ocado for several weeks. Every single week they would phone to see if I could accept the delivery up to an hour early, or sometimes just ring the doorbell to find out. Every single time I told them that I carefully scheduled my wake-up, and my pain medication, so that I would be ready to get out of bed just before the delivery slot, and they must NOT come early and must NOT phone before the delivery slot, that compromising my sleep made me ill. Every single time I was promised this had been noted on my account. Every single time it happened again, and even if I made them wait outside until the booked time, I was now awake and in pain.

They even once pressganged a cleaner of mine into taking a delivery – she told them she couldn’t but they insisted, and she didn’t speak enough English to make it clear that she wasn’t allowed. After all, it’s me paying for it! Of course, that was the week when there were inappropriate substitutions – which my cleaner didn’t know about and couldn’t reject. Eventually I gave up, having given Ocado every chance to stop turning up early.

Access fail 2: Tesco

I thought I’d give Tesco a try. They had an advertising slogan: “We deliver to your door – your fridge door”. That sounded great! What happened when they turned up? The driver told me that they weren’t allowed to enter people’s houses – something about an alleged theft and not being covered by insurance. I quoted the advert and made it clear that if I could carry groceries into the house, I wouldn’t need to order them online. The driver grudgingly brought the shopping into my kitchen, but I didn’t feel I could trust him to do so again.

On a second occasion their driver tried to force my PA to accept the delivery rather than spend 2 minutes fetching me to come downstairs, saying that they don’t care who signs, it just has to be an adult over 18 – this was the nail in the coffin for Tesco.

Slight access fail: Sainsbury’s

Sainsbury’s delivered to me just before Christmas. They arrived on time and only had a few substitutions. However, as I was checking the items and handing carrier bags back to the driver, he asked “So, what’s wrong with you then?” Wow.

I considered how to respond – I didn’t want to disclose honestly, nor did I think it was the place to give him one of my more cutting responses, so I just said “er – how is that any of your business?” He was flustered, so I went on to educate him that it is just not appropriate to ask that kind of thing, and that medical matters are private. To be fair, the poor guy apologised profusely. I would consider ordering from them again, as long as they’ve trained their staff in which topics make appropriate conversation (if in doubt, the weather is always a safe bet) and what is completely unacceptable, especially when you are in someone’s home and they may feel vulnerable.

The winner: Asda

Yes – Asda! To be honest, I only tried them because I was fed up with my experiences of other retailers. I would never consider doing my weekly shop in their physical store – it’s always busy, the customers seem to be preoccupied and rude (I’ve been shoved into by several unsupervised children), they don’t stock all the products I want (such as artichoke hearts in oil and a decent sparkling wine) and their staff rarely offer help with packing – assistance to the car is out of the question.

However, when it came to an online delivery I was able to pick items that were suitable, and the website even ordered them by price which helped me select the range I needed for each product. Admittedly their delivery slots are 2 hours long which made it a little harder for me to plan my day, but you know what you’re getting. The drivers are friendly, they delivered to my dining table without quibble, the few substitutions made were sensible, and the whole experience was as positive as it could be. Sure, I needed to sneak out for a few top-up items elsewhere, but that’s the same with most deliveries, due to substitutions or just running out of things a few days earlier than I’d expected.

Even if you – like me – are the sort of person who prefers M&S and Waitrose for their high quality products, when it comes to online shopping, give Asda a go. As a physically disabled person, I found I could rely on them and they hit the mark. And don’t be sucked in by offers of money off or free champagne – give Waitrose the widest berth possible.

Let me know your experiences of online shopping in the comments below.


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