Papayas, middle class problems and Biffa

Earlier today on Facebook my friends and I had an amusing conversation about middle class problems. It started with one friend-who shall remain nameless-complaining there were “so many bloody pop up things [meaning restaurants] at the mo, I can’t keep up!!” Another friend then volunteered her dilemma (I suspect somewhat sarcastically): “If I put the spice rack there, then there’s no room for the tea caddy. What to do?” And finally a third friend added his: “There aren’t enough plugs for my coffee grinder, kettle and espresso machine. So I have to grind my beans then plug the kettle back in afterwards.”

These comments, along with my favourite middle class line from the Waitrose Twitter debacle some months ago, “Put the papaya down, Orlando!” (if you didn’t see it look it up-too funny), are obviously tongue in cheek, but nonetheless they highlight the huge disparity between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in our society.

Several people who would fall firmly into the “have not” category were featured in last night’s episode of Undercover Boss, which really touched a nerve with me. The programme focused on employees of Biffa, the waste disposal organisation, and two men in particular had such sad stories. One had spent five years working ten hour shifts, six days a week sorting rubbish on a conveyor belt in a disgusting, airless factory. When the belt broke down, as it often did, he and his fellow agency workers would not get paid until it was fixed – which sometimes took up to three days.

A second Biffa employee in the programme had been denied time off to grieve over the death of his baby girl, and a third had been made redundant and forced to take another, less well paid job with the company which had led to him losing his house and becoming depressed.

Watching the struggles these men went through every day to survive and put food on the table for their families was a humbling experience, and one that, upon reflection in the wake of today’s “middle class problems” conversation, made me put my own “problems” very much into perspective. I may have recently taken a pay cut myself but I did so voluntarily to make room for my writing, and whilst I have had to cut back on frivolous things like daily Starbucks coffees and new clothes I’m certainly not suffering-far from it, I’m thriving on my new routine.

So whilst Orlando and his papaya will forever make me chuckle, the stories of those Biffa employees will stay with me in a different and more sobering way-and will act as a reminder to be grateful for my many blessings.

Living below the line – for real

Last night I caught the tail end of a TV programme about people in this country who have to feed their families on less than £2 each a day. According to the programme, recent research estimates that nearly five million people in the UK are struggling to feed themselves properly and eat nutritiously.

Watching the families’ struggle had a sobering effect on me, and made me realise just how fortunate I am. It also got me thinking about the poverty divide, and how so many people wrongly claim to be on the wrong side of it when really they’re nowhere near.

So often people – myself included – say they have no money, and yet no sooner has the breath escaped their lips than they are buying their daily speciality coffee and Pret a Manger salad. Admittedly such purchases are often the difference between being in the red and being in the black, but real poverty is about far more than having a few hundred pounds to pay off on your overdraft and/or credit card.

Real poverty is parents going without food to ensure their children don’t, or families having to swallow their pride and visit food banks so they have enough to survive. Real poverty is scouring the marked down section in the supermarket out of necessity every single day rather than to secure the odd bargain now and again. Real poverty is having to choose between heating and eating.

So next time I’m about to complain about not being able to afford a night out (when I’ve only just had a night out), not having savings (when, even after my recent pay cut I’m still able to afford £150 each month to pay off my credit card) or not being able to afford holidays and clothes (when I go on plenty of the former and have more than enough of the latter as it is) I’m going to stop and think about the families on that programme. I’ll put myself in their position and imagine what it’s like to struggle every single day just to put food on the table and keep the house heated. And I’ll keep my mouth shut.