Every now and then we’ll hear a news item or read an article in the paper that succeeds in making us stop and think. It might surprise us, shock us, anger us even. But generally, give it ten minutes or so, and our life resumes as before. Despite its importance, the news report is added to our ever increasing ‘list of terrible things we can’t really do much about’.
But for Jo Beale, one newspaper article managed to strike such a chord it changed the course of her life, or at least the course of the following year.
I recently had the pleasure and the privilege to meet Jo for coffee and a chat. Jo is one of that select group of people I’ve come to meet through the power of social media. She happens to live just down the road from me in Frome. Last month I published a blog post about the launch of the ENOUGH FOOD FOR EVERYONE IF campaign, and as a result the lovely Abi from Save the Children, via the wonderful phenomenon that is Twitter, put me in touch with Jo, as a kindred Somerset spirit who shares a passionate concern about food poverty.
The timing of this exchange couldn’t have been better. I’d been wondering how to continue featuring the ENOUGH FOOD FOR EVERYONE IF campaign on the blog without coming across all worthy and boring everyone senseless. When I heard what Jo was doing for Save the Children, I knew I had to feature her on my blog.
Jo Beale is a fitness instructor who lives in Frome with her three-year-old son and husband Tim. Back in October, Jo read this article in the Independent, which pretty much turned her world on its head. It was the catalyst to make Jo decide to give up food one day a week for the whole of 2013 in order to get people thinking about food poverty.
Over a cup of coffee, I asked Jo to explain why…
“I know we’re all supposed to pretend that we read the papers every day and we’re all current and up-to-date and know everything about everything in the whole world but I generally don’t,” Jo admits. “I have some people who tweet about news in my Twitter feed and they generally give me my view on the world.
“However since reading that Independent article, my news feed has changed a lot in terms of what I want to know about the world. But back when I read it I was just getting on with life, you know? I was just hanging out, getting on with my stuff and not really bothered about anyone else’s.
“I was having my car serviced and it was taking longer than usual, so I picked up a newspaper,” recalls Jo. “I came across this article about people in India and certain African countries who have reached the point where they can’t afford food and so they schedule a food-free day every week.
“I just couldn’t shake the article from my mind; the fact that whole families are having food-free days and that this has become a ‘normal’ thing. I couldn’t imagine waking up one day a week and telling my child he couldn’t eat. It was just so far away from anything I could imagine experiencing.
“The worst thing was that I didn’t know. That’s what made me the most uncomfortable. It had reached this point and yet I’d had no idea it was happening. My life is so comfortable and, while we all experience hardship to some degree, you become so wrapped up in your own world you don’t realise just how difficult simply existing can be for others.
“Doing this fast has shamed me because I now realise how much I took for granted”
“Giving up an entire day of eating in order to survive is extreme. That’s 14% of your weekly food. That’s a lot. And you know what? You don’t realise how much it is until you’re not eating it any more,” Jo laughs. It’s clear that giving up a day’s worth of food each week is giving her a very different perspective on food. “The impact it has on the whole week and the way that you feel about every single mouthful you put into your body… Doing this fast has shamed me because I now realise how much I took for granted. Everything I’ve ever eaten, everything I’ve ever given my family to eat, everything we’ve thrown away.”
So what took Jo from that state of shock and horror to setting herself this ambitious, and perhaps slightly insane, challenge?
For a while the piece “just kind of lurked” in her mind, niggling away. “I’m not naturally an activist; I’m very much an I’ll retweet that and that’ll save the world type! So, it just kind of bothered me for a bit,” Jo says. She started reading around the subjects of food poverty and food scarcity, including a book called Full Planet, Empty Plates by Lester R Brown and a report by Save the Children called A High Price to Pay, both cited in the original Independent article.
“It wasn’t going to make a difference simply me knowing it”
“I thrive on statistics and facts and figures,” Jo tells me. “I’d be reading this stuff in bed and my husband would be there reading his book and I’d be like ‘Oh my God! You’ve have to hear this!’ And he’d be like ‘Yes, I know. Yes, you’ve made your point!’ It just felt like it didn’t matter how much reading I did or how much understanding I had, it wasn’t going to make a difference simply me knowing it.”
So for a while Jo was aware she had to do something, but she just didn’t know what.
“I woke up one morning after a few too many the night before. I was in that haze knowing I was going to waste the morning feeling like crap, and knowing I’d go on to waste many more mornings feeling like crap. But I was still thinking about that article and I felt, ‘You know what, I really want other people to have that moment I had when I read it.'”
Jo went through a whole list of possibilities from running marathons to gorging on a record number of hot dogs in an hour – “but I thought that was probably in bad taste” – to doing a 24-hour famine. But none of these were quite right. They just weren’t big enough to do the issue justice.
“I kept coming back to the fact that one day a week people don’t eat. And that happens again, and again, and again. I thought, if I’m going to do something to really make people see how terrible this is and expect them to sponsor me to do it, it has to be something people can relate to as being hard. So that’s how I decided to not eat one day a week all through 2013 starting in January.”
Jo launched her blog, A Fast Year, and her Just Giving page in November, once she’d told the first person. “I didn’t tell anyone other than my husband what I was planning for ages. Once I told someone, I knew there was no turning back.”
The first person Jo told was Gina who runs the fitness studio in Frome where she works. “I knew out of all the people I know she was the most likely to disapprove; that’s why she had to be first so I could gauge the worst possible reaction! But she’s has been 300% supportive. I’m really grateful for that.”
Surprisingly, not one person tried to put Jo off. “There hasn’t been anyone out-and-out disapproving. A couple of people said ‘Oh that can’t be healthy’ or ‘I think you’re mental’ but every single one of those people has sponsored me. But I needed those reactions. Because if everybody was like ‘Oh yeah, you’ll get it done, don’t you worry!’ then I’d have to ask, why I’m going through all of this if it’s really going to be such a doddle?”
January came around very quickly and Jo was amazed at how quickly the campaign gathered its own momentum. By late December, Jo had already raised more than £1,000 – before her year of fasting had even started. But despite all the support and build-up, nothing could really prepare Jo for her first whole day, a whole Friday, without food. This blog post sums up how she was feeling. It’s short and not-so-sweet because as Jo explains, when you don’t eat you have no energy to concentrate on anything, let alone write a cohesive blog post.
“My body literally went into shock when I had food”
“The first ‘next’ day after fasting was hard,” Jo remembers. “My body literally went into shock when I had food again. But it hasn’t happened since. I think as somebody who has never not eaten for a day, ever, I think my body presumed it was never going to eat again! So it was a massive shock. After that, Saturday has been the easiest day of the week so far. I get the Wednesday/Thursday twitch, where psychologically something snaps and I realise it’s coming and I will eat anything. It’s like terror. It feels like actual fear.”
Jo tries to manage what she eats on a Wednesday and Thursday to help her cope on a food-free Friday. One of her friends who is a nutritionist has given her pointers on what to eat to manage her hunger and how to return to normal on a Saturday.
“It’s definitely in my interest to stock up on as much protein as possible,” explains Jo, “but my mind seems to be geared more towards carbohydrates. I don’t think I’ve quite got to the point yet where I’m eating as well as I could on Wednesdays and Thursdays. And that’s simply because of the fear. But hey, I’ve got another 46 weeks to sort it out. I’m sure I’ll get it sorted by the end!”
When I meet with Jo she’s already managed seven days without food over the past seven weeks. That’s quite an achievement but she’s still got a bloody long way to go. I get Jo to talk me through a typical fast-day.
“My son goes to nursery on a Friday, which was a big reason for choosing Friday. My husband Tim takes the dog out in the morning so I deal with Josh before he goes to nursery, including getting him breakfast. That can be tough.
“Around 2 o’clock every Friday, my brain shuts down”
“I find the morning is much easier than the end of the day. In the morning I still have plenty of energy, plenty of focus and concentration. I can be fairly normally up until about 10 or 11 o’clock. That’s when the real hunger hits. Then I have another three hours or so of fully functioning brain power. I try to focus on admin tasks on Fridays because physically moving around just brings that ‘wall’ forward.
“Around 2 o’clock every Friday, my brain just shuts down. Completely shuts down. I can’t think straight; I can’t add up, some days I can’t even speak properly, the words come out all wrong. So I try and get everything done before 2 o’clock and then whatever’s left has to be the really mindless stuff. I try and avoid supermarkets because of the smells. I’d be fine going and doing food shopping, but it’s the smell that I can’t deal with. That’s really hard. Then I pick the guys up around five, bring them back and put my son to bed. Thankfully he eats dinner at nursery, so phew!
“I generally have a pretty early night on a Friday. I usually go up between eight and nine and in the interim I’m capable of nothing but Angry Birds! I can’t watch TV or anything – it’s not enough stimulation to stop me stressing out. I need to engage in something. I can’t even write my blog because all I can do is complain – simply getting across how I feel in that state is really difficult. That’s the part of the day that I just have to get through. I know that once I’ve got to bed it’s OK because then it’s breakfast time. But Friday evening is so hard to manage because it’s got to be filled, but I can’t do anything.”
Bizarrely, something that Jo founds she likes to do on her food-free days is talk about food. Last Friday she even admitted to browsing through this here blog! “It’s like a kind of fantasy situation,” Jo laughs. “I thought talk of food would be a complete no-no. But it’s the thing I talk about the most! I spend the whole day planning what I’m going to eat the next day. The thing is I won’t eat it. It’s just in that moment it’s like eating it mentally.”
Jo’s overall attitude to food has altered significantly as a result of her fasting.
“Now I see every mouthful as precious”
“I never realised before how much food we waste; now I see every mouthful as precious. I’ve also started thinking about the cost of meals. I never used to do that before. It just was a case of buy food, eat the food, throw it away if it doesn’t get eaten. There’s a real value to it that I never saw before and attached to that is its nutritional content. One thing might cost more than another, but if the other thing that costs less doesn’t contain any real nutrition then it isn’t ‘real food’. I’m coming around to the realisation that food is a fuel over and above anything else.
But does Jo think it’s right only to see food as a fuel? Surely food can still be something for us to get passionate and excited about?
“Food plays such a big role in our lives and I think that, certainly in our society, maybe that role has expanded beyond our ancestors’ understanding of food. Of course food is celebratory; you take food to somebody when they’re sick, you comfort them with food. It plays a massive social function. But its role has gone beyond that now. We’re not just eating it for these social reasons. We’re just eating it. The process of consumption now doesn’t have any meaning. So I’m not saying we should only eat food as fuel. But we need to think about those meanings a little more. So yes – birthday cake. But not – Tuesday cake! The tradition of ‘feasting’ has somehow leached into daily life. Rather than special foods being for special occasions, we’ve reached a point where special is the norm. And that’s just weird when you take a step back and look at it.”
“I’d rather my lasagne contained horsemeat than beef blastings”
Jo thinks that the horsemeat scandal is a symptom of our expectation of being able to eat what we want all the time without it costing much. “Meat should be seen as a luxury. What surprised me the most about that whole issue was that people were surprised. I don’t understand how people really seem to believe that a £1 lasagne contained steak. I’d rather my lasagne contained horsemeat than beef blastings, you know? So yeah, in this desire to have everything, maybe people are coming round to the realisation they need to have a little less. I don’t think horsemeat is the worst thing that people are eating right now.”
This new-found perspective has had major impact on what Jo and her family are eating the rest of the week.
“We’ve started buying much more raw ingredients,” she tells me. “I don’t just mean fresh produce because, do you know what, fresh produce isn’t cheap. Anybody who thinks it is, is rich and deluded. Things like beans and pulses are remarkably cheap and ridiculously filling, and with the right seasoning, are tasty. A mung bean is not tasty on its own,” Jo laughs, “but with a bit of tomato and spice, they are pretty good. Did you know you can buy noodles made out of mung bean? Now, I don’t mean to go on about mung beans too much but I’d never eaten them before and now I’ve got a cupboard full of all kinds of different mung bean products. And chickpeas! Oh my god – they are amazing! I love a chickpea. So we’re experimenting much more with things that are cheap substitutions for the things we presumed were the cheapest things we could buy. Don’t get me wrong. I also eat a lot of crap! I try not to and I feel bad about it and then I go a bit overboard with the mung beans!”
“You’ve got to keep poking and shouting and doing everything you can because it’s all about hope isn’t it?”
It was the ENOUGH FOOD FOR EVERYONE IF campaign, plus our separate involvements with the charity Save the Children, that led to Jo and I crossing paths.
“IF is an amazing campaign,” says Jo excitedly. “For that many charities and organisations to be working on the same thing… It just goes to show the level of concern and that the reality behind the problem is so huge, that it can be channelled, into a seemingly small remit, those four ‘ifs’. Because it really is very simple, it does come down to those four factors. The problem is that with all the will in the world they are so difficult to achieve. Sometimes all it takes is one catalyst. That’s why you’ve just got to keep poking. You’ve got to keep poking and shouting and doing everything you can because it’s all about hope isn’t it? You’ve just got to keep trying.”
It’s also helpful that the IF campaign dovetails neatly with what Jo is trying to achieve with her year of fasting. Having raised greater awareness of food poverty issues, she can point people to IF for some practical ways people can make their own noise to tackle global hunger.
“Even if people don’t agree with what I’m doing or the way I’m doing it, or perhaps because they don’t want to support Save the Children directly, then through the IF campaign they can still align themselves with the same issues I care so passionately about.”
I’m publishing this post on a Friday. As you read these words please think of Jo who will be fasting today and send her some positive vibes.
And once you’ve done all that, do take a look at the IF campaign website for some more ways to make a noise to draw the attention of our world leaders to the scandal that is food poverty.