WHEN you haven't a financial care in the world, you should, perhaps, think twice before criticising the spending priorities of those who scrape by on considerably less, but Jamie Oliver showed no such reserve last week when he bemoaned the junk food choices of people living in poverty.
Referring to one of the most enduring images from his 2008 Ministry Of Food television series, he admitted in an interview last week that he found discussions about food poverty difficult. "I'm not judgmental, but…" he began, then went on to observe that poor people spend their money on "chips and cheese out of Styrofoam containers" while sitting in a room with a "massive f***ing TV".
Predictably, Oliver's remarks raised the hackles of poverty campaigners and generated a media flurry that will help promote his new Channel 4 series, Jamie's Money Saving Meals, which starts tomorrow. There's nothing like a Radio Times-spiked controversy to prime the viewing figures. But wittingly or unwittingly, he certainly invoked that potent national stereotype, beloved of Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit: those feckless, chav underclasses, who only have themselves to blame for their hopeless lives.
Oliver's comments must have been music to the ears of those who are keen to attribute blame for obesity and diet-related disease to the woeful choices of ill-educated layabouts. My, how his remarks will resonate with the "they just waste their benefits on beer and fags" brigade.
Indeed, Oliver has instigated yet another round in that popular national sport, what sociologists call "othering". If we, the thrifty, frugal, resourceful people, the politicians' pet "hard-working families" were in their (the other's) shoes, we would make wiser choices. We'd go without the TV and the trainers, and whisk up hearty, wholesome soups made from a 22p can of kidney beans, and go to sleep at night with a smile on our faces, wouldn't we?
I hope that Oliver's thoughts on food poverty are more nuanced than this outburst might lead you to conclude. Perhaps he feels frustrated - as should we all - with how food manufacturers and retailers profit rapaciously from the poorest people in society by selling them the lowest grade, most over-processed, nutritionally challenged, miserable-value-for-money food; especially when they brag about how they are helping hard-pressed families to make ends meet.
To his credit, Oliver has done more than any other food celebrity to put the nation's woeful eating habits on the public agenda. But he should have prefaced his remarks with the crucial acknowledgement that too many people in the UK are living, day after day, year after year, on a soul-destroying budget that is miserably inadequate; one that should shame a rich Western economy.
I began to feel queasy recently watching BBC One's Great British Budget Menu, which saw three wealthy chefs, Angela Hartnett, James Martin, and Richard Corrigan, sent to help some cash-strapped people to eat better on an impossibly tight budget. It was hard not to throw up, or shout at the TV (wide-screen or otherwise) when, at the programme's finale, plump, plummy celebs and assorted worthies, including Jenni Murray, doled out patronising Lady Bountiful encouragement to these struggling citizens for rising to the inane challenge.
At least Corrigan voiced his unease at being party to this exercise when he admitted that he himself could never live on so little. Those chefs should never have lent credence to this whole sickening you-can-eat-well-on-a-pittance project. Instead, they should have refused to take part and held a press conference to publicise why. As Jack Monroe, the poverty food expert and author of Hunger Hurts put it: "When I was living on £10 a week for food, I didn't need a hug, I needed a fiver."
An investigative, as opposed to light entertainment, TV series looking at why many poor people eat badly would never run out of material. It would show those shelves stacked high with promotional offers on "value" and "economy" convenience foods that represent rotten value for money, while the good-quality unprocessed ingredients - the fruit and vegetables the NHS urges us all to eat - are so scandalously and unjustifiably expensive that they are outwith the reach of many. It's nonsense, frankly, to suggest that you can eat decently on a tenner a week. For one week, maybe; you could go vegetarian and fill everyone up on pasta, spuds and beans. But how do you afford the high-quality protein that the human body needs just to regenerate itself, or those fruits packed with health-promoting micronutrients?
You begin to appreciate the attraction of those meat products that come breaded, battered, or otherwise swaddled in greasy starch. They fill the stomach, at least for an hour or two; kiwi fruit doesn't. As I write, one chain is selling four sausage rolls for £1, a 2kg bag of frozen chips for £1.50, and six "strawberry and vanilla" cones for 95p. So, for £3.45, I could put a meal on the table for a family of four, with some food left over for the next day. And if I was stony broke, I might well see that as the best option.
But empirical reminders of just how bloody hard it is for poor people now to afford wholesome, natural, real food are, just like living in poverty, grindingly tedious. Blaming the poor for their own bad circumstances on the other hand, now that's always a winner.
George Orwell captured the food poverty trap perfectly in his 1937 book The Road To Wigan Pier, which documents the travails of working-class communities in the north of England. "The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots," he wrote. "And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn't."
Orwell's point was that when you are unemployed - "which is to say, when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable" - you don't want to eat dull, wholesome food, and there is always some "cheaply pleasant" thing to tempt you. In Orwell's day it was thruppence-worth of chips and a mug of heavily sugared tea. Nowadays it's crisps, pizzas and low-grade processed meat, washed down with sugary soda.
Before we rush to condemn the poor for filling up on crap so that they can afford a few of the aspirational consumer goods most of us take for granted, we might first consider that the willingness to eat cheap food with a dubious nutritional profile is something of a national disease and afflicts all social classes. Just 8% of disposable family income in the UK these days is spent on food. The only rich Western country that spends less is the US. In Cameroon, the equivalent spend is nearly 50%; in Russia, food soaks up one-third of the budget. In mainland Europe generally, around 20% of what people have is spent on food. But in the UK, where a large proportion of the population is simultaneously over-fed yet undernourished, it has become a point of pride to spend as little on feeding ourselves as possible. And some of the worst offenders here are not the destitute, but the affluent.
How often have you heard someone saying that they can't afford to buy free-range chicken when they seem to be able to afford designer handbags, two cars per family, the latest trendy branded jeans, regular meals out in restaurants, phones, laptops and regular holidays in foreign places?
Oliver said that the fascinating thing for him is that "seven times out of 10, the poorest families in this country choose the most expensive way to hydrate and feed their families: the ready meals, the convenience foods". But the same applies to the better-off. In Britain, probably as a legacy of our early industrialisation, we have become a processed food culture. We have become programmed to see time spent shopping for food and cooking as time that would be better spent doing almost anything else. And the food industry takes advantage of that.
Throughout the 1990s, UK supermarket chains embarked on an exercise to actively encourage us to cook less. They told us that we were cash-rich but time-poor and they could sell us ready-made products that would be every bit as good as anything we could knock up at home. The message was clear: if you still cooked routinely on a daily basis, you hadn't quite made it in life.
Our large food retailers had a strong financial interest in so doing: food processing is hugely lucrative. There is only so much even the most rapacious retailer can get away with charging for potatoes, even if they are a boutique variety, hand-scrubbed in Celtic spa water by virgins. But process them into a ready-to-eat potato gratin or microwavable "Cajun" potato skins and you have created a licence to print money.
Subsequent governments have been complicit in pushing processed food. They aided and abetted the industrial food lobby by removing practical cookery lessons from the school curriculum, replacing them with "food technology", training kids for jobs in food manufacturing. Now seeing the deadly results, they make moves to reinstate regular cookery lessons in schools. It's better than nothing, but with two generations now who have never been armed with the practical skills that would allow then to take control of their diets, there is just so much ground to make up.
Ever since the end of the Second World War, UK governments have embraced supermarkets and industrial food concerns because they are big, profitable companies. These days, food processing is about the only significant UK manufacturing industry left. And government health advice conspires to make us anxious about natural food. Who can trust it when it's full of cholesterol and fat? We'd better stock up on diet sausages and low-cal slimmers' meals that have been nutritionally calibrated by men in white coats. If it was doing its job right, government would spell out that a diet of processed food will make us fat and sick, but all politicians become spineless sooner or later when faced with the might of Big Food.
Nowadays, more people feel cash-poor and worry about their weight, but there is little sign that the majority of us are cooking more. Despite the daily diet of supposedly enabling cookery programmes on TV, reliance on ready meals and other convenience foods has become a national disease - if you're poor, you'll buy them in budget stores, if you're rich, you'll get them from upmarket ones.
Ostensibly, in his Money Saving Meals, Oliver is going to inspire us with examples of the la cucina povera, a stimulating selection of lip-smacking Italian peasant dishes. Unlike Britain, where good food is often characterised as an elitist pursuit, a lifestyle preoccupation of the neurotic rich, Italians of all social classes see it as a democratic entitlement. If he can tempt more citizens living in hardship to cook more - always supposing that they have the £20-plus needed first to stock up on larder "staples" such as extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, capers, anchovies and so on - then that's a useful exercise.
But ultimately, it's naïve to think that by banging on about this - all the while employing the most graphic stunts to shock us that his team of production assistants can dream up - Jamie, or any other TV chef, can save the nation's diet. It implies that if only those sunk in poverty could be persuaded to take personal action, there wouldn't be a problem. When, exactly, did the state devolve the responsibility for safeguarding the wellbeing of its citizens to TV chefs?
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