Class and Food

Following this mornings outrage over TV size corollated to income, here’s a piece from 2008 when Jamie Oliver showed the poor how to cook, and the nation how a great many poor people live .

Elizabeth Dowler, professor of food and social policy at Warwick University who was recently involved in the government’s Low Income Diet and Nutrition survey, says the class differences are stark but complicated. “If you live for more than six months on the minimum wage or on benefits there is growing evidence you cannot afford to buy the food you need for health. It is still to do with class but it’s complex to unpick. Food is the flexible area that you cut back on when you are on a low income. Unlike council tax or utility bills, no one fines you if you don’t spend on food and no one takes your children away, so that’s what you cut, and you have a fag because that takes the hunger away.”

Oliver met a woman who spent £70 of her £80 income on trash non-food for herself and the kids.

Natasha turns out not only to have a big cooker and TV but debts large enough to make her a pawn-shop regular, and depression deep enough to make her give up trying. When Oliver finds this out he confides to the camera in his car, “I don’t blame her … but I’m fucking angry. I’m fucking angry and I don’t know who with or what with.”

When you’re angry and you can’t work out why, it’s much more easy to punish the people who have already been punished – Natasha and her children will save the nation a fortune by dying a decade or more before their more affluent neighbours – than it is to engage with complexity, and to blame people and groups who have in many ways created the situations people like Natasha find themselves in.  People who decided to remove cooking from the school curriculum; or build large estates with no shops; or who got rid of local markets in the push for gentrification;  or who allowed huge out-of-town supermarkets that resulted in the closure of local shops; or made childcare so expensive that it makes more financial sense not to work; or who sold and stopped building public housing so that vulnerable people are kept in run down B&B’s that offer no cooking facilities at all at catastrophic public expense, and so on. The people who make these decisions, rather than the decision to eat crisps for dinner, are respectable, hard working tax payers. These are the kinds of people many of us aspire to be.

 If we want this kind of situation to change we need to engage with hard facts.

What may seem ignorant choices to others are in fact quite rational. Lobstein has calculated the cost of 100 calories of food energy from different types of food. The cheapest way to get your 100 calories is to buy fats, processed starches and sugars. A hundred calories of broccoli costs 51p, but 100 calories of frozen chips only cost 2p. Good-quality sausages that are high in meat but low in fat cost 22p per 100 calories, but “value” fatty ones are only 4p per 100 calories. Poor quality-fish fingers are 12p per 100 calories compared with 29p for ones made with fish fillet that are higher in nutrients. Fresh orange juice costs 38p per 100 calories, while the same dose of energy from sugary orange squash costs 5p.

The FSA pointed out when it published its survey on the effect of low income on diet that middle-class people were eating increasingly high levels of junk, too. However, the same survey found that nearly a quarter of poor households skipped meals because they didn’t have enough money. Nearly 40% worried that they would run out of food before more money came in.

Back in 2008, before benefit cuts, 40% of very poor people were worried about running out of food. What’s it like today? Why would counsellors be interested in this?


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