Taken from the Catholic Universe – 1 September 2013
With apologies for the delay in posting
It seems hard to disagree on face value with Celebrity Chef Jamie Oliver’s controversial remarks designed to promote his upcoming series Jamie’s Money Saving Meals.
Speaking in an interview to the Radio Times, Oliver says, “but I’ve spent a lot of time in poor communities, and I find it quite hard to talk about modern-day poverty. You might remember that scene in Ministry of Food, with the mum and the kid eating chips and cheese out of Styrofoam containers, and behind them is a massive TV. It just didn’t weigh up.”
To many it seems that Oliver has a good point, it’s difficult to keep a straight face when discussing poverty levels in the UK, when many of those who are portrayed as facing dire financial circumstances would appear to be in possession of luxury or frivolous items, such as the ubiquitous flatscreen TV or expensive smartphone. Can people whose diets consist mainly of expensive and unhealthy take-away food really be justified as being poor?
One of the things that Pope Francis seems to be continually attempting to do is to shake the faithful out of our attitude to complacency to the poor. We therefore should not buy into this easy stereotype of a feckless and undeserving class who are unable to effectively budget or prioritize, spending their money on the wrong things.
Food spend in the UK has rapidly shrunk over the past few decades to eight per cent of total household income, across all social classes, which when considers it, is staggeringly low, for something that is absolutely vital to our health and wellbeing. Food prices have risen 12% in real terms over the past five years, combined with median income which has fallen by 12% for households in the lowest decile. Fruit and vegetables are now 22% more expensive in the UK, than the EU average and have risen by 25% in the past five years.
Low income households are buying fewer fresh meat products, fewer fruit and vegetables, fewer fish and instead more flour products, but are not able to trade down to cheaper brands as they were already buying the cheapest available. Furthermore the lowest 10% of earners have increased the proportion of their expenditure spent on food. As we face the beginning of a new academic year, reports are coming of squeezed parents having to spend hundreds of pounds on new school uniforms. Incomes are already on a knife-edge, often convenience or low quality foods are packaged under value brands to appear cheaper.
Looked at in this light, it’s hard to maintain the idea that low income households are being more irresponsible than anyone else, it’s simply that the middle-classes have far more flexibility in terms of making choices. Those on lower incomes should not be lambasted for wanting the things such as TVs or take-away meals that others can more easily afford, but instead all of us should be looking to live more simply and less wastefully and consider do we really need the latest smartphone or gadget, despite its alluring glitter.
Where Jamie Oliver is correct, is in his identification of healthier eating habits of other cultures, referencing a Sicilian street cleaner who “has 25 mussels, 10 cherry tomatoes, and packet of spaghetti and knocks up the most amazing pasta for 60 pence”. This is precisely the mentality that we need to cultivate across the whole of society, encouraging people to cook high quality cheap meals from scratch as an everyday habit, for the good of our health and the economy, instead of relying on cheap over-processed nutritionally empty junk.
One of the factors has to be a reintroduction of good old-fashioned home economics lessons in schools. As the person in charge of the culinary department in our household, I know all too well how difficult it is to feed a growing family of six, a wholesome and enjoyable diet on a low budget. It’s a skill I’ve had to learn from necessity; coming from an affluent family of two, my dessert making skills are second to none, but a mean lemon meringue pie or pavlova won’t really cut it.
Cooking should not be thought of as a middle-class hobby but a basic life skill with which everyone should be equipped. But teaching people to source healthy ingredients and cook is only part of the picture. We need to change shopping habits and end the reliance on supermarkets, who bear a massive responsibility in terms of how their profit margins make items such as fresh fruit unaffordable to so many. I recently switched to my local greengrocer whose produce is not only vastly superior but also significantly cheaper. But the government is actually encouraging supermarket dependence as it is only the big chains who will accept the government-issued vouchers specifically for fruit, vegetables and milk for those with children on low incomes. There needs to be more support and funding if necessary for other means of getting good-quality, affordable food to more people, via markets or local food co-operatives, an initiative that was often promoted by Pope Benedict XVI as an alternative to rampant capitalism and a solution to world hunger.
Instead of blaming people for making bad choices, the government needs to support and enable people to make better ones.