Sometimes a news story can pass me by, it is not that I don’t read the papers, watch the news or subscribe to any one of the popular news websites. Sometimes, I just turn off in utter frustration.
I glean the basics though, a glance at any active Twitter feed will tell you everything you need to know, Miley Cyrus is a PVC wearing Harlot, a Very Bad Thing is happening in Syria, and that Jamie Oliver has once again waded into the nutrition versus poverty debate.
For what it is worth, I am kind of okay with the guy for getting involved in what our kids eat at school. I am of the generation that was directly affected by the Thatcher Milk Snatcher fracas and though my bones never actively crumbled, believe that small political action started in the early 80’s no doubt has had a seismic effect on our society today.
I am not going to rant on about how annoying Jamie Oliver is, I am not even going to take issue with the so called statistical fact that poor people tend to have less healthy diets than those who earn a decent wage. It does bother me however, how easy it is to apply one assumption to an entire demographic of people without really addressing any of the reasons why this is the case. The common assumption, if you were to read any tabloid today, is that poor people (and by poor I mean those who operate within a certain financial bracket) eat crappy, cheap, usually processed foods. They would not know a fruit or a vegetable of they saw one, much less actively have the wherewithal to put one in their shopping basket. Poor people shop in Lidl or Aldi, they favour cheap takeaways and Iceland BOGOFS, poor people don’t WANT to eat any other way. They are not cultured enough to make these informed choices! Followed with an interview by some chavvy person coming out of a chicken shop to further hammer the misguided point home.
I am not sure exactly when Greengrocers became such a rarity, probably around the same time that farm shops and organic became synonyms for “£40K a year and three bedrooms” and when Landrovers stopped being useful farm vehicles and became armoured trucks to transport tiny children individually, like fleets of tanks going into a class battle. Supermarkets priced out the small independents, yet failed to realistically offer a true cost effective alternative. Result; buying local and buying fresh became all but extinct, revived only by those cash and time rich enough to frequent them.
Sounds a bit uncomfortable doesn’t it? The idea that people resurrected local producers like some kind of odd lifestyle house of wax, existing to feed their conscience. We all know someone who has been inducted into this cult, everything is organic! This topside of beef is SO delicious! We bought it from this WONDERFUL farm shop in Sussex!
Reading this, you may have drawn your own conclusions about me. You may think I am either “doing okay for money” and so am one of these people who habitually “pick up something lovely for supper” or, you might assume I am poor and therefore don’t want anything to think that the fact I am slightly overweight means that I exist on cheap, fatty food. The truth is, I am exactly both these people. I grew up in an idyllic part of West Dorset, lived for many years in a small village before moving directly opposite where we now know to be River Cottage in Axminster, I shopped at local shops almost exclusively during this time, only really visiting a supermarket when absolutely necessary and ate very well indeed. It may shock you to know that during this time, I only worked part time. It may be surprising to some of you that I was actually priced out of this way of living by the arrival of the aforementioned River Cottage Canteen and shop. I am not going to do the place down, it was and still is a wonderful place to shop, but you must remember Hugh’s Chicken Run – a TV show seemingly devoted to berating local residents from a neighbouring estate for their choices to buy cheaper meat from the supermarkets. Ethics aside, the show was a social commentary which exposed the major differences between rich and not so rich. It made me itchy, uncomfortable and guilty for just trying to spend my money wisely.
Whilst it is indeed true that a person can eat well on a modest amount of money, it is not without a great deal of thought. For example I now live in Central Bristol, a stone’s throw from one of the last independent high streets in the entire city. It is a lively place, full of artisan bakeries, fruit and veg shops and trendy cafes. The two main streets of my area of Bristol straddle two areas- Bedminster and it’s slightly trendier sister suburb, Southville. Whilst I feel fortunate to be living in BS3 and have equal access to both streets, it is no secret that if you visit the greengrocer in the trendier part you can expect to spend more than if you took a right at the top of the road. And all for what is essentially the same produce. I love the fact that I can visit the butcher, baker AND greengrocer and also afford to do so on foot, but I also know that this is an extreme rarity. I am not unwise to the fact that I would really struggle to feed myself this way if I lived in another area. Earlier this year, when I had a flat in the city centre, I genuinely found shopping a difficulty. With two Tesco metros and a small Sainsburys the only options available, and a large 24 hr megastore a mile and a half away, supermarkets reigned supreme. Suddenly I could shop at any time and in one place and Tesco’s is cheap right? Right?
Wrong. Suddenly without my friendly local greengrocers, the place where I used to actively struggle to spend £5.00 on my weekly fruit and veg shop and which now was a £4.00 bus ride away I realised I was spending more on my groceries. A lot more. Whilst things like toiletries, loo roll and other household basics accounted at roughly the same amount they always had, I started to notice that I was spending a lot more on food.
I don’t eat badly and I rarely shop impulsively. I tend to plan what I am going to buy that week and then go and get it. My eating habits don’t tend to be based on whims as opposed to requirements and I hate waste. I thought that I had the food budget thing down, I thought I was okay. Until I found myself below the poverty line.
I am not ashamed to admit that there have been times in the last two years where I have not had enough money to feed myself for a reasonable chunk of time. A combination of unexpected expenses, ill-timed house moves and loss of employment has left me with an embarrassing food budget for the week on several occasions. And this, is why I feel qualified to challenge the sweeping statements of the media.
Because when you are poor, (or in my case “too poor to eat”- I am not claiming to have been claiming benefits, living on one gas bar and patching the holes in my shoes-poor ) you are literally living hand-to mouth. Sometimes, you really do have to make the call between not fainting and nutrition. If I have found myself with £1.19 in Asda, wondering how many packets of noodles that will buy me then God knows how awful it must be when you have kids to feed and lunchboxes to pack, suddenly volume becomes more of a priority. I know this because I have been there. I know there is probably some smart assed chef out there who will take my £1.19 and make a fabulous meal with it, or some journalist who will write an article on how to make food that costs £1.00 a serving per head and ALL of that clever wartime budgeting stuff that we could ALL use a lesson on. I know this also because I have read it, I agree with it. I think it is useful and then laugh at the sheer futility of thinking it applies to me in anyway. At Christmas I visited a local food bank through my work and heard first-hand the frustration of people on a non-existent budget who had to choose a meagre allocation of basic store cupboard groceries that were like luxuries.
Because when you are poor, sometimes you must be able to eat what you buy, as you buy it. When on a normal income, I can feed myself like a Queen for £20 a week, when I am poor I noticed that it was not true at all. The store cupboard items, the ones that people like Jamie Oliver and friends ASSUME we have at our disposal, the things that people clamour over at the foodbank. The same things that, when you move into a new house cost you £50 “because you need oil, and seasoning and spices”, the stuff which makes the cheap ingredients a meal is usually lacking. Because when you are poor, sometimes you just need to eat what you have, you don’t have the luxury of turning it into something. I feel that if we were to realistically account for these things then the real cost of feeding people would become all the more real and horrifying. Berating people for eating cheap, available food they don’t need to add to is not helping the situation, having a realistic grasp on the issue in the first place might be a good place to start.