On Tuesday morning I made the following comment on Twitter…
This was in response to Jamie Oliver’s interview with the Radio Times as reported in the Guardian. Promoting his latest TV programme, Jamie’s Money Saving Meals, commenting on modern-day poverty in Britain, the TV chef insinuated that some poorer families in Britain were living on cheap junk food, choosing to spend their money instead on high-price gadgetry such as “massive f*cking TVs.” He went on to say that poorer families wasted money on convenience foods and ready meals and would do better by shopping in the local market where they could “grab ten mangetout for dinner” rather than being slaves to a supermarket; their loyalty to which he said was stronger than to any religion or brand. I can only assume his contract with Sainsbury’s has now come to an end. We were also told that we could learn a lot from our Spanish and Italian neighbours who manage to eat well on very little money, throwing a few mussels, cherry tomatoes and pasta together for 60p. Hmm.
Now I should say, I like Jamie Oliver. I bought into his cheeky chappie, pukka persona. I’ve watched his TV programmes, bought at least a couple of his books and a set of his pie dishes, and eaten a decent fritto misto in the Glasgow branch of his chain, Jamie’s Italian. I think his heart’s probably in the right place and his intentions seem honourable. I don’t question his efforts with improving school dinners or helping Americans be less obese, although what the long term merits of Jamie’s Dream School are, I’m not sure. He seems like a decent bloke. So when I read his comments in the Guardian I cringed with disappointment. Of course it’s possible what he said was taken out of context, but in my mind he immediately came across as a seriously out of touch, right-wing idiot.
Twitter went a bit mad with people sharing their opinions on his rant. The comments I received were pretty mixed with some people agreeing with me and some feeling that he had made a good point. It made for an interesting debate with subjects such as ‘shopping local’, education and supermarkets being thrown into the mix.
Here’s the problems I have with his comments . I’m not sure Jamie Oliver fully understands modern-day poverty. His description of the ‘poor’ family smacks of those of the ‘chav’ fraternity. Mum and the kids plonked in front of the big telly, stuffing their faces with chips and cheese from the local take-away. An easy stereotype to latch onto when discussing poverty. He claims to have spent time in “poorer communities” but the reality is, in this day and age there are poor families in every community, not just inner city sink estates. It’s a sad fact that there are more and more working families who are on the bread line and being forced to go to food banks in order to put a meal on the table. Poverty is not exclusive to the unemployed and those on benefits.
The other problem I have is his solution of “nipping to the local market.” Where are these local markets? We all know that supermarkets have pushed out local, independents. The high street has been decimated and whilst some areas are lucky enough to have farmers’ markets or good independent stores, these do tend to be more readily available in more affluent areas. And let’s face it, unfortunately they’re not always the cheapest option . So even when they are available how financially accessible are they for low-income families? In most areas, not just inner cities, the local greengrocer, baker or butcher just doesn’t exist anymore. Yesterday I passed through an affluent area on the outskirts of Aberdeen and noticed that their fishmonger and convenience store had both closed down. So even the ‘posh’ areas are not unaffected by the might of the supermarket. The sad fact is though, regardless of where it’s come from, some families simply do not have enough money to buy food. Jamie’s mussels and mangetout are well out of their reach.
I should point out that I’m speaking from experience. There have been times in my life when I’ve been poor. Properly poor. ’Can’t afford food’ poor. When I was in my early twenties I was really struggling. I remember one instance in particular where for 2 weeks I had absolutely no money whatsoever. I literally could not buy food. I had to eat what I had left in the house. Every night for that 2 weeks I ate dried pasta flavoured with chilli powder for my dinner. To this day I can’t smell chilli powder without thinking about that time. Some cherry tomatoes or the now infamous ten mangetout would have been an absolute luxury! Now here’s the thing. I was working at that time. I wasn’t living in a so-called poor community. I didn’t have a “big f*cking TV.” I was working hard, earning a rubbish wage and having to pay for a flat in Aberdeen which was, and still is, one of the most expensive places to live in the UK. I’m not looking for any sympathy. There’s millions of people worse off than I was and I got through it. But the point is what I went through then is no different to what many people are going through now. I was lucky really. I only had myself to worry about. There were no children to feed. I didn’t have to make the choice of who ate in the house that day. Jamie Oliver may think families are choosing flat screen TVs over food but the fact is, in some households the choice is coming down to a box of tampons or something for that night’s tea. That is the brutal, awful reality.
What I suspect Jamie Oliver might have been getting at, and what was highlighted in my Twitter feed, was the need for better education on how to cook well on a limited budget, (incidentally I believe there are also people without financial problems who could benefit by being educated on how to cook and eat properly!) That is not to say that this is a solution for all. I knew how to cook when I was poor. I just didn’t have anything to cook! However, I absolutely believe that food education is vitally important and it’s something that’s sadly lacking today. At a time when we all seem to be obsessed with TV cookery shows and celebrity chefs, it’s a shame that schools aren’t jumping on this bandwagon and making food and nutrition a bigger part of their curriculum. Whilst I don’t have children, friends who do say that it’s a real postcode lottery as to whether their children are taught about food and nutrition at school. Fellow blogger @foodiequine volunteers at her children’s primary school doing cookery lessons. This is fantastic but it’s not every school that has parents willing or able to give up their time in this way. I’m sure the home economics classes I had at secondary school with the terrifying Mrs. Campbell, (told me I was useless and I’d never find a husband!), gave me a basic understanding and that, coupled with being encouraged to cook at home, made me self sufficient and able to look after myself when I went off to university. I’m not sure that would be the norm for most of today’s school leavers.
On the back of the Twitter debate, my friend Holly got in touch to talk about her experiences of ‘living in poverty’ and how education may have helped her and her son. These are Holly’s own words.
When my son was born (almost 19 years ago) I was a single mum and was on benefits for a period of time.
Even though I came from a family that wasn’t classed as “low income” and that ate well and healthily, I feel I fell into the trap of eating badly, probably due to many reasons including – as a single mum to a young baby, I didn’t have a lot of time to cook the kind of food you can bulk cook and freeze (stews, chilli etc). Also supermarkets at the time didn’t sell a lot of loose veg and, in fact, the only cost effective way to buy veg and other things were in big quantities. If you live in a low income area, and don’t drive, you become reliant on the local shops, these tend not to be lovely little butchers or fishmongers who can advise best/cheapest cuts or how to cook. Things are very different now, more people are aware of eating better but I don’t think that has filtered through to lower income families. Education is important but needs to be done in an non-condescending way as the people Jamie Oliver is talking about will probably not respond well to that. Low income families may have large TV’s but they’re probably bought as a Christmas present or similar, or on credit, and the pressure on parents to have these sort of things is massive. Not having a large TV would not mean that the family would be able to go out and buy mangetout or any other vegetable. Priorities change when you are struggling financially; you may not be able to go out for dinner, cinema or for nights out so having a decent TV or games console becomes your family’s entertainment, and believe me, when you live somewhere less desirable these kind of things are important.
I think there’s a lot of people out there who could relate to Holly’s experience. With little time on their hands, lack of money, poor amenities and little knowledge on how best to feed themselves effectively, they fall into the trap of eating convenient, low nutritional food. This isn’t laziness or a lack of care. They don’t have access to the type of food Jamie Oliver’s talking about or the skills to cook it. They need to feed their families and they need to do it on a tight budget.
I also agree with Holly’s comments about the luxury items. It’s a shame this seems to be the type of thing the media focuses on when talking about ‘poor’ people. “Oh they’re poor but they have a huge TV. Their priorities must be all wrong.” I wonder if anyone’s considered that some of these ‘luxuries’ may have been bought in more affluent times for the family.
I truly believe that, on the whole, children don’t learn to cook at their mother’s knee anymore. TV cookery shows have replaced that interaction and, as such, TV chefs have a responsibility to the people watching. I really hope that when Jamie’s Money Saving Meals starts on Monday what we are given is sensible, achievable advice, not patronising rhetoric about Sicilian street sweepers and hard to find ingredients. And please Jamie, enough with the mangetout!