Povvo Porn

Darren Stephens
Jul 29 · 6 min read

Over the last couple of days, there has been a steady stream of stuff on Twitter about food poverty, including this little gem from an unfortunately all too familiar source of risible bullshit.

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Just for starters, lets break this down. The cost of those potatoes doesn’t include:

  • A peeler to peel the spuds
  • A knife to cut them up (though the knife could double for peeling and scraping).
  • Oil or fat in which to cook the chips. Which probably probably means oil because chip pans are very much frowned on now. A litre of vegetable or sunbflower oil is just over a pound a litre at Asda as I write this. So add that on too.
  • You’ll probably need a fryer, unless you’re going to try and do “home made” oven chips, which does take a little bit longer than the 20-25 minutes or so in the oven than your average oven chip will take. And that assumes you have an actual oven, and not just a microwave, or not even that.
  • And time and energy to do it. Because if you’re poor, you’ve probably been at work (as around 80% of all non-pension benefit claimants are), being screwed for the minimum wage.

Best to do what Annunziata does, and leave it to the help. So add the cost of that on too.

Much of the discussion about food poverty, and most of the worst stuff said about it, comes from people who’ve never really experienced for themselves what it is like to be properly poor. So for reference, let’s talk about my younger life as some kind of comparison. Until the early part of secondary school, my dad was the main wage earner in our house. He was a builder’s labourer, and he worked bloody hard. If the work was available, he would work seven-day weeks. Why? Because while we were not poor, we certainly weren’t wealthy. Like most working class families, once the bills were covered, if there was enough to put away, and then enough for a few little luxuries, you were winning.

In the early 80s recession, my dad was made redundant, and in the era before minimum wage, a 40+ year old with a family was less of an attraction for employers than a 20 year old who could be paid quite a lot less. One job my dad was offered in the worst period meant he would have had to work a 120 hour week just to cover the family’s basic expenses. Not really an option, that. My parents went without to make sure I was fed and clothed and got the things I needed to make sure I could do well at school. I’ve never forgotten them for that, nor ever felt I could pay them back for it, even though they never asked (or wanted) me to. We didn’t have a freezer, or a fridge-freezer, just a compartment in the fridge, until I had gone to university, when they finally scraped enough together for a cheap fridge-freezer(1). They didn’t have a car either, so shopping was done via public transport, which then added bus fares to the cost of a shop (until Asda’s free South Bank branch bus started calling on the estate). Following bus deregulation, fares went up quickly. And lugging lots of carrier bags around was pretty hard work. We did one big shop a week to cut those bus costs, so it was not fun.

It also meant we ate a lot of bread & potatoes, because they were cheap, and had bulk. It did help that the council house we lived in had a decent-sized back garden, so we did actually grow some of our own food: carrots, potatoes, onions, occasionally radishes, cucumbers, parsnips and other things that dad tried this hand with. Even then, we still ate a lot of spuds. We shopped in the lower-end supermarkets, found the cheapest brands; the special offers; the broken biscuits; the dented tins. My mother made sure we had enough to eat, and we were lucky because she could be quite creative, but it wasn’t always what would pass muster as a healthy diet with the poverty police today. My mother didn’t shop in an M&S food hall until after the turn of the century.

Now, I’m not badly off. I can afford plenty of fresh fruit and veg, and during lockdown I’ve had more time to cook, seeing as I’ve had more time working at home. I’m not wealthy by any means, but I’ve always realised just how lucky I am in comparison to so many others, nor have I forgotten what it’s was like not to be so fortunate. I have enough money to stock up on often-used ingredients, and places to keep them. I have utensils and tools to cook, and an oven to cook things in. Others are not in such a favourable position. Unlike my parents, I have a car, so I can shop little and often, or big when I want. I also have a separate freezer, so I can buy things in bulk to freeze, or make batches of things if I want. I have options. And options is what money gets you. Choice works if you have the resource to exercise it. If you don’t — tough shit, the market doesn’t care about you.

Of course, there is another part to this, which is less talked about: the production and distribution of food. In my teens, when we went shopping there wre a variety of places to try and buy stuff. So, for example, if it was a tight week, we’d head off down to Linthorpe and the branch of Axe on Roman Road, which was pretty much a protoypical Aldi. No frills, obscure brands, pack stuff yourself. But very, very cheap. If things were better, you’d be able to head elsewhere. But there was more diversity in the supermarket sector. There was evolution, from the world of Frank Dee, Hintons, and Fine Fare, through Netto, Safeway and the like. But still some sense of plurality.

Not so much now: power is concentrated in the few major supermarket chains. In lockdown this has actually helped in the short term. They could stay open, use the power of their major distribution networks, and could exercise distancing in larger stores. But look what has happened to food diversity in that period. That’s less reassuring in the medium to long term for our food producers or for the wider economy(2). Most of our mass-market food supply is focussed on supply chains designed to produce at high volumes, cheaply. Lots of the very cheapest stuff is the least healthy of all. If you have the cash of course, you can always hit Waitrose(3), or that lovely chichi deli that does home delivs, darling. If not, again, tough shit.

Lockdown has made the major supermarkets more embedded and more powerful. Well, for now, certainly. The supply chain delays at the beginning of the pandemic are going to be a picnic compared to what we might be getting in about five months time if the HGV parks in Ashford start backing up, and the customs paperwork that we were promised wasn’t going to happen, happens.

All this means is that when the likes of Jamie Oliver start banging on about people with little or no money making poor food choices, and others start chipping in with how cheap and easy it is to make a banquet for six with a small turnip, and some cream, if only they’d just try a bit harder to not be poor, it frankly boils my piss well past the levels of unreasonable, and well into the terriory of homicide. By fucking turnip.

Food poverty is an increasing problem. It is underpinned by economic inequality, a retail system designed to sell the nutritionally worst food at the cheapest prices, and food companies marketing that food to us in the most aggressive ways. It’s a perfect storm, and it amazes me that some people are surprised at how bad it is. But, like always, all you have to do is follow the money: who’s making a profit out of all this? The very people who are lecturing the rest of us on how poor our food decisions are, and pointing fingers at the very poorest for poor health and obesity. Why is anyone surprised at that?

(1) I say cheap. The list price was, but the only way to get the money to pay for it was through credit. And credit is expensive if you’re poor.

(2) People such as the ever-readable Jay Rayner have been talking about this as an issue for some time, especially in the light of Brexit.

(3) Good luck with that in the north east if you don’t live in Newcastle or York. Noticeably, Waitrose’s Branch Finder doesn’t have a single whole-UK map showing their branches any more. I wonder why.

Fifteen Minutes of Mantra-filled Oompah

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