From ‘Grubblog’

Britain’s feckless chip-munchers

Or why laying into Jamie Oliver doesn’t butter any parnsips

There was a time when no one had a bad word to say about Jamie Oliver. After ‘Peak Jamie’, when he gurned at us from every TV and sauce pot in the land, and before, well, yesterday, he was a national treasure, a sort of loudmouthed Judi Dench. This was the man who had taken on some massive corporate interests to save our kids from obesity, with at least some success. This was the man who, with his Fifteen restaurant, seemed to be more serious about social mobility than, say, the then Labour government.

Well, everyone’s favourite basil-ripping, olive oil-drizzling Essex boy has gone and put his foot in it. In an interview with Radio Times, the star – worth, the press were at pains to point out, some £150m – gave a heavy-handed lecture about the rot the poorer members of our society stuff into their families’ mouths. Many of the most nutritious, delicious foods in the world are made by the poor, said Jamie. So why are Britain’s working classes eating crap?

The vultures descended, anxious to lay into a man who had grown desperately out of touch. They cocked their guns and let fly with the ad hominems. He is rich. He sells ready meals. His recipes cost a lot of money to make. All of which are true, none of which necessarily invalidate his argument.

But there were many valid points, too. Many of the poorest people in Britain live in so-called ‘food deserts’, whole areas where affordable, nutritious food is all but impossible to obtain. The fact that someone has a widescreen TV does not mean they can afford decent food – second-guessing people’s personal circumstances is a dangerous game. Fresh vegetables are, in any case, very expensive. Nor is malnutrition (let’s call a spade a spade) just a question of money. Too many people leave school and leave home without any idea of how to cook for themselves. Or they get divorced from spouses who did all of that for them. In short: there are a hundred ways you can end up unable to feed your family well, and bashing poor people probably isn’t the way to go about fixing it.

Well, fair enough – although read in context, that’s not really what he did. In fact the overwhelming impression I had in reading the coverage of what he said was that, for a man worth £150m, he has a great deal of empathy for the poor. (For what it’s worth, I think at least a bit of the bluster is more to do with dislike of Jamie – his populism, his endless success, his little bon mots – than dislike of his opinions. Moreover, no one can reasonably deny the fact that he has tried – far harder than many people whose jobs it is to try – to fix some of the most glaring iniquities of our national diet. Fine, it helps his brand. He’s sold a few bottles of pasta sauce off the back of it. He’s still done a lot of good.)

Let’s put Jamie aside for a minute, and analyse the arguments. On the one hand: the working class people of Britain are feckless chip-munchers who’d sooner have the new Xbox than give their daughters broccoli for dinner. On the other: the working class people of Britain would make organic vegetable moussaka every night, if only they had access to the right produce and they had the know-how.

OK, I’ve caricatured slightly, but I’ve done so to make a point: both of the extreme positions are silly. The reality is somewhere between the two – and in any case, everyone is different. Britain is home to both feckless chip-munchers and would-be moussaka gobblers. Ours is a broad church.


The feckless chip-muncher in all of us

Let’s start with the feckless chip-munchers, because I believe, in our clamour to censure Jamie, we risk overlooking them. And, for a moment, let’s zoom out. Let’s think not just about poor feckless chip-munchers. Let’s think about the feckless chip-muncher in all of us. Have you ever eaten a whole bar of Dairy Milk in one go? Have you ever ‘gone large’, when you didn’t really need to, or ordered takeaway two nights on the trot? You, too, are a feckless chip-muncher. You understand that food is about visceral pleasure, as well as nutrition. There’s a quote from George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier doing the rounds in light of Jamie’s comments, variously characterised as patronising and perceptive:

The miner’s family spend only ten pence a week on green vegetables and ten pence half-penny on milk (remember that one of them is a child less than three years old), and nothing on fruit; but they spend one and nine on sugar (about eight pounds of sugar, that is) and a shilling on tea. The half-crown spent on meat might represent a small joint and the materials for a stew; probably as often as not it would represent four or five tins of bully beef.
The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes – an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw?
Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t.
When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’.

But really, this applies to everyone. Food is about sustenance, but it is also about pleasure, and there are a great many of us – from the poor to the very rich – who over-indulge. So if we accept that there is at least a bit of culpability here – that poor diet isn’t solely an imposition of poverty, but also of poor self-control – what can we do?

We can turn, with pleasing metaphorical validity, to the Big Apple. The incumbent Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, had a major victory on 13th September 2012, when the city’s Board of Health voted unanimously to approve a new regulation he has proposed. Bloomberg sought to limit the size of soda cups in New York City to 16 ounces. It was a simple bit of legislation, aimed at curbing the city’s burgeoning obesity crisis. Crucially, Bloomberg did not propose a punitive ‘fat tax’ (which tend to hurt the poorer feckless chip-munchers among us), nor did he ban selling large volumes of soda (which tend, rightly, to elicit charges of nannying, and consequent backlashes). Soda buyers were free to buy 32 ounces of soda. They just had to put it in two cups.

This was clever, science-led legislating. Evidence abounds that such measures serve to establish a new default, normalising moderate behaviour. Whereas before, as everyone who has seen Morgan Spurlock’s famous Super Size Me documentary knows, the tendency was to ‘go large’, now – if you didn’t want to look weird – you went normal.

Sadly, this little tale doesn’t end happily: Bloomberg’s new law was struck down by the New York Supreme Court before it even came into force, because America cares more about what a few men in frock coats scribbled on a bit of paper two hundred years ago than it does about the health of its citizens. (I’m a big fan of the constitution in many ways, but this decision sucked hard.) Nevertheless, there’s hope here: rather than telling people what they can and cannot do, help them help themselves.

In fact, Michael Bloomberg has done a lot of this. He also just created the Center for Active Design, a new public body that will advise the city on how to design its buildings in ways that keep people fit. This includes both the obvious things, like putting basketball courts out front, to cleverer ones, like making stairwells more prominent in lobbies. Again, the message is simple: we’re not going to tell you what to do, we’re just going to make it easier to live more healthily.


Back to Britain. If you walk down the aisles of your local supermarket, what jumps out at you? For me, it’s the little neon shelf tickets than indicate a special offer. 2 for £3. Buy one, get one free. Very often, these offers are on cheap, high-margin consumable goods – fizzy drinks, for instance. Why? Because Tesco (to pick a villain) know that, with four litres of Coke in your house, you will drink it faster. You will come back to Tesco, for more delicious Coke, at this incredible discount price. They do the same with oven chips, and crisps, and, to be fair, just about everything – but particularly the sort of things that the feckless chip-muncher in all of us likes to buy.

We could change this. We could, instead of a fat tax, ensure that offers applied to big 2 litre bottles of Coke must also apply to smaller, 1 litre ones. We could ensure that jumbo bags of crisps are limited to a certain size – otherwise, the contents have to be split into smaller bags. Because how often have you opened a jumbo bag of crisps and then proceed to eat the whole bag? And how often, afterwards, are you glad you made that decision?

We could work with supermarkets, too, to rearrange their stores so as to encourage healthy eating. Let them sell crisps, but don’t let them put them on the end of aisles. Make sure people arrive in the vegetable section, not the drinks aisle. Insultingly simple things, yes – but ones that would do a little to help people live better.


A walk in the desert

Another thing about food poverty: you are often not in a position to bulk buy. This recent BBC News piece was rightly slammed for saying it’s perfectly possible to eat well on £1 a day. That’s only true if you buy huge sacks of rice and potatoes, big cartons of eggs. Great. But if you don’t have money to invest, what do you do?

Well, here’s a thing. There are plenty of churches, mosques,schools and village halls in those food deserts. There are vacant commercial lots on every high street in Britain. What if they became not-for-profit community stores that passed on the benefits of bulk buying to local people? How amazing would it be to walk down your high street and find something like this? Even if it’s just a trestle table put out on a Sunday afternoon. That’s what these people in the US do with office and school supplies – but it would work with food, too. It already does, in many places. But not enough in Britain.

The important point: deliver it through a store, not a charity. No one wants to live on handouts, whatever the Mail would have you believe. Jay Rayner touched on this in a recent feature on food banks – scandalously, a growing necessity for the poorest in Britain. What people do want is to live in communities with hearts – communities that provide for their members.

Another important frontier in the war to make Britain healthy is our schools. This is where Jamie began his campaigning, and even with the many real changes that have taken place, most leave school woefully unprepared to feed themselves well. There are obvious changes to be made here. We could bake baking into our National Curriculum. We could make budgeting something people understand, and don’t have to work out later in life. I’m personally against a proposal to ban lunch boxes, because I think this is the kind of nannying that alienates people. But head teachers could actually reach out to explain to parents why leaving certain foods out of those lunch boxes will help their kids learn better. Those that provide adult education classes, as many do, could make sure that household management is on the agenda.


Talking turkey (twizzlers)

I’m not pretending these are all perfect ideas. Some of them are probably dumb ideas, and even the better ones amongst them would require refinement, and/or legislation, and/or funding. Nor I am in a position to do much about any of them.

But what I know is this: whilst we’re laying into Jamie Oliver and his poor choice of words, people are still suffering malnutrition. In one of the richest countries in the world. In 2013. Let’s forget about the slanging match and talk about that, whilst people are still listening.