Jamie Oliver, that icon of the down-to-earth, salt-of-the-earth, mockney, chattering middle classes has lent his perfectly calibrated and nutritiously sustained weight, to the ongoing campaign to demonise welfare claimants. His latest piece, in today’s Guardian, fits perfectly with the themes of “Benefit Scroungy, Feckless, Lazy, Can’t Get Off Their Arses, Britain” which has taken the television schedules by storm this season. Beyond railing against the underlying message however, we need to explore what lies below, and how it can be overcome in a country where the government appear hell bent on starving the population into workhouses.
The thing is…and this is the kicker… in the midst of all his sanctimonious shite, as Oliver objects to poor people holding out a begging bowl and requesting more food, there is a point. When he says…
The fascinating thing for me is that seven times out of 10, the poorest families in this country choose the most expensive way to hydrate and feed their families. The ready meals, the convenience foods.
I can actually believe him. People, including but not limited to, poorer people, do indeed buy far too many overpriced pre-packaged foods, where cooking from scratch can be far cheaper. Far cheaper, that is, on an individual per meal basis, but the thing that he glosses over, probably because it never so much as occurs to him and his ilk is that behind that per meal cost there is a substantial level of investment required. When you buy a ready meal you pays your money and bingo you have a meal. If you want to make a meal you have to buy *all* the ingredients for it.
Earlier this year, the BBC ran an article on “How to eat healthily on £1 per day“. Fantastic eh? Each ingredient costing pennies, and some meals coming in at under 50p, but look beyond the headline and you see the problem in the very first substantive sentence. “Did you know you can buy an egg for just 8.7p? It may not be an ethical egg, and of course you have to buy 30 to get that price. So actually that egg didnt really cost 8.7p, it meant that you had to spend £1.60. Looking carefully at the entire article, that assumption is there throughout – that you buy in bulk to get the best price, and then the cost is calculated by what you use. Moreover, the author appears to have ran around a whole variety of supermarkets to get the best possible deals on every form of ingredient.
He does manage to make it to 5 days spending under £1 per day on food (supplimented by wild nettles) but even with the cheats of buying in bulk from a range of supermarkets still his portion sizes are inadequate and his calorific intake well below what is required. As is pointed out at the end, as a five day experiment to write a (paid) article for the BBC, such extensive effort and hardship might be fine, the calories can always be made up for by a editorial lunch, but when its day in and day out, running hither and thither to get the best deals, not to mention picking wild nettles and stripping them, it will get wearing to say the least.
People who are living hand to mouth, don’t have well stocked cupboards. In particular they don’t have the herbs, spices and condiments that Oliver and his ilk take for granted everyone has , but each one of which costs a small fortune and the need to have money upfront to purchase. They may be used only in small quantities each time, but which to initially buy are really quite a chunk of a small budget – and that chunk spent on a small jar of weird dried stuff could have fended off hunger for one more mealtime. If you only use one of a six-pack of onions, bought to get the best price per onion, you cant just take the other five back to the supermarket and ask for a refund you have to use them, or ultimately its money down the drain.
Cooking from scratch also requires equipment, and not everyone has a working cooker. Cookers are not always provided in rented accomodation and are expensive to buy; second hand cookers can be aquired, but are prone to breaking down and are frequently far less efficient than new. This adds to the fuel costs which are again treated as an irrelevance by the chattering classes who mildly note them once a year as they search online for the cheapest supplier, but for someone on a meter – tied to their existing supplier and paying for fuel at a premium rate by the card, they are a very real and immediate expense. Storing the food that you bought in bulk to get the cheapest price requires other equipment – fridges and freezers, again not always part of rented accomodation, especially at the cheaper end, expensive to buy, prone to breakdown, and expensive to repair. Running a fridge and freezer also adds to electricity costs and should your meter run out of credit when some financial disaster strikes, a few days in the dark can also see all the carefully squirrilled away food ruined.
Cooking also requires utensils – pots, pans, a vegetable knife, a wooden spoon, none of these are massively expensive, but when you dont have spare money, even 50p spent on a value line wooden spoon is 50p not spent on food itself. Cheap utensils are also more difficult to cook with than expensive. A top of the range copper bottomed pan will see a good distribution of heat unlike your cheapo Tesco one; a non-stick pan means easy cleaning, not only less effort, but also less detergent – another cost unfactored in by those who never need to worry about it. Of course, its not an everyday expense, but people in poverty – living in cheap rented accomodation, with threats of sanctions and benefit changes that can turn a shortfall into an escalating crisis – are more at risk of having to move than the secure chattering classes, who are far more able to carefully package their Le Creuset cookware for careful handling by the removeal men when the excitement of a step up the property ladder beckons. For the rest, its a case of prioritising what will fit in the mates car/the taxi or even on what can be carried and pots and pans are heavy bulky objects.
The skills of cooking healthily on a constrained budget are also ones which come with practice. The recipies suggested by the BBC require a level of knowledge about herbs and how to use them, knowledge which isnt universal, despite the preponderance of TV cookery shows that the poverty stricken can watch on their de rigour fuck off massive telly, which apparently immediately appears in someone’s home the moment they set foot into a job centre. A little pinch of this and a little of that can all look wonderful when done on masterchef, but without experience and practice in how to use seasoning, a load of little jars which all look green and flakey is a mystery, and the risk of a fuck up is, of course, that the healthy meal that you spent considerable time gathering the ingredients for and preparing, turns out inedible.
Beyond skills there is also the practical limitations of physical abilities and it is disabled people who are suffering disproportionately in this time of austerity. Lugging home bags and bags of messages will do far more damage to the health and wellbeing of someone with mobility problems than dinner of chips and cheese, but even beyond that the kitchen is a hazerdous place. For someone with Parkinsons Disease choppng an onion is hazerdous, for people with low muscular strength lifting a hot pan is risky; for someone in a wheelchair a non-adapted kitchen is treacherous.
BUT..not withstanding all of the above, however, the core point remains. Reliance on pre-packaged, overpriced and insufficiently nutricious convenience foods is all too common.
The reasons for that are multiple – for a start celebrity chefdom, like …say Jamie Oliver, presents cooking as a fun hobby with a dash of this, and a smigeon of that, rather than the carefully calculated and costed activity to obtain sufficient calories that it becomes for people living on a restricted budget. Packaged convenience foods are heavily marketed, sometimes with an official endorsement from a celebrity chef, like …say Jamie Oliver, presenting them as a healthy, cost effective and sensible choice. Supermarkets which dominate food distribution, setting the prices in local areas have become ubiquitous promoted on occasions by celebrity chefs like …say Jamie Oliver, whose carefree trips around the supermarket provide an illusion of freedom from want and ease of purchase full of happy smiley families delighted at the purchases.
But this presentation of cooking as a domestic affair, as seen on the obligatory fuck off massive tellies which all benefit claimants possess …the better to ideologically dope them, is at the heart of the issue. What we should be doing is looking to set up collective kitchens where people can come and contribute a small amount of food and then cook communally. It would be much cheaper to do this, there would be a skills transfer both in terms of knowledge and in terms of abilities. Moreover it would bring together the people worst affected by this shite, to overcome their difficulties not from a “soup-kitchen” kind of charity work where you has to justify your poverty and the benevolent get to feel good at thinking that they have done something for these poor starving souls, but in solidarity with one another. Rather than people being encouraged to feed the poor unfortunates through purchasing supermarket food and donating to the Tressel Trust, access to which is restricted through gatekeepers to keep out the undeserving poor, donations can be taken directly by collective kitchens.
In Greece there are a number of collective kitchens which operate on a basis that they sell meals at cost price to those who are struggling, and feed people for free who have helped contribute – either through donating some supplies, or through assisting with the cooking. Links have been made between the collective kitchens and farmers who are struggling to sell their produce, who will donate some surplus, and then there are of course the anarchist supermarket shopping trips, kindof like the Tressel Trust donations bin, but without the purchase element. These collective kitchens are a lifeline for many – particularly migrants who have no access to any form of welfare and are only able to access the municipal feeding programme after Greeks have already been served, hoping that the food wont run out before they make it to the front. It is also an anti-fascist initiative, as the Golden Dawn have been seeking to both recruit and gain traction with their “Greek only” food drives.
Above all, collective kitchens get people working together efficiently for the communal good, savings can be made by buying food in bulk, there is little waste, fuel usage is efficient and utensils are for the use of all. Fighting against food poverty isn’t just about holding out an empty bowl and asking if we can get some more, no matter how assertively we might do that, but exploring at the whole basis of food consumption, distribution and preparation, working out how we can collectively lessen our reliance on those who have power over us, and developing systems that work in the interests of the hungry rather than the greedy.