There’s an article on the BBC Website here it is highlighting a report by the Faculty of Public Health which has identified a link between food poverty and malnutrition. 3rd world health conditions like rickets are being seen in hospitals for the first time in decades and last year there was a 17% increase in hospital admissions for malnutrition. Now I am sure I am not alone in thinking that whatever your place on the political spectrum this is an absolute disgrace in a country like the UK. I’m waiting for the inevitable ‘It’s the food manufacturer’s fault’ interviews. I’m surprised that at no point does the reporter link food poverty to obesity, for which the industry is also blamed.
Increasingly those in poverty have issues affording nutritious and fresh food. In Aldi you can buy 30 bags of flavoured crisps for about £2-£3 depending on where you are in the country. If you are trying to feed a family of 4 on £25 a week then this sort of offer is very tempting. Obviously there is fresh food available but one thing you never read about is the cost of preparing the food. Yes, you can buy a kilo of lentils for £2 and yes it is nutritious and will do several meals but you also have to boil those lentils for 40 minutes. That’s 40 mins of gas or electricity. On top of this, have you tried to get a 4 year old to eat dhal? When folk are so skint their main issue when buying food is to make sure no one is hungry and that often leads to 30 bags of crisps going into the trolley. I wonder how many of those who judge the diet of the poor so harshly have had to live on the income of the poor? Recall, with amusement, the well meaning but utterly unrealistic campaign that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall launched in 2007 when he campaigned against the mults to get them to stock properly bred, free range chickens rather than the mass farmed thai type. Yes, he had some really good points – a quality chicken bought from a butcher will taste fantastic, it will probably last more than 1 meal BUT it costs £10. It is easy to see why his arguments fell on deaf ears and became archaic when, a few months later the Great Recession hit with full force.
Time and time again it is the food manufacturing industry that gets the flack about obesity for making food that has too much salt and too much sugar etc. when the real culprit is poverty. Cheap food has always been highly flavoured, there is nothing new here. French Cuisine is sauce and flavour based because historically, the quality of their meat and fish wasn’t up to much and hence it needed flavour. Your Georgian Briton would sneer at the French and proclaim the excellence of British beef which didn’t need such flummery. It is wrong to blame the food industry for these issues, processed and preserved food was always only meant to be part of a diet and to be eaten when fresh food was not available. Aldi don’t expect you to live off crisps. The real issue is the price of fresh food and with the increased competition from emerging markets it is unlikely to drop in price rather than blaming the industry we should be focusing on making fresh food more readily available and cheaper to cook.
This sort of information used to be provided by Ministry of Food films and perhaps it should be again as it is a matter of education around what to eat, how to buy it and how to prepare it without it costing the earth. My grandfathers both grew their own vegetables and some fruit as well. How many of us, with access to some space do this? Yes, to the educated person those public information films were cause for amusement but they did carry important messages. You cannot assume that your values are those of others and you cannot assume that people understand the harm in liquidising a hamburger for a baby. But there is no point in increasing availability unless you back this up with how to cook it and the benefits of doing so. Food programmes are hugely popular but many of them are food porn – yes Mr Roux that dish looks fantastic and how much would I like to eat it, however, I’m just going to shovel another forkful of Asda lasagne down my gullet because it was £3.00 and I can feed the whole family on it and I’ve had a 12 hour day at work so in the grand balance of things, given the ready meal costs about the same as the raw ingredients to cook, am I going to delay dinner by 90 mins whilst I prepare the lasagne or am I going to bung this Asda special in the microwave? Convenience food was and always was meant to be a stopgap, however we have filled the time it saves us in preparation with other activities, and in a time of fiscal pressure, that is usually work. So the convenience food is now a necessity.
It’s obviously easier to get the message across in centralised economies. In Cuba they understand this and the power of educating people. Fuel has always been an issue and over the last 30 years the emphasis has been on saving fuel and especially in cooking. So the Cuban government made cheap pressure cookers available to all households. It is simple arithmetic, after a hard day of Stakhanovite labour on the collective farm those lentils that take 40 minutes to boil can be cooked in 10 minutes in a pressure cooker. Extrapolate the arithmetic, the majority of Cuban households have pressure cookers, the saving in fuel and carbon emissions must be huge. Now I remember a pressure cooker being used by mum in the 1970s, they were popular before the advent of the microwave but how many of us use them now. I only learned about the advantages of using one by listening to the Radio 4 Food Programme last year. I work in the industry and I didn’t know this – what chance do others have unless lucky enough to have caught the programme.
In our house we recently invested in a Halogen oven, a device that sips the leccy. Together with a microwave and a pressure cooker we now only use the main gas oven perhaps once a week and our power bill has gone down considerably. Halogen oven = £30, Pressure cookers start at £12.
So please, let’s not have a pop at the food industry for these issues when the real culprits are poverty and the lack of education as well as the culture towards food that we have allowed to emerge in this country over the last 30 years.