In the past 12 months, I have lost almost 5 stone in weight. It’s been *hard* work, and not because I don’t want to diet, but because it’s difficult to afford the foods I should be eating if I want to maintain a healthy body and lifestyle.
As anyone who has attended a Slimming World or WeightWatchers meeting will tell you, losing weight is easy: it just takes cooking all the meals you eat from scratch; a kitchen; the right equipment; your energy costs covered by a magic money fairy; the money in your pocket to be able to buy a fabulous array of vegetables and fruits, be they fresh or frozen…
It just takes being able to buy a whole chicken and a lettuce!
Losing weight and living a healthy lifestyle isn’t a mystery to most people. Not the very well off, not the middle classes, and not the working classes. Most of us know what we should be eating, and we know what our children should be eating. I don’t know any parents who have sat down and decided they want their child to be fat, unhealthy, and unable to play and run with free movement, whatever perceived class they are from.
I know fat rich people and skinny poor people, but mostly it’s the other way round. Not because of a deliberate choice to eat crap and laze around on a fat arse all day, though. It’s not a ‘lack of willpower‘ that makes those in poverty put on the pounds, something Jamie Oliver tried–if clumsily–to get across this week.
Unfortunately, the entire concept of food and food poverty seems to be based around the idea of a Class System. The wealthy, if we are to believe The Times, are taking heed of the Government’s advice on healthy eating–an approach that will not, apparently, work on the poor. The article actually calls those in poverty an underclass, although it hasn’t directly attributed those exact words to Jamie (read it here). I can’t begin to express just how offensive that is, and how much it hurts to be deemed as less than, as below. It invalidates my humanity, and that’s painful to deal with.
It’s not class that’s the problem, it’s money.
Poor children are twice as likely as rich children to be obese. Two thirds of children living in poverty come from families where one, or both, parents work. I have emails from nurses, from teachers, and even from a solicitor, all sharing their stories of struggling to get food on the table. One nurse actually has a slice of bread before work, and nothing else until she ends her shift, when she has a bowl of porridge. She’s not an underclass, and I’m pretty certain these educated men and women don’t have trouble grasping “middle class logic”. It’s not a class problem, but a financial one. Something I was able to discuss in detail at the Food Foundation‘s Vegetable Summit last year, and also wrote about earlier this year for the Health Foundation.
Back to my own weight loss. Two years ago, eating what I eat now was an impossibility. It’s not that I suddenly have a diet of roast duck and caviar, but I am able to afford to buy a chicken in place of nuggets, and pork shoulder instead of sausages. We still eat our staples and favourites, like sweet potato and butternut squash tagine, curries, and anything with rice, but we’re able to eat better than before, and you know what?
…it costs more…
It costs more to buy. More to cook. More physical energy to prepare. A degree of risk, because trying new food around kids is always a risk, right? I don’t know about your kids, but if I served mine chickpeas on a regular basis, I would be slaughtered–and they wouldn’t have even tried them when they were young. I know this as fact, because I like the bloody things and love cooking with them. A tub of hummus lasts exactly 30 seconds if it’s put close to me. My children thought chickpeas were weird, bland, and disgusting, the same as most other kids. Poverty happens in the pocket, not in the taste buds. Sure, as they’ve grown older, I’ve got them to eat more foods and now we argue over hummus and the valuable cucumber sticks we get to scoop it up with.
We have a richer, more varied, diet thanks, in part, to our struggles with poverty and the breadline. We’ve had to adapt and learn that what was in front of us is all I had to give, and if my kids didn’t eat it, they would go hungry.
Please, understand, when I say ‘they would go hungry’ I don’t mean the old threat, “You eat that, or you go to bed hungry,” – I mean there was nothing else to eat, and we had no access to food unless they ate what was in front of them; the same reality as millions of other children know every single day. Some days the best I could offer was smashed up kidney beans (bean burgers) and some potato wedges made from those last couple of sad looking spuds in the cupboard. If you haven’t been there, you’re lucky. If you have, I’ve cried your tears.
The risk of trying new foods is a very real one, in households where a meal for four people has to cost around £1.50 – £2.00 in its entirety. Wasting money, wasting food, is never an option. So what happens? Normally something like this:
Me: What should I cook for dinner? This is a nice recipe, and I should be able to afford the ingredients…squash is cheap as anything in Lidl, so that’s not an issue. I have rice, and I’m sure I can stretch to a tin of tomatoes…
Me: Although we’ve had tomato based dishes all week. I think I might cry if I have to face another tomato sauce. Even ketchup would be too much, right now.
Me: We could have fajitas, but without the meat…
Me: Oh yeah. I have a daughter who doesn’t like veggie fajitas. I can’t feed her separately today, so…
Me: I could always do rice. Again. I am so bored of rice. And potatoes. My life is rice and potatoes. Where do these people on TV buy their takeaways? A kebab costs seven bloody quid…times that by six…hahaha NOPE. That’s not going to happen. Okay, so no takeaways for us. Twenty quid for a pizza? I’d rather shove wasps up my…
Me: Was that the electric meter beeping? Damn, it was. Okay…no long cooking times, then. Quick, cheap, and easy. God, I’m tired. Okay...I have a fiver–that’s enough for some Iceland pizzas or sausages, a bag of oven chips, and some beans. 20 minutes and we’re done and I can finally sit down for half an hour and still have the lights on in the morning! Yay! Whoop–living the high life!
And so it goes. I can feed a family of four an evening meal for a fortnight at Iceland for £21.55 (as at time of writing). £20 for 14 meals for four people. That’s without additions, like vegetables or fruits; they cost more, and at my most desperate all I could think of is to stop the constant whines of, “Mum, I’m hungryyyy. So I’ve based this on those feelings of helplessness.”
It’s no secret why those in poverty are struggling with obesity. 75 breaded chicken nuggets for £3.00? Middle class logic? How about 4 Scotch Pies for £1.25? Lack of education? 40 value sausages for £2.00 might have more to do with it. People eat this stuff because it’s cheap. Most of the people I’ve spoken to don’t even like the bloody stuff, but it’s the most calories for the least amount of cash–it’s economically sound, if not nutritionally so.
Short cooking times, ease of storage, the knowledge the food will be eaten? It all combines, becoming the only safe route forward. Healthy food simply costs more. A cheap chicken, while only £3.00, takes an hour in the oven. Pulses and beans need soaking and boiling for an hour. Even potatoes are energy-expensive, depending on how they’re being cooked. And this is before we’ve even thought about how the kids are going to react to a courgette and pasta bake!
I have no trouble grasping the Middle Class Concepts of healthy eating. I’ve taught my children to cook, and we’re so lucky in that we have a well functioning kitchen and the things we need to cook our meals. I can cook, and I’m not half bad at it, either. But there are still times, even two years on from my original blog post, that dinner is something from a bag from an Iceland freezer. There are still times when there’s not so much as a solitary pea on my plate, and there are still times when I’ve resorted to eating just a bowl of plain steamed rice, rather than risk putting on weight and eating processed frozen foods.
Each extra item added to a plate costs money. It’s a very simple fact to grasp, regardless of class, that more food on a plate will mean higher costs. So food is removed from the plate, and the food removed cannot be anything that will fill a stomach…so the added vegetables are lost, and a beige plate of oven-baked nuggets and chips reigns supreme for another night. Bellies are filled, and kids will sleep without waking up because they’re hungry.
Food Poverty is not a class problem. It’s a financial one.