Affording to eat well

by Ali on October 6, 2008

I read this article Britain on a plate in the Guardian last week and it made me stop and think hard. It’s about a TV show “Ministry of Food”, where Jamie Oliver (well known chef) is looking at what families in Rotherham (near Sheffield in North England) eat.

This quote particularly struck, and saddened, me:

Natasha feeds her two children takeaways most nights. Aged five and two, they have never eaten a meal that has been properly cooked at home. Instead, they sit on the floor – no table, no cutlery – and eat shavings of doner kebabs or chips with processed cheese from polystyrene boxes with their fingers. Even instant noodles have to be negotiated without forks. The bottom drawers of Natasha’s fridge are stuffed full of sweets and chocolate bars.

The problems faced by the Rotherham residents mentioned in the article are complex. Lack of money is one aspect – but Natasha has an eight-hob gas cooker, yet doesn’t use it. Her mother, also a single mum, brought her up on takeaways and instant meals.

Other sad cases include an elderly man whose wife has died, and who has to learn how to cook in his eighties, and an overweight woman living on crisps and chocolate who struggles to read a recipe – someone who may have been badly let down by the school system.

As well as making me feel sad about the state of things in Britian, this article also made me feel guilty. I complain about the price of food, or the need to spend time cooking – but I’m lucky enough to have the money to buy healthy, fresh food, and an education and upbringing that’s taught me what to do with it.

The cost of weight loss

If you didn’t catch my post last week about the price of weight loss, you might want to take a look at what I said there. For those of you who are rushing through blogs in-between tasks at work, I’ll summarise:

  • In the US, people spend $40 billion on dieting products every year
  • In the UK, the dieting industry was valued at £10 billion in 2003
  • Gym memberships, weight loss club memberships and magazine subscriptions can mean spending a lot of money every month.
  • Branded “lite” ranges can be much more expensive than standard ones

Price of a sandwich

For most of us working office jobs, even in the current time of severe financial problems, we don’t have to survive on getting as many calories as possible for as little money – which is what makes economic sense for people living in poverty:

When you are on a low income you buy the kind of food that fills you up most cheaply. What may seem ignorant choices to others are in fact quite rational. Lobstein has calculated the cost of 100 calories of food energy from different types of food. The cheapest way to get your 100 calories is to buy fats, processed starches and sugars. A hundred calories of broccoli costs 51p, but 100 calories of frozen chips only cost 2p.

When I read that, it definitely made me think twice about paying over £2 for a sandwich that I could make at home for a fraction of the price.

It also reminded me of a great book by Polly Toynbee, called Hard Work: Life in Low-Pay Britain (currently on offer at Amazon.co.uk!) She looks at the realities of being very poor, and her first shopping trip, where she’s able to afford either garlic to flavour bland cheap food or a lightbulb for the toilet has always stuck with me.

It’s not just about money

The problem goes deeper, though. Obesity, poor nutrition and unhealthy lifestyles are rooted in the social as well as the economic conditions that people grow up in. I’m realising how lucky I am that I was taught to cook, had parents who made me eat my vegetables (I didn’t feel lucky at the time…) and have a social group who doesn’t live on fried chicken and chips.

If you’re working in a white-collar office job, you’ve got the education and the money not to have excuses like “I can’t afford to eat well” or “I can’t cook”. If you read The Guardian’s piece, you’ll realise that there are lots of people out there who do have real problems affording good quality food, and having any education in nutrition and cooking skills.

The government is bringing back compulsory cooking in schools, which I hope will help change things for the next generation, and break the cycle of parents bringing up kids on junk, who bring up their kids on junk too. Longer term, I’d like to see an end to the massive inequalities in society – but this is, at least, a start.

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