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Poverty – What Dieters Can Do

Today is Blog Action Day 2008, and The Office Diet is taking part. The theme is “poverty”.

How much do you spend on groceries, in the average week? Here in the UK, the average couple easily spends £50 ($90) per week … and that’s not counting meals out, Starbucks, takeaways, alcoholic drinks.

Even if you think you’re hard up, you’re spending a lot on food compared with billions of people in the world. 80% of the world’s population live on less than $10 a day. And 10% live on less than $1.

Feeling rich now?

Many people don’t have the luxury of being overweight

I spent a week in Madagascar in summer 2007, seeing the work of Mission Aviation Fellowship out in the field. (It was a family trip to witness first-hand the work of a charity which my parents have been supporting for many years.)

One thing which struck me was that I never saw a fat child or adult. Not a single one. I was relieved that none of the children we came across (even in very remote communities out in the bush, accessible by plane) looked seriously malnourished – but they were all thin.

Being overweight – consuming more food than your body needs – is a luxury. Sometimes, it seems like an unnecessary and even distasteful one in a world where millions of children go to bed hungry every day.

What can you do?

It’s so easy to throw our hands up in the air and say, “But what can we do?” Despite what your mother may have said, you know that the food on your plate can’t go to feed starving children in Africa.

But there are plenty of practical ways you can help. The ones which require least effort deliver least impact, but if you need to, start small and work your way up. I’ve tried to make all of these somewhat office-dieter related!

The Hunger Site – donate food by clicking (the site is sponsored by the advertisers whose banners you see after the click). What better use of those idle moments at work?

Donate to charity – choose a reputable charity that’s in alignment with your principles, and which works to alleviate poverty. Try giving up your daily latte, or taking lunch into work from home (it doesn’t have to be a boring sandwich), and donating the money you save to charity – you’ll be boosting your dieting success too!

Donate clothing to charity shops – I bet you’ve got good-quality clothes lurking in the wardrobe that you’re now too slim for (or clothes which you bought in a fit of overoptimism, and which you know you’ll never fit into!) I had a big clear out the other week and managed to take a huge bag of clothes to the local charity shop, all things that I’d not worn in months or even years.

Sponsored event –why not undertake a sponsored slim, sponsored run or similar, in order to raise money for charity? If you can get enough people on board to sponsor you, it could be a much greater sum than one you could donate single-handedly.

Help Make Poverty History – the campaign to Make Poverty History has been running since 2005, incorporating Drop the Debt and Trade Justice campaigns. Of course suffering should be alleviated by giving food aid – but we also need to tackle the deeper causes of famine and poverty.

With famines across the globe, in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Latin America, North Korea and other countries, this is a time to focus on our over-consumption in the West, and on what we can do to help men, women and children around the world.

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Affording to eat well

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.