Food, inflation, health and the poor

As post titles go, I suppose this piece’s moniker is nothing if not broad and inclusive. It represents the bringing together of a number of my passionate concerns in one glorious concatenation, but before I go further I need to provide something in the way of a disclaimer.

One of the least attractive examples of rank hypocrisy and deliberate misdirection is that hoary old bollocks so beloved of our right-wing press, the (usually) Tory matron who declares that they have lived on £2.50 a week for a month, and that therefore no-one in this country is so poor that they can’t eat both healthily and deliciously, so please could they, and their supporters in evil outfits such as the Child Poverty Action Group, shut-up and stop whinging. The Daily Fail article that follows Lady Living-Bracingly-In-The-Countryside’s heroic experiment in poverty research reports lovingly that her Ladyship has gleefully made stews out of old toe-nail clippings, fricasséed freely available larger spiders, supplemented all this with a bewildering variety of root vegetables, and flavoured it with the juices from her Beeton-style everlasting stock-pot which has preserved her family’s left overs for several generations. Later in the article one casually discovers that it just so happened that Farmer Giles from the estate did in fact lob over a couple of haunches of venison, and his Lordship did allow her Ladyship to wash all this bracing fare down with a choice claret from Château Lafite-Rothschild, and a rather promising white Burgundy that by chance were gracing the cellars at the time. I realise that I might be accused of doing something similar in what follows, minus the classic vintages just mentioned, obviously. I can only hope not.

We heard today that the inflation experienced by the poorest people is greater than that experienced by the richest. This is for the simple reason that inflation in food and fuel is much greater than inflation generally, and even more because the costs experienced by richer people are often represented in large part by mortgage payments on property, and the current minuscule interest rate is in fact making those payments lower than ever before. So feeding ourselves is getting more expensive, but feeding ourselves is also a much greater proportion of poorer people’s expenditure than it is of richer people’s. It’s true as well that feeding ourselves is increasingly becoming not a means of nutrition, but a means of self-abuse. Channel 4’s modern day freak-show, Embarrassing Fat Bodies, illustrated this again last night in its trade-mark gory and repulsive detail. Much of this “eating as self-harm” has its roots in the kind of food people eat, and it’s equally generally true that the diets of poorer people are worse in this respect than those of richer people. One of the commonest explanations of this relationship is that bad food is also cheap food. Poor people cannot afford to eat well or healthily.

That is simply not true. It is true that that in any given category of food, cheaper versions are generally less healthy than more expensive ones. But the extrapolation from the undeniable truth that, for example, expensive sausages with higher proportions of good meat are healthier than cheap versions stuffed with starch and fats procured from commodity markets and made just about palatable with flavourings, texturisers, and colourings, to the overall conclusion that therefore only the rich can eat well is entirely false. Another common fallacy is that the middle-class obsession with organic food is merely an indulgence that the poor cannot afford.

I am not impoverished. And that is why I fear that sharing my own experience about mitigating food inflation might be dismissed in the same terms as my own dismissal of Lady Living-Bracingly-In-The-Countryside. Undeterred, I’m sharing it anyway.

Recently I’ve started taking an organic vegetable box each week from Abel and Cole (and I must immediately add that other providers of poncy delights are also available.) This costs me the princely sum of £11.50p, and is also delivered to the door releasing me from part of my otherwise steadily increasing fuel bill. Along with the box, I generally buy a little meat, some fish, and things like breakfast cereal and milk. I’ve never spent more than £35, including Abel and Cole’s massive delivery charge of £0.99p (eat your heart out Ocado with your charges of anything up to £8.) I also buy pulses and other bits and pieces from supermarkets to create my lunches each day. Perhaps on average I spend an additional £3 a week in this way, producing delights such as today’s red kidney beans, walnut pieces, and apple salad bound together with olive oil and flavoured with home-made garam masala. I eat meat or fish about 4 or 5 days out of the week’s 7, on one of which it will probably be a tin of sardines. If I spend £40 on food in a week I’d be surprised. Before starting to organise myself in this way, I probably spent not far short of £80-£100 every week. I accept that this approach takes some discipline, but that is mostly to do with eating whatever the box contains, and refusing to throw anything away. But be clear, there is nothing hair-shirted about this. I eat better now, and enjoy it more. I do it because it makes me happier, not because I hope it will make me more virtuous.

Ironically, that point about eating whatever the box contains is actually the key to all this. We live in a time when choice is supposed to be king. The new proposals on the NHS may have moderated the foolish pursuit of competition, but they still wax eloquent about the centrality of choice. One of the wonders of modern western capitalism is indeed the supermarket with its bewildering array of choice when it comes to food. This choice is not a liberation, nor a nutritional bonus; it’s exactly the opposite. But it’s also largely an illusion. Of all that vast array of choice, most of it is made of the same 4 or 5 things. Wheat, soya, sugar, corn and a medley of deconstructed and reconstituted plant and seed oils. And even though the resulting confections are not actually all that cheap, the raw materials certainly are and they contribute a tiny minority of the final price.

I hope I haven’t come across as suggesting that poor people’s poor diets are poor people’s own fault. There’s a lot more to it than that. But it is true, I believe passionately, that poor people do not need to be locked into bad food and poor nutrition. There is a choice, but it’s unlikely to be found in Tesco or Sainsburys. And part of that choice, strangely enough, is giving up choice.

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