Is it poor to ask such questions?

Jamie Oliver hit the nail on the head. He recently suggested that poor people spent too much on food and ate badly and that often “the poorest families in this country choose the most expensive way to hydrate and feed their families”.

If ever there’s a red rag to a bull, it’s criticising the poorer members of society. Since his comments, webland and newspaper letters pages have been inundated by correspondents defending the poor, saying it’s not their fault and suggesting that this is some political move. However, Jamie’s comments were an astute observation rather than an attack on the poor and they did raise some very relevant questions.

Why is it more likely that someone with an Aga will cook from first principles with fresh ingredients than someone without? Why are subsidised cookery courses so well attended by people with above average wealth? Why don’t you see that many Rolls Royces and Ferraris in the car parks of fast food restaurants?

Is it having the material possessions that makes you think more about your food and inclined to cook? Or could it be that the ability to acquire such accoutrements goes hand in hand with an ability to see the benefits of cooking?

And is it heresy to even raise such questions?

The policy head of the Child Poverty Action Group recently said: “Official statistics show, parents of poor children are much less likely to be able to afford fresh fruit for their children”. I don’t doubt that statistics show that parents of poor people buy less fresh fruit; possibly believing it to be too expensive. But one can’t help being suspicious that statistics are being manipulated to further the aims of the Child Poverty Action Group. A nobel cause I’m sure you’d agree but it doesn’t point out that people are wrong to think that healthy food’s more expensive than any other sort.

Obviously, we all need educating in life’s fundamentals in order to get on and achieve some aspirational goals. Reading, writing and maths are generally agreed to be essential if we’re to have any aspiration for ourselves or our families. But it isn’t just the educational basics that affect how we turn out. Parental and other near influences also affect our ambitions and our ability to achieve. The tools are not enough if we don’t know how to use them and the ability to read, write and add up are not enough on their own. What we use them for is a pretty important part of the equation too.

So, while it’s a crime that pure home cooking’s not been a part of the curriculum in schools for decades, we have generations of people who don’t see the importance of cooking even if they know how and, as a result, consider buying processed food to be the only option.

Why? The most common reasons given are that we’re too tired or life’s too stressful or we don’t have time. And none of these are valid excuses. If you’re brought up to believe that cooking’s more important than resting in front of the telly or playing on a computer or going down the pub, then you’ll prioritise accordingly.

But if your influences are that life’s too short/tiring/stressful to cook, then you’ll fall into Jamie’s subculture of being at the mercy of food manufacturers; the majority of whom, particularly the shareholder-driven corporates, are forced to drive up profit at the expense of quality and possess the means to market to us in clever and persuasive ways. Dare I suggest that they can often be found to be economical with the truth?

Of course it’s possible to feed yourself for a few quid a week and of course you’ll be healthier for it. But do you know how to? And assuming you do, do you really want to?

Previously published in The Northern Echo

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