By Cllr Daniel Cowan
On July 29th, Daniel Cowan, Labour Councillor for Southend-on-Sea Borough, made a poignant contribution to the national discussion around food poverty and obesity. Through the events of the past week, we have witnessed on the one hand displays of disdain and contempt for those in poverty on the part of the government and conservative party, and acts of large-scale, grassroots solidarity with the less well off on the other.
We at Amplify Stroud felt that Cllr Cowan’s words were worth returning to at this time: they come directly from lived experience and get straight to the heart of what’s so wrong with the politics of food in this country. Additionally, they highlight how food poverty isn’t just a matter of lack of access to food, but also lack of access to nutritious food. The ability to eat and the ability to eat well are both privileges.
Porridge and Potatoes won’t Solve Food Poverty
Porridge and potatoes are being lauded by wealthy and privileged commentators and politicians as the answer to the country’s obesity crisis and food poverty problem.
People who actually know what it’s like to live with food poverty or work closely with those who do, have tried so hard for so long to make others understand what the real issues are but once again those with privilege are trying to make the debate one of personal responsibility.
I grew up in poverty and this was most keenly felt around food.
My relationship with food was very much feast and famine depending on how close to pay day we were. Buying fresh fruit every week just wasn’t affordable.
The cost of eating healthily isn’t as simple as privileged people logging on to Tesco and pointing out how “cheap” fruit and veg is.
Sure, I can get cheap apples in season but apples aren’t going to fill up four people.
Five small apples costs around 80p and as a snack would last a day in my house with two children under the age of six.
Let’s not forget that as a minimum, we should all be eating five portions of fruit and veg a day. Throw in different coloured vegetables, a banana and an orange each day and you’ve easily spent a few pounds and no-one has even had a proper meal yet!
So it really rankles when privileged people think tackling food poverty and obesity is sneering about how much Pepsi and Pringles people buy.
Privilege isn’t just about family wealth. Privilege can be having your own transport, time to shop around and the knowledge and confidence to cook from scratch.
Having those things will help bring food bills down and give you better balanced meals, but not everyone has that privilege.
If you want to tackle food poverty and obesity then you need to consider convenience, affordability and skills.
Give people the financial security, time and knowledge to shop/cook from scratch and they’ll do it. People aren’t eating chips and beans every day for the sake of it!
For example, I am privileged to no longer be in food poverty, to have my own transport, a stable modest income, and crucially the skills and confidence in the kitchen to cook from scratch.
So last night I made roast chicken with patatas bravas, baked feta and minted peas for four at a total cost of £8.21.
We have enough leftovers for dinner if I bulk it out with rice/veg for an additional 80p.
£9 for two dinners for four people. Sounds cheap, right?
Well for £9 I could buy enough beans, frozen chips, frozen veg, fish fingers/nuggets/sausages to feed four people dinner for six nights, plus two packets of biscuits.
Nutritionally it wouldn’t be great but four people would be fed for almost a week on what I spent on two meals.
Cheap, calorie-rich food is filling and people are feeding it to their children out of necessity.
Googling the price of fruit and vegetables to shame people is performative othering. It’s a way of saying to ordinary people that the issues we have aren’t structural but caused by a lack of individual responsibility. “They don’t buy fresh food because they are lazy and you are proof that they are lazy because you can cook and you don’t buy junk.”
I’m a very confident cook and I involve my children in my cooking so they can gain the knowledge and skills. I know people from very privileged backgrounds who are unable to cook because they were never taught.
They can afford Tesco finest dinner deals and Charlie Bigham’s ready meals and no-one criticises them for it. Yet the single parent working two jobs buying nuggets and chips is lazy and feckless.
These issues are often down to benefit cuts, freezes and sanctions, delays to universal credit, low and stagnant wages, zero hours contracts and insecure work.
Until the government and their commentators are willing to focus on the real causes of food poverty and obesity instead of labelling people as lazy and feckless they need to stay in their lanes.