Julie Bindel has a comment piece in the Guardian about the class snobbery that permeates the healthy eating debate, and particularly about the way that fair-trade liberals sneer at the poor for eating badly. It’s nearly sensible, but it falls down on a crucial point:
Encouraging a healthy diet has far more to do with choice than education… Although the majority have worked out that freshly squeezed orange juice is better for their child than fizzy pop, they have neither the budget nor the time to offer it… It is time we put working-class and poor people on a par with those of us who can afford to choose. It is no good sneering at people in Scotland who deep fry Mars Bars if we do nothing to make healthy food more widely available.
The point where this falls down, just in case you missed it too, is that healthy food is not expensive or unavailable.
I’m not basing this assertion on my middle-class experience of unlimited cash or out-of-town Tescos. Nor am I basing it on the poor areas where I’ve lived, which have generally been multicultural city centre places with lots of good local produce shops. I’m basing this assertion on the least fresh-food-friendly local shop I’ve ever seen: a miniature, bullet-proof Happy Shopper on a peripheral council estate in Greater Manchester, with more space devoted to booze than to fruit and vegetables.
A friend lived on the estate, and we’d visit the Happy Shopper if we couldn’t be bothered with the 30-minute round trip on foot to Asda’s. Although the local shop was crap, it sold pasta, it sold rice, it sold onions, it sold tomatoes, it sold peppers, it sold a limited set of herbs and spices, it sold bacon, it sold potatoes, it sold baked beans, it sold cheese… and so on. It sold the basic ingredients for a varied selection of healthy meals. And it sold them for less than it sold frozen pizzas and onion rings and chicken nuggets.
This isn’t a rigorous and empirical survey, and it’s possible that this particular Happy Shopper was anomalously un-awful. Even so, I’m willing to take on this challenge: I’d happily visit any urban area of the UK and buy, for less than £2 per person eating, from a shop less than 15 minutes away, the ingredients for a healthy and quick-to-prepare meal for 4 people. I’m open to persuasion if I’ve missed something, but I can’t see how price/availability can be the problem.
But there is clearly a problem: although poor people can afford to eat healthily, they don’t. Or more specifically, some poor people don’t, even though penniless postgrads and minimum-wage immigrants do. And this has been the case for years: Bindel’s article cites a study from 1936 that also found the poor could largely afford to eat healthily but largely didn’t.
Maybe the class issue works both ways – after all, attitudes are worth more than money or the geography of shopping areas. Maybe there’s a fundamental, deep-seated belief among the British working class that people who choose to eat healthy food are precisely the kind of irritating, glycemic-index-calculating, macrobiotic Chris-‘n’-Gwyneth types that Bindel’s article slates.
Maybe eating chips is an affirmation that while you might die 20 or 30 years before the Waitrose brigade, you have nothing but contempt for them. And maybe by focusing on products like organic food that will never be affordable to the poor, and farmers’ markets that single working parents will never have the time to visit, the non-stop healthy eating publicity blitz is only furthering this image.
For the next campaign, how about “cook a risotto today; it’ll only take 10 minutes, it’ll only cost you a quid, it’ll taste OK, and it won’t turn you into an Islington arsehole. Or your money back”?