Healthy eating != bruschetta-eating

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”?

17 thoughts on “Healthy eating != bruschetta-eating”

  1. Good post, but I think the main reason why people eat bad food is simply because it tastes good, and people would rather have fun while they are young and can enjoy it than get an extra couple of years at the end of their lives being fed crap food in a nursing home. And that cuts across class barriers. In reality, it is only a small (but vocal) subset of the middle classes who are really evangelical about healthy food. Unfortunately, some of them are in government…

  2. I do agree that healthy food isn't expensive. Being as skint as I am, I pretty much live off vegetables, pasta, rice, lentils and porridge, and feed myself for a couple of quid a week.

    I think there are various problems with this, though. First, this food often takes longer to cook, or more preparation, or more foresight, which is a pain for people with a busy schedule or kids. Taking a pasta thing to work in a box instead of buying a sandwich on the train is a lot cheaper, but it means I've got to cook the pasta thing in advance. Secondly, it requires quite a lot of self-denial – you should see the way I fall on dairy products when someone else is paying for them. Which is alright for a single veggie student, but I imagine it's a pain in the arse and you come across as quite heartless if you've got kids.

  3. If you wanted to classify all of these reasons under one big class-battle umbrella it would be 'deferred gratification'. Poor people who eat poorly have declined to sit through home-ec classes through impatience to get earning NOW; they eat crap for immediate sensory fulfilment with gay disregard for tooth-rot and arteries, and spend large amounts on plastic cheese-strings every week because the peace and quiet from their kids is a good payoff for the money they'd save from shoving a real lump of cheddar in their lunchboxes.

    But is it really a heightened sense of the future which prompts the Dieting Gwynneths and the Waitrose Massif to save and slim, or a growing penchant for self-denial? True, vegetarianism is taking things to the limit, but don't quite a lot of people actually enjoy starving themselves these days, and watching their money grow in ISAs, in a kind of puritannical fetish way?

  4. Back when I was a skint student, I ate cheap and healthy food. Because actually, it's not just that healthy food can be "cheap"; it's actually far "cheaper". But as Lorna points out, it also takes longer to prepare.

    I'd get back from college at 2 in the afternoon and have a large, healthy meal before heading out for the evening.

    As soon as I started working 10 to 14 hours a day in a high-pressure job, my diet became immeasurably worse… despite the fact that I could wander into a supermarket and buy whatever I wanted without even thinking about cost. The last thing I wanted when I got home from work was to spend time in the kitchen.

    And because I'm veggie, it meant I was suddenly eating all manner of instant meals with dubious nutritional value, loaded with salt, dairy and additives. I knew it was a bad idea (what with being all educated and middle class), but I just couldn't be arsed to do anything other than shove a package into the microwave and collapse in front of the TV.

    Is it any wonder I dropped out of the mainstream job market after ten years of that?

    I also think you underestimate / neglect the role that marketing plays in all this. Unhealthy crap is far more heavily marketed (though that may be changing) than fresh fruit and veg.

  5. There's the obvious heavy marketing that plays a role in poor diet among the less well-off, as Jim says. But I reckon it really is the simple fact that cooking from scratch is seen by too many people as being too much effort. They don't necessarily have to be working long hours, it's just that too many people only want something that's quick and easy. Convenience is everything – and that's not just for people who happen to be "working class" or "poor".

  6. How perceptive of Julie to notice that we eat deep fried mars bars in Scotland. I may be wrong, but I think someone did it once as a bet and the story just grew legs. Either that we're all at it. Ten a day, every chippy in the land churning them out for young and old alike. I can't tell anymore. maybe they sell them pre-battered in the shops……………..

  7. If you analyse why people are poor in affluent societies, a large part of the blame can be laid on poor lifestyle choices (early pregnancy, early departure from education, smoking, lottery scratchcards, etc). It's unsurprising that the lower down the socio-economic scale you go, the less healthy is the diet (statistically, of course: no doubt there are poor people who don't conform to this). I fear this is probably as close to an intractable social problem as you're likely to find.

    From the point of view of food prep time, cooking in bulk and freezing is my solution. Plus once you get a few recipes and techniques under your belt, you can whip up some great dishes in no time at all. I can go from raw ingredients to the best macaroni cheese you've ever tasted in 25 minutes.

  8. Welcome back – good to have your stuff online again. As for the topic at hand, Michael Marmot's "Status Syndrome" addresses some, if not all, of David Gillies point – well worth a couple of anyone's hours.

  9. They probably eat what they eat because they like it. What one likes can be influenced by class and by other things.

    The real question, in my view, is: If one isn't to deep fry one's Mars bar, how is one supposed to fry it?

  10. Hate to tell you how correct you are. What boggled my mind was seeing many of these patients come for help at a clinic I worked in as a health professional. After giving them the educating and sometimes even a $ subsidy they would still continue to complain about the cost of the food but not worry about the cigarette/booze cost??!! One other discovery was that most didn't like to cook. When you are cooking from scratch with fresh food it does take prep work in the kitchen. It is much easier to tear open a pouch or nuke a dinner vs actually chopping and baking a meal:-))

    Excellent post…Di

  11. Sure the healthy stuff was cheaper than the nuggets and whatnot, as far as YOU say. But, how long does it last? If you get paid every so often and don't know when you'll have money again or how much it will be, when u go shopping, u have 2 get what u can to make last AS LONG as u can!!

    I thought I was 2 poor 2 eat before, but b/c of medical reasons 4 a child over here there's even LESS food leftover. I've lost 120 pounds in 2 years b/c I can't afford 2 eat, I only pray I can keep going with no food b/c I need 2 take care of these kids and GOD FREAKING KNOWS there's is like NOTHING 4 me 2 eat here!!!!! I just want the kids 2 be happy and healthy and no, I don't stuff them with junk, don't even keep soda in the house. IT IS EXTREMELY HARD, in MY opinion, where I live, to be able to make healthy food stretch. Fruits and veggies only last so long when u don't have any cash left.

    All I gotta say is, the Gov't. needs 2 be a little more lenient as to who can and can't have food stamps b/c we sure frickin' need them, like bad!!!!! Oh, but we "make 2 much"..MAKE 2 MUCH?!?!?! Then why are my Hubs and I starving like frick!!!?!?!?

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