Are we really what we eat?

It will take guts for those with bloated stomachs to confront the reality of so many empty ones

IT IS difficult to believe that there are those in our midst who don't know how to eat and don't know how to cook. With Nigella Lawson in "goddess mode" on our bookshelves and Delia in back-to-basics dominatrix mode on our screens telling us what boiling water looks like, there really is no excuse for eating badly. All right, some of the ingredients may require some tracking down. Quince and sea-bass for Nigella, organic baked beans for Delia, even though she's gone all minimal, are available - you're just not trying hard enough. The River Cafe Cook Book may require you to be on first-name terms with olive farmers in Northern Italy but honestly, sweetie, it is worth the effort.

For the middle classes, you are not merely what you eat, you are what other people see you eating. The less likelihood there is of you ever going hungry, the more food becomes a form of social capital, indicating both superior taste and love of life. Gone are the puritan worries of the past. Eating out, has, we are told, become a more democratised, classless experience, full of both of Americanised social mobility and European aspiration. Alan Bennett's recollections of taking his Mum and Dad out for dinner is fraught with anxiety. His parents, like mine, had their dinner at lunchtime. His mother asks "Do you do a poached egg?" and the waiter snottily responds with a wine list. Gosh, how things have changed.

We now all eat better, know more about nutrition and are healthier than ever before. Well, you can believe that if you like, just like you can believe that the police aren't racist and that hereditary peers are a force for good. Yesterday's report by Jeremy Laurance of Sir Donald Acheson's speech to the Royal College of Physicians should help to burst this bubble. It spoke of single mothers going hungry and of the creation of "food deserts" where, because of the rise of the out-of-town superstore, some areas are left with few shops and a very restricted choice of food. In many cases, those without cars are paying more for their food than those who are wealthy enough to drive around.

London is perhaps not the best example of this. Even in Hackney, where I live, there are many Turkish, West African and Asian shops, so all sorts of fruit and vegetables are available. Yet even so, to buy many groceries at the lowest prices would require a car journey. Just as it looks as if we have followed he American model when it comes to eating out, it seems, too, that we are following the American model of creating those wastelands one finds on the outer zones of so many US cities. The shops that do exist are covered in iron bars and grills for protection. There are parts of Britain which are similarly attractive. Fruit means apples or bananas and that's on a good day. I remember when I worked with children in care giving a little boy a peach. "Is it a suede apple?" he asked having never seen one before.

That those who can least afford it are often paying far higher prices in such shops than those who have the means and transport to visit the big supermarkets is ridiculous. Urban planners have long been talking about the social exclusion that these new forms of consumerism bring with them. Not only are town centres being decimated, but the old, the sick, those with young children and those who don't drive are automatically excluded from the bright and airy sanitised environments of the vast superstores.

To understand the difficulties faced by the poor - I see we can now use the word poor again instead of that horrible phrase, "the underclass" - makes any discussion of public health far more sensible. For too long the poor have been blamed for making the wrong moral choices about what they consume. Why, they have chips when they could eat yummy lentil and muesli burgers! They fill themselves up on cheap white bread instead of fruit and fibre. Sir Donald tells us today that the poor eat more salt and more fat than is good for them. George Orwell told us much the same a very long time ago.

Actually most people, when they are down ,eat more salt and fat. Who consoles themselves with a salad? Who doesn't reach for convenience food? Yet the poor have always been judged as making not only ill-informed choices, but morally bad ones. They don't know what is good for them, or they don't care to know. To suggest, as this report does, that even if they are trying to eat more healthily they are still disadvantaged, points out the underlying inequality of access. There is little point in educating people about what to eat if it is not cheap and easily available. This is not a question of how to eat, but of where to shop.

To be told yet again that the gap between rich and poor is widening should embarrass the hell out of us. In terms of health alone, this level of inequality is disastrous. The good don't die young, the poor do. Children and pregnant mothers particularly are affected by poor diet. Babies with low birth weights are more prone to serious diseases in later life.

If Donald Acheson's words are shocking then it is because we have become far more accepting of living in a segregated society. The middle-class obsession with "good schools", for instance, means that children tend to meet only children of the same social class. When I was at school we were all aware of those who had half a chicken in their lunchbox and those who had just a packet of crisps. We knew that while some of us wolfed down free school dinners, others said they couldn't possibly eat that kind of food.

Social exclusion is a two-way street. It means for those who can so choose, the freedom to avoid this depressing sort of nastiness. The poor, on their sink estates, filling their faces with chips and buying their fags from offies that look like they should be in the Bronx, become truly a different species. I do not hold out much hope for more lessons on healthy eating from Tessa Jowell. A sensible transport policy would do far more to alleviate some of these problems than more advice on a million things to do with mange tout. The setting up of food co-operatives has already shown itself to be a viable alternative.

At the end of the day, though, the real problem is money. Many of those living on benefit, particularly with children, even with all the shops and health education in the world, do no have enough money to provide a varied diet. It may be trendier these days to talk of social exclusion as though it is a psychological rather than material problem, but the facts are plain. Poverty means lack of choice in every single arena of life. No one chooses poverty, least of all the children who are born into it. "Welfare scrounger" conjures up an image of excess and waste rather than the reality of monotone deprivation. If mothers are going hungry to feed their children, this is not because they do not know how to eat, but because they can't afford to.

Create food oases rather than deserts in the inner cities. Bus the poor out to the superstores by all means. But without upping their incomes, not a lot will change. Until it does, the rich may continue to define themselves by what they eat, the poor will be defined by what they don't. It will take some guts for those with bloated stomachs to confront the reality of so many empty ones, but when you think about it, what else should a Labour government be doing?

Arts and Entertainment
'Banksy Does New York' Film - 2014

Art Somebody is going around telling people he's Banksy - but it isn't the street artist

Arts and Entertainment
Woody Allen and Placido Domingo will work together on Puccini's Schicchi

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
The sixteen celebrities taking part in The Jump 2015

TV

Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge has announced his departure from Blink-182

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
    10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

    From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

    While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
    Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore