Are we really what we eat?
It will take guts for those with bloated stomachs to confront the reality of so many empty ones
Friday 16 October 1998
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?
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