Jamie Oliver and the complex issue of modern poverty

Jamie's quest is to get people from poorer backgrounds to eat better, although I can see why it's possible to find him patronising
  • @Simon_Kelner

So there I was, in the queue at one of the fast-food outlets at the Etihad Stadium last week.

It was the first home game of a season and the Manchester City supporters were in positive and cheerful mood. That was until they reached the cash till after purchasing their hot dog or their burger. "Five bloody quid for a hot dog," exclaimed the man ahead of me in the queue. "That's the last bloody time I buy anything here." This was the overwhelming mood of the gathering.

I heard no one complain about the quality of the food; it was simply the prices that had the fans booing. Six quid for a burger?  And even if they didn't start a chorus of "If you hate Jamie Oliver, clap your hands", it was clear where their priorities lay. The hot dogs may come from Anna's Happy Pigs in Yorkshire, but that's not quite enough to make the average football fan happy.

This was Jamie Oliver's debut with his Fabulous Fanfayre at the Etihad Stadium, and early evidence suggests that his aim of sparking a cultural revolution at Britain's stadiums may require a little more time. It is hard to fault Oliver's intentions: catering at football grounds has traditionally been overpriced and bland, and he's making an effort to raise standards. The chips were discernibly made from potatoes, while the pies had proper pastry and well-sourced fillings (although I'd be interested to know how many roasted vegetable ones were sold).

Jamie's quest, as we all know only too well, is to get people from poorer backgrounds to eat better. He's been at it again - timed, of course, to coincide with his new Channel 4 show about how to make good food on a budget - saying that he can't understand why hard-up families live on a diet of junk food, believing it to be cheaper, while having no concern about spending money on consumer durables, like wide-screen TVs.

He also contrasts the eating habits of poor Britons with those in other parts of Europe: "A Sicilian street cleaner," he says, "...has 25 mussels, 10 cherry tomatoes and a packet of spaghetti for 60 pence, and knocks out the most amazing pasta." I happen to admire Oliver, although I can see why it's possible to find him facile, irritating and patronising. "I've spent a lot of time in poor communities," he explains, but has he done anything other than feel their pain? Is it that far removed from the participants in a reality show that involved sleeping rough claiming truly to understand the problems of homelessness?

Poverty in Britain today is obviously a complex, multi-layered issue that won't be solved by a bang-up rocket salad. And his comment that he finds it "hard to talk about modern-day poverty" rings a little hollow from someone who, albeit with his own energy, skill and ingenuity, has built up an empire valued at £150 million. My main problem with Oliver is his ubiquity. It is hard to walk down a street in any major British city without seeing one of his outposts, its billboards shouting in that chummy way that he knows what's good for us. The truth, however, is that he does.