Stirring up trouble: The appalling paradox of obesity and hunger

It is a peculiar evil that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food
Click to follow
The Independent Online

My favourite anecdote about Anne Jenkin is that she used to date Richard Curtis before meeting the man she would go on to marry, the future MP for North Essex Bernard Jenkin. This inspired Curtis to give his most bumbling characters in every one of his films, from Four Weddings and a Funeral to Love Actually, the name Bernard in revenge. After last week, however, it is Baroness Jenkin who risks a gaffe-prone reputation after she haughtily wondered why people couldn't live on porridge for 4p a bowl and pronounced that "poor people don't know how to cook".

I hope this isn't what she will be remembered for. Because while this phrase sounded callous, it is not exactly what she meant. After all, Jenkin co-chaired the all-party parliamentary inquiry into hunger in the UK with Frank Field, one of the greatest fighters for social justice in the House of Commons. And given that she has spent the past decade bloody-mindedly trying to get the stuffy traditionalists of the Conservative Party to select more women candidates, as well as being a champion of gay marriage, it is obvious she cares deeply about equality.

As she said when she apologised, Jenkin was trying to make the point that cooking from scratch can be cheaper – and healthier – than buying ready-meals. Her 4p figure for porridge may be slightly off the mark but, again, it is true that this is cheaper and healthier than a bowl of high-sugar cereal.

The danger, when comfortably off parliamentarians such as Jenkin suggest that people on low incomes should make do with porridge or vegetable soup, is that they misunderstand hunger. As Alex Massie in the Spectator pointed out more than a year ago after Jamie Oliver made similar comments, George Orwell had brilliantly and timelessly written in The Road to Wigan Pier in 1937: "The basis of [the miner's family's] diet … is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes – an appalling diet... The peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn't … When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don't want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit 'tasty'."

Of course, fresh meat and vegetables are "tasty", and it would be marvellous if every family could afford, and had the time, to cook salmon or chicken with new potatoes and green beans, but this is just not feasible. This is not to say "let them eat ready meals", but it is to acknowledge that Orwell's argument is powerfully apt, more than 75 years on. For those in extreme poverty who rely on food banks, there is no chance of fresh meat, fruit and vegetables because only non-perishable items can be supplied. This is the new "peculiar evil" that fuels the appalling paradox of obesity and hunger.

Part of the answer is, as Jenkin was trying to say, education – and not just for those on low incomes. When I was at school in the 1980s, we had cookery lessons – or domestic science as it was called then – every week until the age of 14. But by the 1990s there was a drumming-out of non-academic subjects in the national curriculum, and it was only in 2008 under the Labour government that cookery lessons were introduced into primary schools. Belatedly, it was not until the start of this academic year that cookery lessons have returned for children up to 14. There will be a time lag of several years to see if these curriculum changes make a difference, but I believe they will.

Some scars don't leave a mark

Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, was asked by an 11-year-old if she was ashamed that it is still legal to hit a child in Britain. Morgan pointed out that only "reasonable chastisement" – such as "a tap on the hand or a mild smack on the bottom" – is legal in this country. This sort of punishment would be OK if they were light taps or mild smacks, but isn't the phrase "reasonable chastisement" open to misinterpretation? Leaving a physical mark is outlawed, but surely frequently smacking a child leaves a mental scar, even if there was nothing visible on the skin?

When Nigel Farage was asked about smacking during an off-air warm-up on Question Time on Thursday, he said smacking was the "best way to control children". I could not disagree more. When my four-year-old is at her most infuriating I will tell her off but I have never been able to bring myself to give her even the mildest tap in response. Why? Because I am a big, strong adult, and she is a small child. Having a law against smacking would be hard to police, but at least it would make it clear that any physical act of hitting a child is wrong.

Fishing for criticism?

The Labour MP Frank Doran says he knows a lot about the fishing industry thanks to representing different constituencies in Aberdeen on and off since 1987. He believes this gives him the authority to say that being a fisheries minister is not a "job for a woman". What a load of crappie. Perhaps Doran should speak to Gail Shea, who has been Canada's fisheries minister since 2008. Shea is from the fishing community of Tignish, Prince Edward Island. Doran is a former lawyer from Edinburgh.

World-class science threatened

Alan Titchmarsh is revealing the secrets of the Queen's Buckingham Palace garden – including magic mushrooms – a private space which is funded by the taxpayer. While her trees and shrubs will never feel the chill of the axe, Kew Gardens – the world's leading botanical centre that is enjoyed by two million visitors a year – is facing government cuts of £5m.

This week Kew's MP Zac Goldsmith will hold a Commons debate urging a rethink, and a select committee is going to the gardens to hear evidence. Goldsmith says: "Kew is one of the most amazing things we have – it's impossible to exaggerate its importance to the world's scientific community. It is at the very cutting edge of research into food security and climate change, and it is hard to square that work with the steepness and depth of the proposed cuts." Quite so.