I suppose I should thank Jamie Oliver for stirring me from my post-bank holiday lull this week and filling me with an invigorating annoyance that I haven’t felt for some time.
Not since a sudden benefit cut left me scraping by on just £14 a week for food have I been so hyper aware of how pervasive such facile responses are in the UK poverty debate. Now working closely with an amazing community food project in inner city Manchester the Jamie-esque voices have thankfully been drowned out by the inspirational responses of real people in real situations, and the emergence of bloggers such as Jack Monroe and Miss South of northsouthfood now means that these voices can be heard by everyone.
Jamie’s ‘Skint Meals’ represents a reponse to UK poverty with which I was nauseatingly familiar during my skint days. The Thrift Chic approach to poverty mitigation; the rosy-cheeked Cheshire housewives desperate to pass on their knowledge that one can knock up a frightfully authentic North African tagine using only turnip tops sautéed in self-satisfaction ‘if only people would take the time to learn’.
I assume that it is the advent of this cultural oddity that account for the allegations of ‘cosy frugality’ levelled at food blogger Jack Monroe this week; a commentator must have assumed that this well-spoken grammar school girl had simply taken the fetishisation of post-war austerity a little too far. It might sounds churlish to criticise those earnestly reporting on an important issue or even to criticise the good intentions of these self-styled saviours of the poor and uneducated, but Jamie Oliver’s recent comments expose an uncomfortable truth; pity breeds contempt.
This is why I find this new wave of budget food blogging genuinely exciting. They are communicating the human reality of UK poverty by producing blogs that speak to genuine experiences; neither fashion statement nor martyrdom. They have humanised the experience of a very low income; Jack Monroe emphasises that although it may be possible to eat for a tenner a week, it is incredibly difficult. These blogs speak to my experience; the feeling of everything being precariously balanced.
Ostensibly small problems are a big deal; I vividly remember the prick of tears and tightening of my throat when I realised I’d been given the wrong change in the knowledge that it would screw up a meticulously planned budget. The overwhelming majority of things are more difficult when you’re aware that you’re walking a financial tightrope with no safety net. The human experience of poverty is lost in the myths propagated by Jamie et al and in the media reduction of poor people to victims.
Jamie Oliver would surely agree that food is not, and never has been, simply fuel; it is social, it is nurturing, it is about pleasure. He would be well-advised to read the blogs of people who, like him, view food as comforting and evocative but have to balance this with a simmering anxiety and a set of inflexible monetary calculations. In stark contrast to the myths, eating well when you’re skint means never ever being lazy.
These blogs are a genuinely transformative for the reporting of UK poverty; they highlight that it is possible to eat for very little money without suggesting that having to do so is excusable. They are underpinned by a righteous anger, and the use of lived experience in these blogs is incredibly refreshing; it provides a genuinely empowering account of UK poverty without the victim blaming.