Jamie Oliver has created a publicity storm in the run-up to his new television show Save With Jamie by bashing the food choices of some of Britain’s poorest families. He claims that struggling families could eat so much better if they stopped spending their money on chips and television sets, when they could be buying mangetout and mussels. Yes, really.
Speaking to the Radio Times to promote his new book and series, he made references to a “mum and kids eating chips and cheese out of Styrofoam containers, and behind them is a massive TV. It just didn’t weigh up.”
Jamie’s stint on the television series Ministry of Food does not qualify him to talk about poverty. He is a poverty tourist turned self-appointed tour guide, and his comments are not only out of touch but support dangerous and damaging myths that “poor people are only poor because they spend their money on the wrong things”, rather than constrained by time, equipment, knowledge, or practicalities.
Try cooking a budget fish pie, when you only have a single plug-in hob, or a microwave, or a disability that means you need to buy your vegetables pre-chopped, sending the cost soaring.
He goes on to claim: “I meet people who say I don’t understand what it’s like. I just want to hug them.” Those people were right, he doesn’t understand what it’s like. Popping into a struggling family’s home to shoot a television programme does not qualify you to talk about how people should spend their money, especially when you have a £150m fortune to go home to (made, ironically, off the back of promoting the supermarkets and ready meals that he is now turning his back on).
When I was living on £10 a week for food, because of mistakes with housing benefit payments, I didn’t need a hug. I needed a fiver, just to have a little bit more to eat. I didn’t need to be teleported to Sicily to see how the street cleaners ate, I needed someone to point out that the 21p can of kidney beans could be the staple ingredient in a nutritious meal. I needed practical advice about what to do with the tins of food given to me by the food bank.
As I said in an earlier blog post: “Try it. For a month, or two, or five. Unscrew your lightbulbs, turn off your fridge, sell anything you can see lying around that you might get more than £2 for. Missing days of meals, with the heating off all winter, selling your son’s shoes and drinking his formula milk that the food bank gave you. Stop going out. Walk everywhere, even in the pouring rain, in your only pair of shoes, with a wet and sobbing three-year-old...
“Drag that three-year-old into every pub and shop in unreasonable walking distance and ask if they have any job vacancies. Get home, soaking, still unemployed, to dry out in a freezing cold flat. Then drag yourself to the cooker to pour some pasta into a pan, pour some chopped tomatoes on top, and try not to hurl it across the room when your son tells you that he doesn’t like it... You’re full of rain and heartache and anger and despair and it’s starting to seep through the cracks…”
This person does not pop down to a local market and smile sweetly at the stallholder for a handful of gourmet vegetables. This person throws whatever is in the cupboard into a saucepan and prays that her child will eat it.
That “massive telly” that everyone is so obsessed with, the ludicrous slur that people can’t be poor if they own a television set. In modern-day Britain, a family’s status always comes down to the size of the television set. If you’re rich, your home cinema is a sign of your success. If you’re poor, even the most meagre television set arouses suspicion. Does anyone think to ask where it came from? I’ve never bought a television set in my life, but I’ve sold three that were given to me.
Many of today’s 13 million people living in poverty in the UK are the “hard-working”, the “strivers”, underemployed and underpaid. But there is a common fantasy among the self-appointed poverty experts such as Oliver that all struggling families are eating chips with cheese on top, reclining in front of their massive television sets.
Oliver raised some good points about food education and culture, but they’ll be lost among his assumptions. With three food banks opening in the UK every week, it is time to tackle the causes of food poverty, rather than glossing over it over with diversions about chips and Sky boxes.
Why aren’t we looking at the real issues, such as bedroom tax, subsistence wages, lack of jobs, underemployment, and little cooking education? Why are we being encouraged to measure someone’s value by the size of their television and the type of carbs they eat?
There’s definitely an urgent need for people on low incomes to be better equipped to cook healthily on a budget, but the reality is that half a million people in the UK are at a point where they cannot afford food at all, let alone chips in Styrofoam containers, to eat in front of their “massive telly”.
Carrot, cumin and kidney bean falafels with spiced tomato sauce
Ingredients (serves 4):
400g red kidney beans,
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 onion, grated
1 tsp cumin
3 tbsp oil, 1 tbsp flour
To serve: 400g chopped tomatoes, 250g white rice
140g frozen beans or spinach
Method: Add the carrot and onion to a saucepan with a little of the oil, and sauté on a gentle heat for five mins until just softened. Remove from the heat and scrape well into a mixing bowl.
Rinse the saucepan, fill with water, and bring to boil. Drain and rinse kidney beans, and add to the pan. Cook on a medium heat for 10 mins, until they start to split. Drain and tip into the mixing bowl with carrots and onion. Shake in the cumin and leave for a minute.
Rinse the saucepan again and half fill with fresh water. Bring to boil and add the rice. Cook according to packet instructions.
While rice is cooking, mash the cooled kidney beans into the car- rots and onions in the mixing bowl. Add the flour and stir. Taking a tablespoon of mixture, shape it into a walnut-sized ball, and pop into frying pan with a little oil. Remove from oil when cooked. Repeat until all of the mixture has been used. Heat a carton of chopped tomatoes in the pan that the fala-fels have been cooking in to mop up any bits of carrot and onion.
Pasta, peas and cheese
Ingredients (serves 4):
300g mushy peas
one vegetable or chicken stock cube (optional)
handful of mint (optional)
Method: First, bring a saucepan of water to the boil, adding the stock cube to the water. Add the pasta and reduce the heat to simmer for around 10 minutes.
When the pasta is soft, drain most of the liquid into a mug, bowl etc – whatever you have to hand or use a large spoon to spoon as much as possible from the pan and set the liquid to one side. Tip the pasta back into the saucepan, and pour the can of mushy peas on top. Add grated cheese and a little stock to loosen the liquid slightly to form the sauce.
Bring back onto a low heat to warm the peas through and melt the cheese. Add more stock if required – I like my sauce thick but you can make it as sloppy as you like. Serve with chopped mint, if using, or extra cheese.