What does Jamie Oliver know about poverty?

Photo credit:   ecstaticist

August 27, 2013 // By: Joe Penny

George Orwell wrote The Road to Wigan Pier in 1937, but the following excerpt could well have been written earlier today, in response to the TV chef Jamie Oliver:

 “First you condemn a family to live on 30 shillings a week, and then you have the damned impertinence to tell them how to spend their money”.

At a time when benefits are being stripped back, wages are stagnating and food prices are rising, Oliver has aired his own views on poverty and diet. He claims that poor people eat nothing but junk, that their bad diets are entirely their fault, and then tells them how they should actually be spending their money – damned impertinence indeed.

He says:

"I'm not judgmental, but I've spent a lot of time in poor communities, and I find it quite hard to talk about modern-day poverty.”

“You might remember that scene in Ministry Of Food, with the mum and the kid eating chips and cheese out of styrofoam containers, and behind them is a massive TV. It just didn't weigh up.

"One of the other things we look at in the series is going to your local market, which is cheaper anyway, but also they don't dictate size… From a supermarket you're going to buy a 200g bag of this or a 400g pack of that. If you're going past a market, you can just grab 10 mange tout for dinner that night, and you don't waste anything."

Oliver has done what so many commentators on poverty are also doing at the moment. He takes a handful of personal experiences and then generalises these up to blanket a whole socio-economic group. It’s every bit as bad as George Osborne’s talk of layabouts who sleep their way through life on benefits – an (ironically) lazy stereotype. It is a stereotype based on anecdote and hearsay, not evidence or insight or empathy.

Oliver’s anecdotal claims lay the blame for food poverty at the feet of the poor. They eat badly because they choose to spend their money on big TVs instead of quality ingredients. He stresses again how easy it is to visit your local market, buy lots of fresh food and then cook it all from scratch at home.

The reality is of course more complicated than his broadcast-ready stories suggest. Are low-income families really the only group that eats cheap processed food? Could part of the reason these foods hold such appeal have something to do with their addictive ingredients? Or aggressive advertising campaigns, which he himself has fronted?

Has Oliver – a multimillionaire – actually compared the prices of frozen food at Asda with that of the local market, and does he appreciate that we are not all fortunate enough to live near a market? Or that those of us who do are likely to have seen it turned into something geared towards wealthy consumers; more likely to sell smoked chorizo and scallop sandwiches than everyday essentials?

Nowhere in his comments does he acknowledge the issue of time poverty, and that people might not have the time, let alone money, to shop around for the best deals and cook food from scratch. What would he say to single-parents working full-time or overtime?

A more reasoned judgement from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition claims that [high fat, energy dense] diets are more affordable than are prudent diets based on lean meats, fish, fresh vegetables, and fruit. The association between poverty and obesity may be mediated, in part, by the low cost of energy-dense foods and may be reinforced by the high palatability of sugar and fat.” But few people will read academic articles like these. A lot of people listen to celebrity chefs.

Through his admirable work on improving school meals, Jamie Oliver has become an authority on nutritional cooking. People across the country listen to him and take his opinions seriously. Perhaps, then, he ought to think more carefully before he speaks – especially when what he says smacks of crude Victoriana and the patronising “Gospel of Porridge”.  


Work & Time, Inequality

What does Jamie Oliver know about poverty?

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