This post has been shown to contain over 60% rant, or, why blaming the poor for eating bad food is nastier than a horseburger

Let me tell you what I had for dinner last night. No, really, it’s important. I made potato wedges with the organic purple Cara potatoes from my veg bag, rolled around in olive oil and herbs and chili flakes and roasted, with diced red pepper and crumbly curd cheese thrown in at the last minute. I ate it with leftover cauliflower cheese from the night before. I’d walked ten minutes up the road to pick up my weekly veg bag, and it contained a cauliflower bigger than my head, so I invited my friend round and steamed the cauliflower in the electric steamer, made a cheese sauce with plenty of cheddar and mustard, and then combined the two and put them in the oven to get crisp on top and gooey inside. We ate it with steamed greens and grated carrot and beetroot and slices of homemade oat bread, which I’d taken out of the breadmaker that morning. This evening, I’m planning to pick up some white wine vinegar so I can pickle the rest of the beetroots, doing the golden ones first so their bright sunshine-yellow doesn’t get drowned out by the pink of the others, and while the oven’s on to cook the beets and sterilise the jars, I’ll probably heat up the cheese, leek and onion pie I made earlier this week and have it with garlic-fried cabbage and the rest of the potato wedges.

Let me tell you some of the reasons why I do this, this endless cooking. There are lots of reasons, but here are few. I have a lot of control over my own time. I work the hours I want to, and I don’t work very many of them because fortunately, the hourly rate for the things I do is now quite high. No-one depends on me to get fed or bathed or put to bed or helped with their homework, so I can spend a whole evening cooking and preserving and talking to my friend, and no-one thinks less of me for it.

I know that there will be £45 in my bank account at the start of every month, to pay for my organic veg, not to mention the rest of my groceries. I can pick the bag up once a week from the pickup point ten minutes’ walk away, and not have to think about choosing or paying for different vegetables or where to get them from. I don’t have to get a bus, or two buses, or drive a car, or get a lift, to go to an adequate shop. On my way home I can stop and pick up extra things – bananas, red peppers, apples, avocados, nectarines – from one of the four pound-a-bowl stalls within ten minutes of my house, where they are sold much more cheaply than in the supermarkets. Often they throw in a little extra, a couple of plums or an apple or two, as a little thank-you for buying from them. Yesterday, the guy on the corner gave me an extra bowl of bananas (green ones, admittedly).

At home, I have an electric steamer and a breadmaker and a big freezer and a liquidiser and a gas hob and my rent includes the price of the utilities I use, so I’m not worried about keeping the oven on for an hour and a half. My housemate’s often away just now, so I invite my friend round because you may as well cook for two as for one, and if it were just me I’d probably eat oven chips and a fried egg.

Lastly, I just love food. I do. I think about it all the time. I’m good at cooking and I like doing it because people tend to like doing things that they’re good at, and I had a lot of free time in my twenties to learn how to do it well. I like supporting local organic agriculture, because birds and bees and soil quality are important, and most of all I like eating things from my own garden (or your garden), whose impact can be measured in food metres. The best kind of food is that which comes out of the ground and is washed and messed with for a few minutes and goes right on my plate. Every now and then – about every three weeks – I buy some food that used to be a living animal, but not very often because there is no good butcher near me and supermarket meat is pumped so full of water and hormones that it’s actually difficult to cook with, sometimes.

Do you know what makes me sadder and more annoyed than supermarket meat, though, sadder and more annoyed than individual plastic packets of cut-up fruit or pallid city eggs or beef so full of water that it leaches grey claggy liquid into my stir-fry and ruins it? It’s people who assume that everyone can do what I do, and if they don’t, then their choices about food are morally dubious, or stupid, or lazy, or just icky. Just nasty. And if they find out that their food has been contaminated with something else, then what did they expect? The problem is not the contamination or the industrial processes and lack of oversight that enabled it, it’s the fact that people don’t mind eating mechanically reclaimed meat from disgusting parts of an animal anyway. Because seriously, what’s in there is barely recognisable as cow anyway, and already disgusting. ‘Burger shown to contain ground up animal, eh? Shocking’. To which I want to say, fuck you, have you ever been poor?

I remember when a Findus Crispy Pancake was a fucking treat. It was an exotic thing, advertised on TV (which you spend a lot of time watching, if you can’t afford to do anything else, or you live somewhere where there is nothing to do) and it came in a brightly coloured box which was definitely more exciting than the potatoes in the shed or the cabbage at the bottom of the fridge. You wouldn’t want to live on them, but if you were a harried, tired mother who wasn’t actually interested in cooking but did want to give the kids an evening meal which they wouldn’t complain about, they were pretty ace – once in a while, because they were a bit expensive compared to vegetable soups or pasta with sauce. Know what else is good for that? “Beef” burgers. Potato waffles. Things you can buy in the little local shop, where the vegetables are old and manky and way overpriced, and keep in the freezer and not have to think about. Things that, at the end of a week’s careful budgeting, at the end of a day’s work, make it easy for you to choose them and store them in your tiny kitchen (where there probably isn’t room for a big fruit bowl or some extra jars for beetroot or a cauliflower the size of your head) and then cook them without spending a fortune on electricity (which might be supplied from a coin-op meter, and be in danger of running out just when you happen to have no 50ps on you and neither does anyone else) or gas (which, if you live in a tower block, you probably don’t have at all).

Oh, so it would be better, if people somehow feel they have the God-given right to eat meat, if they bought ‘cheap cuts’ which are much tastier if you know how to cook them right, and better for you and probably contain no risk of horse? Great. First, allocate everyone a good cookbook with guidance on how to safely cook meat, and how to take advantage of different cuts – or failing that, reliable internet access and a directory of useful sites. Then give them nearby shops where they can buy the rest of the ingredients to make that meal, affordably, at a time of day when they’re not working (How many people in the UK live in a ‘food desert’, with miles between them, and the nearest supermarket, and the streets or country around them denuded of shops where you can buy healthy food?). Then grant them an extra two hours to braise that lamb neck or simmer that oxtail down, and a clean, tidy kitchen to do it in. Get them to break the habit of eating what their parents gave them. Pay for the extra gas and leccy they’ll use, and then finally, convince their kids to eat it. Oh, and while you’re at it, tell them to enjoy themselves.

I think it’s this last point which gets to me. Clearly, not everyone has an electric steamer and a breadmaker and so on, like me, and not everyone lives in an urban area near lots of places to buy fresh fruit and veg very cheaply, but also, it’s very clear that not everyone likes cooking as much as I do. Not everyone cares as much about eating good food, either. However, if you’ve got money and you don’t like, or have time, to cook, there are a lot of options. You can pay for takeaway, or go out for dinner instead, or buy one of those lovely Waitrose ready meals, and even if people (by which I mean me) will judge you a little bit, this is not held up as evidence of a moral failing. Not everyone likes to cook! That is okay! Some people are fairly indifferent to food, and prioritise meals which are simple and quick, rather than complex and time-consuming. But if you’re poor and uninterested, and you actually would rather not spend your evening frying calves’ liver (very cheap) or mashing celeriac because you’re not much bothered, and you eat a frozen lasagne instead, somehow that is disgusting.

I don’t think it is the food that repels people but the wider ‘ugh!’ reaction that we have to the bodies and lives of the poor. We cannot actually deride people for poverty or lack of education, so we mock their doorknocker earrings, and sportswear and inconvenient children: we mock their prams (oh, the temerity not to have a car) and their lazy, unhealthy and frankly disgusting food choices. So who cares if unsafely slaughtered animals, loaded down with drugs ruled unsafe for consumption in humans, find their way into a burger? Let them eat horse.

Published in: on February 10, 2013 at 6:47 pm  Comments (31)  

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  1. I try not to judge people for eating this kind of food; but I do judge the society that this be the cheap, easy option. Findus is so out-of-control of its supply chain that they could be unaware that horses had been substituted for cows; what *other* facts are they unaware of? Food supply chains need to be carefully monitored – there are risks to human health (did this cow have forbidden-in-food-animals drugs?), risks to animal welfare (both thinking about “did this chicken have enough space” and also “was this cow’s movements tracked so we can minimise risks of spreading infectious diseases”), risks to human welfare (do these farm labourers get paid minimum wage), risks to the environment (were un-approved fertilisers used)… I find this whole thing very worrying.

    I would much prefer it if people were defaulting to mostly eating food that is sustainably produced; which means I mostly aim for “local” (where I can) and “vegetarian” with a side-order of “fair trade” when I do buy things that come a long way. But eating this way is expensive and non-normative; there’s no point in blaming individual people for individually failing to make difficult, expensive choices. We need to change society to make the choices we prefer the cheap, easy choices.

    • I agree with everything you say.

  2. I don’t judge because I have the time, the money and the kitchen implements to eat well and yet I still struggle with not giving myself or my children cheap ready meals. Firstly because, like you have said, I hate to cook but secondly these meals are manufactured so we do crave them, we do want them and their convienence. It’s not just that our bodies physically want them it’s the marketing, the buy 1 get 1 free and the smells pumped into a supermarket to get us to buy the (processed) food.

  3. The ‘poor’ aren’t stupid to eat Findus lasagne – - they are stupid to not realise that there are so many other, better, simpler foods that are cheaper.

    Stupidity is not a lifestyle – it’s a state of mindlessness

    • As I’ve tried to explain in this post, cost isn’t a simple matter of pounds and pence – distance, energy, time and taste all play a part, as well as other factors – and in many, many situations a cheap processed meal is a rational choice. Ascribing a blanket value like stupidity or mindlessness to people who make this choice is neither thoughtful nor helpful.

  4. Great post, The comment about the 50 pence pieces for the meter brought back a whole load of very bitter childhood memories.

  5. Excellent post. I used to be one of those people who looked down on others who didn’t eat organic and took the “easy way out” when it comes to eating and cooking. Then, I moved with my husband to a rural area where affordable organic food was scarce, I became a mother and didn’t have time to labor over cooking for hours a day, and as a result of becoming a mother I chose to stay home with my child rather than go back to the traditional workplace so we could afford ultra-premium food. Hopefully, the circumstances of our life will eventually change so that we’ll be able to afford more nutricious, ethically-grown food, but for now this is how we’re making ends meet. Thank you so much for clearly explaining how there’s so much at work when people shop the way they do.

  6. “How many people in the UK live in a ‘food desert’, with miles between them, and the nearest supermarket, and the streets or country around them denuded of shops where you can buy healthy food?”

    Er, not as many as you probably think. The idea of “food deserts” is a bit of an urban myth:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1123946/

    • Thank you, this is really interesting.

    • Hi, its not an urban myth.

      The paper you cite actually says
      “The researchers found that healthy food cost more in a poorer area”
      And this matches my personal experience also.

      Its more expensive, there is a much smaller range of products so that cooking from fresh is difficult, and the only viable long term option is to eat ready meals, unless you have a car to drive to the supermarket. The areas I know of have got worse in recent years, because the local shop which used to stock a wide range, has been taken over by a chain and made into basically a newsagent with ready meals and toilet paper.

      • Well, that depends on what you’re comparing it with.

        The researchers found that healthy food cost more than unhealthy food in both poor and affluent areas.

        However, they also found that both healthy and unhealthy food was cheaper in poor areas than in deprived areas.

      • Sorry, I meant “cheaper in poor areas than in affluent areas”.

    • Furthermore, the chains price things higher than in the supermarkets intentionally. A ready meal will be more expensive than in the supermarket, and the local shop will not stock the cheapest items.
      I had some of the ready meals, and while I checked the ingredients to ensure it was “real food”, after eating I was not full, and realised the meal had been mostly water.

    • I find it surprising that the term originated in the UK, since I associate food deserts with the US, where (outside of certain urban centres) it is notoriously difficult to get around without a car. Cities there tend to be spread out over vast areas and (again, with a few famous exceptions) public transit is laughable. Perhaps the term is something of an urban myth in the UK, but it certainly describes my experience living in several small- to medium-sized towns in the US, where it could be extremely difficult to find anything to eat that wasn’t in a tin or a plastic sack. (I often said, only half-jokingly, that the only reason I didn’t get scurvy in graduate school was because of jarred pasta sauce.)

  7. An interesting article. I’ve worked as a debt counsellor, so I’m familiar with the issues you write about with the regards to the cost of food, and of the struggle to keep the fuel meter running. And yet it’d never even crossed my mind to think of the cost of cooking the food though, in much the same way as it would never have occurred to me to worry about whether water will come out of my tap when I turn it on.

    I do worry about some of the families I’ve worked with though. It has been a struggle to get them to allocate enough money out of their budget to eat even the kind of food that they’re derided for. This horse issue aside, I’m more concerned by the families who can’t be eating enough than the ones who choose to eat ready meals.

    • Yes, absolutely. At a time when a worryingly high proportion of teachers are paying for food for their students because otherwise they don’t eat, and when parents are going hungry so their kids can eat, it’s poor taste in the extreme to deride people for eating what they can afford – and contrary to what a lot of people immediately assume, I think ready meals are often cheaper than cooking from scratch.

      As another commenter has said, the experience of having a coin-op electricity meter stays with you – my home didn’t have one, but my friends’ did, and I have many memories of adults trying to make the bit of credit on it last because they were out of money for that week, or didn’t have the right coins and lived too far from a shop to make change.

  8. I think there’s another “moral” dimension here. We tend to think of ready meals as acceptable sins or, to use the ad-man’s phrase, “naughty but nice”.

    I’m sure that even the most conscientious cook has an “oh, sod it drawer” in their freezer. For me, it’s frozen pizza. I much prefer making my own, but some days you arrive home late after an annoying day and just want a treat which will be ready in 15 minutes (12 fan assisted).

    So we look at people who eat nothing but “treats” and feel simultaneously envious and repulsed. That cognitive dissonance leads us down a dark path.

    It’s the same with Sky TV – we know it’s mind rotting rubbish, but we’re envious of dole scroungers wasting money on it (even though £22 a month is a pretty cheap way to entertain a family).

    Really enjoyable post, thanks.

    • Oh, absolutely – if a frozen pizza is your ‘sod it, I’ve had an annoying day and I feel like being lazy’ food, then if you imagine someone eating that all the time it’s understandable to first go, ‘You lazy bastard!’ rather than going, ‘Wow, it sounds like all their days must be annoying and tiring’. I think the mix of envy and repulsion you describe is common in many attitudes and descriptuions of benefit claimants. This is another rant, but the idea that people who are raising little kids or caring for dependent relations or partners just do nothing all day just drives me absolutely bats. Thank you for your comment, it’s made me think.

      • Hi,
        ‘sod it, I’ve had an annoying day and I feel like being lazy’ and
        ‘all their days must be annoying and tiring’

        I think this is a really big part of the bad food problem. Certainly when Ive worked in unrewarding, tiring jobs with long hours, my diet has been affected accordingly.

  9. I think the main problem is that deprivation tends to go with ‘food deserts’. Education is also an issue, as are societal pressures, relentless advertising and deeper cultural issues of the ‘crab basket’.

    That said it is very possible to live of a very cheap diet. When I’ve been doing archaeology for extended periods, we have a very small budget to feed 10-20 young people who have spent most of the day outside and doing hard physical labour. Shopping nowhere else but the Elgin Asda, we can sustain life (if not morale, the students do that on their own budget) for literally pennies a day (I think last year it was 7p per person per day). That includes tea, coffee and biscuits on site (including milk and sugar), sandwich making materials and a big evening main meal that everyone will get at least two helpings of. Plus all the other basics, loo roll, soap, tin foil etc. All it takes is iron discipline and a good sense of humour!

    I think the main issues are education, confidence and opportunity. Cultural mindset can also play a large negative role.

    • Thank you for this. I think there’s a lengthy discussion to be had about what influences people’s food decisions, and indeed I’d love to read more research on it – some colleagues of mine have a book coming out on the subject, actually. You’ve listed a few more factors here which are no doubt active – I always find ‘societal pressures’ to be a sort of black box term, because interrogating ‘societial pressures’ is a thing I spent my academic life doing and so I’m never satisfied with the description itself, I always want to go ‘societal pressure to what?’. But I think we can agree that there’s not a single, simple reason (laziness, poor taste) why people eat convenience food, and it’s not always education either. I have very highly educated, high earning middle class friends who eat junk food, because they’re just not that bothered about food, and despite my own prejudices I have to compare it to any other thing which some people care about and others don’t. I know that cycling would be cheaper, healthier and more environmentally friendly, and I have a bike and bike locks and lights and a helmet, but I still take the bus.

      I think the words that stick out for me in your second paragraph are ‘iron discipline and good sense of humour’ because those are exactly the kind of things people with difficult, tiring lives are likely to be low on! Willpower and discipline are exhaustible resources, and our narratives around food concentrate heavily on pleasure and rewarding yourself with something nice. If almost everything about your day is an uphill struggle, then rewarding yourself with (a) all the tasty fatty sugary carefully-engineered, lab-tested sensations of a ready meal and (b) not having to cook and being able to relax is going to be too tempting to resist, a lot of the time.

      • The iron discipline comment was pretty tongue in cheek, and in reality comes from the fact the card paying for the food belongs to the site director, part of their job being to bring things in on budget. I know it’s not a directly applicable situation to ‘normal’ life!

        I can completely relate to the ‘up-hill life’ nature of going for convenience. I did that quite a bit at the end of last year, mostly because of depression on my part and lack of time on my wife’s. In the near year we have both resolved to ‘eat better’ and so far we have.

        I concur about the vagueness of ‘societal pressures’, it is something that, in another life, I wish I had studied at university rather than the vanity of medieval history. There are so many aspects to what makes ‘society’, what we mean by that, and likewise ‘culture’. The class labels are also freely used without too much thought as to what is really meant in an era of almost zero ‘traditional working class’ occupation. All good stuff for debate and actual usable output, but comment boxes are not the place!

      • Comment boxes contain insufficient beer. We should fix this lack by being in the same place as each other, and some beer, sometime in the next five years!

  10. Hi. I found this post interesting and challenging. It’s a huge discussion and I’m taking the time to put my thoughts down but I probably wont succeed to well but here goes anyway.

    I think it’s fair to say I’m pretty much in the same place as you yes i remember when processed food was a treat, that I love food, love to cook, I’m financially OK (run my own business) and can afford to choose what I eat and spend time enjoying it. My wife does the pickling, jamming and we love to grow veg etc. We try to shop local and love going to farmers markets. We’ve gotten to know the producers and we know where their animals are and how they’re kept.

    But and this is a big but, I/we chose to life this way. I chose to work my ass off to build a good business for the ability to live like this, I choose not to buy brand label clothes because what goes down my throat is far more important to me than looking like one of the cool kids. We chose not to have a tv license and no huge satellite subscription costs. We choose to bargain hunt and I’m not too proud to wear the odd thing from a charity shop. We are not perfect and oh yes we have the ‘sod it’ food.

    I also chose to live in Latvia for 3 years where my wife chose to work for a charity that ran a support shelter for poor families. When I say poor i mean flea ridden families (often of 3 generations) living in one bedroom apartments earning less than £100 a month. It was a privilege to occasionally ‘chef’ there. I really learnt the meaning of how it is to be truly poor. It was a humbling experience and I learnt to be less western. I struggle with the term ‘poor’ in some instances in this country when I’ve seen poor poor.

    I have to ask the question how much of this is choice? Not accidental choice but actually choosing wants over needs and priorities are lost? Yep education would help but you have to want and chose to do the actions that are required to change.

    I don’t want to judge at all but do you see my niggle? Anyway thanks for the blog post and the opportunity to comment (loved the other comments too).

    • Thanks for your comment, Gary, I think I appreciate what you’re saying. I’m like you in that I prefer to spend money on good food than nice clothes, cinema tickets etc. And on some level, most people do have a choice about what they eat, but that choice is constrained in various ways. If you lived two bus rides away from a supermarket, or you couldn’t really afford nice farm-reared meat but eating well was really, really important to you, you might make that choice and focus a lot more on getting good food and learning how to cook well. There can be so much working against that, though.

      I have lived long-term in Bolivia, with very poor rural indigenous people, and I don’t think of their poverty as the same thing at all as people living in Easterhouse or Tower Hamlets or South Wales. But the welfare system in the UK is being cut to shreds at the moment, and we are seeing very real cases of families hardly being able to afford to eat, let alone eat well. An empty belly in a small, damp flat in a cold country is miserable even when you have clean water, council-provided pest control and (still, just about) state-funded comprehensive healthcare.

    • One thing about choice is who chooses what is healthy or not healthy and who chooses which people are judged for ‘unhealthy’ choices. Like for example, baguettes, are they good for you? No, they are a refined carbohydrate circulatory/endocrine disorder predisposal festival. Meringues, are they good for you? Nooo. But they’re a bit posh and French so nobody cares or starts saying that baguette/meringue eaters have bad priorities. A lot more is said about chips, to name one judged food.

      But then middle class people can eat more chips than working class people before people start to make noise about it.It’s a lot harder to make ‘good’ choices when the choices you make are under such scrutiny. A lot of people who make these judgements do not have diets that would necessarily hold up to such judgements (especially if you look at actual nutritional value as opposed to categorising foods in terms of their relation to class).

      Also, perhaps poor people in the UK have not given you the chance to be humbled or to get less westernised. That’s not their fault.

      Thank you for the article, I enjoyed it.

      • I have really – mm, is ‘enjoyed’ the right word? – appreciated your work in the past, RacismRemixed, so it’s great to see you here and I’m glad you liked the post. Yeah, enjoyed probably is the right word, despite wishing the kind of crap you take down didn’t happen. You do great and funny work, keep it up!

  11. Excellent post. I’d also add that cooking is expensive in terms of energy or “spoons”, so more difficult for those who are disabled, and also expensive in terms of attention. I very rarely have the energy to do it.

    In addition people who are stressed simply make poorer choices than those who are not, and poor people are stressed over every penny, let alone constant microaggressions from the media.

    • Totally – and when you’re stressed, you regardless of whether it’s a ‘poor decision’, you’re going to want comforting, fatty, salty food. Spending money on a thing which is more expensive when there is a cheaper alternative is not just a thing you might rationally decide not to do because you have no money, it’s also something which you might find actually distressing and guilt-inducing. I do.

  12. [...] Why blaming the poor for eating horseburgers is wrong [...]


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