Cllr Daniel Cowan

Porridge and potatoes are being lauded by wealthy and privileged commentators and politicians as the answer to the country’s obesity crisis and food poverty problem.

People who actually know what it’s like to live with food poverty or work closely with those who do, have tried so hard for so long to make others understand what the real issues are but once again those with privilege are trying to make the debate one of personal responsibility.

If it isn’t Marcus Stead advocating the affordability of oats it is Annunziata Rees-Mogg educating the masses on the price of potatoes.

This is a topic close to my heart. I grew up in poverty and this was most keenly felt around food. My relationship with food was very much feast and famine depending on how close to pay day we were. Buying fresh fruit every week just wasn’t affordable.

As an adult I have spent many years volunteering with vulnerable families and I can say without doubt that the barriers to healthy, homecooked meals are many and varied.

The cost of eating healthily isn’t as simple as privileged people logging on to Tesco and pointing out how “cheap” fruit and veg is. There are deep systemic and structural issues around food insecurity and poverty that simultaneously sees many families going hungry and contributes to the obesity crisis.

Calorie dense foods are favoured because they are cheap and filling. They are also easy to transport, quick and easy to cook, and will store well for long periods.

Why buy biscuits when apples are cheap, they cry. Sure, I can get cheap apples in season but apples alone aren’t going to fill up a family of four.

Five small apples costs around 80p in my local Tesco and as a snack would last a day in my house with two children under the age of six.

Let’s not forget that as a minimum, we should all be eating 5 portions of fruit and veg a day. Throw in different coloured vegetables, a banana and an orange each day and you’ve easily spent a few pounds, and no-one has even had a proper meal yet!

What is a few pounds though? Well to a low income household it could be bus fares to get to work, a mobile phone top-up to stave off sanctions, or even a couple of dinners.

So it really rankles when privileged people think tackling food poverty and obesity is sneering about how much Pepsi and Pringles people buy.

Privilege isn’t just about family wealth. Privilege can be having your own transport, time to shop around and the knowledge and confidence to cook from scratch.

Having those things will help bring food bills down and give you better balanced meals but not everyone has that privilege. Not everyone lives near an Aldi where you can “get a chicken for £3 and make 4 meals”. Some people won’t have the public transport links to shop around, or might even struggle with carrying shopping so rely on deliveries which budget supermarkets aren’t offering.

If you want to tackle food poverty and obesity then you need to consider convenience, affordability and skills. Accessing healthy food isn’t just about cost, although that plays a big part of it.

Give people the financial security, time and knowledge to shop/cook from scratch and they’ll do it. People aren’t eating chips and beans every day for the sake of it!

For example, I am privileged to no longer be in food poverty, to have my own transport, a stable modest income, and crucially the skills and confidence in the kitchen to cook from scratch.

Recently I made roast chicken with patatas bravas (sounds fancy but it’s really just small roast potatoes with spicy ketchup), baked feta and minted peas for 4 at a total cost of £8.21.

We had enough leftovers for another dinner when bulked out with rice/veg for an additional 80p.

£9 for two dinners for four people. Sounds cheap, right? For that kind of money there’s really no excuse for not cooking healthy food every day, right?

Well for £9 I could buy enough beans, frozen chips, frozen veg, fish fingers/nuggets/sausages to feed four people dinner for six nights plus buy two packets of biscuits for snacks.

Nutritionally it wouldn’t be great to chow down on chips and sugary beans every day but four people would be fed for almost a week on what I spent on two meals.

Cheap, calorie rich food is filling and people are feeding it to their children out of necessity not laziness. Nurses working 14-hour shifts on COVID wards are buying cheap, calorific convenience foods (so they tell me) because prepping and cooking a full meal after a gruelling and emotionally taxing shift really is the last thing they want to do.

Parents working 40-hour weeks for minimum wage and still not quite having enough to cover all their bills are turning to these foods because they are inexpensive and easy to cook after a long day.

Googling the price of fruit and vegetables to shame people is performative othering. It’s a way of saying to ordinary people that the issues we have aren’t structural but caused by a lack of individual responsibility. “THEY don’t buy fresh food because THEY are lazy and YOU are proof that THEY are lazy because YOU can cook and YOU don’t buy junk”.

I’m a confident cook and I involve my children in my cooking so they can gain the knowledge and skills and that will give them an advantage in life that many won’t have.

This isn’t to say that people in poverty don’t know how to cook because that’s a demonstrable nonsense. I know people from very privileged backgrounds who are unable to cook because they were never taught. However, they can afford Tesco finest dinner deals and Charlie Bigham’s ready meals, and no-one criticises them for it. Yet the single parent working two jobs buying nuggets and chips is ‘lazy and feckless’.

Food insecurity and poverty runs so much deeper than the average Rent-A-Tory would have Joe Public believe.

These issues are often down to benefit cuts, freezes and sanctions, delays to universal credit, low and stagnant wages, zero hours contracts and insecure work.

Also, that many supermarkets are only accessible by car or poorly served by public transport. Fuel poverty is a huge issue because whilst lentils and oats are cheap, having the gas and electric to cook them is a whole other story. Additionally, many people on low incomes have exploitative prepayment meters which I will be properly indignant about another time.

Mental health is vastly underplayed in this debate, but it is incredibly important. Diet has a role to play in mental health and whilst I’m not suggesting that one follows the other, a poor diet is not the best start to possessing the motivation to implement all the “helpful” suggestions about budget-stretching swaps and ‘grow your own tomatoes in a welly suspended from the balcony of your 15th floor flat to save money on ketchup’.

Which brings up another issue around space. Some people just don’t have the space for (or can’t afford) a big fridge or freezer so batch cooking isn’t possible, and others don’t have the green space to grow their own potatoes or can’t afford an allotment to grow marrows even if they had the time!

The barriers that I have come across most often as a volunteer with vulnerable families are those of housing and education. A lack of cooking knowledge and confidence is a huge obstacle to healthy cooking as is equipment. Families living in insecure, temporary, or cramped accommodation often have limited equipment or no access to proper appliances. If all you have is a toaster, microwave and kettle then you will likely eat a lot of beans on toast and instant noodles. Dietary requirements are overlooked as a barrier too, as is internet poverty and literacy.

It’s all good and well to say a lack of cooking skills is due to an unwillingness to learn but if you struggle to read recipes, or dyscalculia gives you difficulty with quantities then internet videos and recipes aren’t going to help much even if you do have internet access which not everyone does. And all this is before we consider the financial risk of buying unfamiliar ingredients to attempt to save money. It’s one of those cruel ironies where in order to save money you need to be able to spend it.

So, until the government and their commentators are willing to focus on the real causes of food insecurity, poverty and obesity instead of labelling people as lazy and feckless they need to stay in their lanes and keep their hot-takes on spuds to themselves

Cllr Daniel Cowan
Daniel is a father-of-two, a White Ribbon Ambassador, and a Labour councillor representing St Laurence ward on Southend-on-Sea Borough Council.
He tweets at https://twitter.com/CllrCowan