Equality / Food

On Food and Inequality

I’ve been thinking a lot about food lately. Actually, I always do, which might explain why my clothes don’t fit me as well as they used to, but apart from my own gluttony, there are serious reasons for paying attention to food. I sometimes think about my contribution to our economy, and whether all the shops I like to see around me would be able to survive if everyone spent their money like I do. I doubt they would – the vast majority of my money gets spent on food one way or another. I don’t need lots of clothes shops – I’m still wearing t-shirts I got almost 20years ago, or tend to be ‘pre-worn’ via charity shops. I don’t need lots of nick-nacks and fripperies for my house – books are my main decor, and again are ‘pre-read’. What I do get a lot of is food, either as produce to take home and cook with, or eating out. For me a perfect high street would have a charity shop, a second hand book shop, and everything else would be a grocery store or coffee shop or restaurant. I know that’s unrealistic, but just saying…

“Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realise we cannot eat money” as the Cree Proverb says. This is the bottom line. Despite my middle class relatively affluent predilection for foamed milk and caffeine products, and Italian breads with cheeses melted inside, it is no overstatement to say that food, and access to it, is the single most important thing in people’s lives. It’s extraordinary that in the UK now there is a need for food banks to give food handouts to people that can’t afford to eat anymore. It is terrible that parents are making choices about not having anything to eat for themselves so that their children can eat. This is in the context of food prices being now lower than they were (in real terms) in 1980 – in 2000 they were about 30% of the 1980 cost, but in the last decade have risen to about 60% of the 1980 cost. So cheaper than it was 30 years ago, but doubled in cost in the last 10 years.

Years ago, I went through a few years of unemployment, skirting around the fringes of homelessness and really struggled to keep myself going. It was a focus on food that kept me going. Every week I would plan out what food I could afford to buy having tracked down the cheapest produce I could find. I would plan out every meal in advance, and only then could I see what else I could afford to do (like save up for shoes etc). At one point, in a bedsit with a sink and a single hob, no fridge etc I would get some cheap (ie just about out of date) veg, cook up a stew or pasta sauce in a big pan I borrowed, and eat that cold for the rest of the week. It being Glasgow in the winter, the cold of the room kept the food fresh enough. I thought I understood a lot from that time about the difficulties that people face now but, in common with I think a lot of people, I have perhaps been misguided in my judgement of people going through that now, and in particular about the choices of the type of food that people buy.

Recently, I read an excellent blog post Food For Thought which really pulled me up sharp, and made me confront the real distance between me now and the me in that bedsit in Glasgow, but more to the point, the distance between me in that bedsit in Glasgow, and the realities of life for many other people in similar situations. I had lazily assumed that my own experiences and coping strategies could be extrapolated to cover everyone else, in all circumstances. What an idiot! What arrogance!

Dietary issues are a major problem in the UK. 22% of the UK are now obese. Obesity levels show correlation with poverty. But it is not just poverty, there is a societal trend that makes things worse for the UK than elsewhere in the EU. Britain’s ‘slimmest’ region, the South East, has 18% obesity levels, compared to Sweden’s ‘fattest’ region only having 16% obesity. The EU average is 14%. Shockingly, the figures are even worse for children (25% of boys and 33% of girls between 2 and 19yrs). Figures in my hometown of Brighton show that 10% of children are obese by the time they start school, up to 17% by year 6. The same report also highlights that “Obesity prevalence is higher in more deprived areas and has been increasing at a faster rate so widening health inequalities”. The cost of Obesity to the NHS is estimated to be £5.1 billion. Obesity is only one of the areas of concern related to poor diet.

It’s easy – lazily easy – to look at people’s widening waistlines and say ‘Tsk, you bring it on yourself’ but the reality is, as spelled out in that excellent Food For Thought blog post, that choices are not always there, and that even if they are, it is unjustifiable to judge people for the choices they make. So where is the blame? I don’t know if I’ve got room to answer it all here, but two things spring to mind straightaway.

First of all, the cost of food is such that people are often ‘forced’ to choose the low grade processed food, bulked out with cheap ingredients (fat, sugar and water) so of lower nutritional value. You can’t blame people for choosing the only thing that it is possible to buy. The problem though isn’t the cost of food per se, but the cost of food relative to the income that people have. I’ve written before about externalisation whereby businesses farm out their costs onto society, to make their product cheaper thus transferring public money into private hands. Low wages are a common way of doing this – pay staff badly, any deficit in ability to pay their way from their wages can be picked up by Housing Benefit, Tax Credits or other state support. In this case, the cost of low income results in additional costs to people’s health, and in turn to the NHS budget (that £5.1 billion I mentioned before for example). Low wages also contribute to the problem by compelling many people to take on extra work, thus reducing the time they might otherwise have had to plan for a better diet if that was their wish. We can’t overlook what the government is doing with the benefits system at the moment either. Through their ruthless austerity programme more and more people are being forced into ever worsening levels of poverty, and in the typically short sighted way of government, the long term costs of that are disregarded in the interests of being able to offer some positive headlines in the short term. Bizarrely, the government finds ways of externalising it’s costs onto … itself!

Secondly, government policy on food and access to food needs to be looked at. This is where I’m going to have to trim things down a bit, and maybe come back to it in a future blog. However, in essence, the issue is one of whether or not the government is willing to regulate the food industry to ensure that certain standards of nutritional value apply. This is a minefield. If biscuits are available, you can’t stop someone eating 4 packets of biscuits a day. You can’t stop people making ‘bad’ choices, but it is possible to look at options for improvements in certain areas. Fat taxes have been talked about, to make certain foods more expensive, but would this work? Would it not just mean that what was once cheap and affordable for some people now puts even more food out of the reach of their meagre finances? As far as access to food is concerned, years of misplaced town planning have left many areas in ‘food deserts’ where there is no local outlet for making food purchases. This can be very distressing for people living in the area, and often harms already seriously disadvantaged groups even further, as in this story from Nottingham. Where there is no choice, people take what they can get, and that will frequently be processed food, damaging to their health, damaging to to society. Finally, even where there are shops, they work their hardest to push you towards the food choices that are ‘bad’ for you. Promotions, discounts, BOGOF‘s etc. are so often on the mass produced, easily stored and distributed foods rather than fresh foods and ingredients. The vested interests at every level of the food industry want you to choose what is worst for you.

It’s striking that the problems with dietary related health issues affect the poorest members of our society most, and that the problems of access to food and to the resources needed to be able to eat well are also worse for those in the most disadvantaged areas. Local government has picked up the reins from the national government for tackling Public Health concerns, but in this very crucial respect, no matter how much is invested in dealing with food and food-health related inequality, the real answers lie outside of the control local Public Health agencies. Until wage equalities are tackled, until food production and distribution is tackled, the food poor will continue to be food poor.

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