food politics/ food poverty/ Great British Budget Menu/ Jack Monroe

Feature: Time to stop treating food poverty lightly

A foodbank parcel.
Foodbanks are growing in the UK (pic. Trussell Trust)

I had a bit of a wobble last week. Not the kind generated by a panna cotta as it slips out of a mould and onto a plate, either. This wobble was about whether I should be blogging about food at all.

The impetus for my potential about turn in terms of food writing was last Thursday’s BBC1 programme The Great British Budget Menu. Part of a season examining the impact of the financial “squeeze” endured by many people in Britain as a result of the financial crash and government austerity, the premise of the programme was food poverty – but with a twist. As the title suggests, it borrowed elements from the popular Great British Menu series, but this time three “celebrity” chefs were dispatched to investigate how real people’s eating habits were impacted by their being on limited incomes. Having completed their investigations as to how practical (or otherwise) it is to eat nutritiously on a very restricted budget, said chefs then hosted a “budget banquet” – yes a banquet! – that saw them compete to cook the tastiest dish for assembled guests and judges, whilst spending just one pound per head.

Now, I am not criticising per se a programme that sets out to highlight food poverty, quite the reverse. Yet this was an hour long slot on prime-time TV that pretty much failed to effectively get behind the issues that result in so many people in the UK struggling to feed themselves adequately, and the urgent action that’s needed address this inequality.

Instead, we were greeted with a shot of chef James Martin motoring along in his top-of-the-range Audi to assess the dietary inadequacies of a pensioner on the breadline. There was some genuine discussion between chef Richard Corrigan and a family in the Midlands who only have £1.66 per person, per meal to feed each member, and chef Angela Hartnett and a single mother on minimum wage, whose skipping meals to ensure her daughter is adequately fed means she has lost three and a half stones in six months. But then we were treated to scenes that would be comedic – if the issue at hand wasn’t so serious – as each chef trawled round endless supermarket aisles trying, and failing, to shop for ingredients for a meal using the very tight budgets available to the people they had just met. It wasn’t a programme totally without empathy, but it could have been so much more incisive, as Jack Monroe – a women who blogs about how she tries to feed herself and her child healthily, but with minimum resources – so eloquently assesses.

Certainly the programme had a few, short “talking head” interviews with politicians from across the political spectrum, as well as the odd supermarket executive, but there was no real debate about the causes of, and real solutions to, food poverty. And a whole edition of Question Time should be dedicated to the debate as to why in 2013 nearly a fifth of the population of the world’s eighth richest country (in terms of GDP) finds itself battling food poverty. I think what angered me the most was when Prue Leith – chair of the panel judging the “budget banquet” dishes – announced that the programme proved that it is possible to cook well on “next to nothing”. Well yes Prue, I’m sure anything is possible with the support of professional catering facilities and a whole television production crew to throw at the challenge…

So, what was my “wobble” about, exactly? Well I have a passion about food – I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t. I’m currently what my Mother might describe as “comfortably off” – though that might change if I don’t find a new job before my current contract ends in September, but I digress. I don’t consider myself rich, but I’m someone who can put the odd treat in the trolley when doing a food shop, and who can also dine out at a nice restaurant now and again. I lap up the recipes and photos in food magazines, and am often tempted by the latest “must have” cook book.

I’m not alone in the behaviour outlined above, as many people share my interest in food and drink and, like me, quite a few write about it. Yet when living standards for many people in the UK – let alone elsewhere in the world – are so low (and still falling in real terms) that for them, eating properly becomes a real struggle which results in hundreds of thousands having to turn to food banks, is it justifiable to objectify and glamorise food? Are we right to elevate people who cook professionally (skilled though they be) into major media celebrities, and endlessly debate the merits of the” cro-nut”, whilst parents skip meals because they can’t afford to feed both themselves AND their children?

Maybe this isn’t the sort of post that would be expected from a typical food blog. But, to be honest, for me food and food blogging isn’t just about posh restaurants, soft focus photographs of cakes, and paying no heed as to where the food I am eating comes from. I believe we need a serious debate about the politics of food, in all its forms. That doesn’t mean food can’t be fun or enjoyable. But we simply cannot afford to ignore the increasing, often undesirable, issues that accompany nearly everything to do with what we eat, and how and why this gets to our plates. 

And what’s more, I think it’s high time that anyone choosing to write about food gives some thought about the role they can play in driving forward this long overdue debate…

If you would like to know if there is a food bank operating in your area visit the Trussell Trust website –

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    March 28, 2014 at 10:49 am

    I couldn't agree more we really need a proper grown up debate about food – where it comes from, the power the supermarkets have, the lack of cooking skils and budgeting skills taught to our kids in school and the fact that we have both an obesity crisis and more and more people relying on food banks – something has surely gone wrong!! :S

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