Dear Jamie Oliver…

by Miss South on August 27, 2013

(Update: After writing this piece, Miss South shopped for, and made Jamie Oliver’s much-debated meal with mussels. tomatoes, pasta and of course, mange tout. Was it possible to buy the individual ingredients, and did it cost just 60p? Find out here.)

So tell me why I should listen to you on ‘Money Saving Meals’ when it’s clear that you don’t really understand poverty in the UK? Do you have any special knowledge that the 9 million households who will migrate onto Universal Credit don’t have about the day in day out grind of making ends meet? And why do we have to put up with being derided and criticised yet again? We’ve got the Department of Work and Pensions and the coalition government for that usually…

In this piece, you skirt very close to blaming poor people for just not trying hard enough. Now, I think I’ve covered this before here and I have no great urge to rehash the points (although I’m poor and I do know that a hash makes an inexpensive meal at least), but I’m staggered by your lack of responsibility here Jamie.

One of the biggest reasons we can’t all live the life of a Sicilian peasant with our handful of mussels and darling little pasta dishes is that our shopping options have been decimated by the supermarkets which now account for about 90% of food shopping in the UK. This would include the supermarket chain that you advertised for 10 years. And the other five or six that stock your ready made pasta sauces and branded foods.

This is a situation where supermarkets have filled the breach where people no longer got taught Home Economics or cookery at school by telling them cooking was really really hard and that life would be more simple if they just bought this pre prepared item. They branded and bagged everything we ate and turned it to profit over anything more profound. And you encouraged it by slapping your face and your name on everything from grow bags to magazines because it made you money.

Yes, you set up the Ministry of Food and you’ve made a career out of telling people to eat at home and showing them recipes for meals involving one pepper at a time, but have you ever noticed until now that the supermarkets only sell them a lot of the time in packs of three? That’s too much for one person and not enough for four. Supermarket chains don’t just sell your books, they sell the ingredients you need to use them and both you and they have been making money out of it. And that money isn’t trickling back to our rural economy that produces the food nor to our urban one where people lack genuine shopping choice.

Sure you can scour the aisles for the things that are still cheap, but only if you go to a particular branch and only that branch. There are 16 Tesco and Sainsbury’s within 1 mile of my house, mainly Locals and Expresses and not a single one stocks a decent range of Basics or Everyday Value. You might get bottle of fizzy water from those ranges but you won’t get pulses or bags of flour. The fruit and vegetables are pre packed and portioned. Even the main branches pick their produce carefully. Until last week, Brixton didn’t have a big Sainsbury’s so you had to go to the well heeled areas of Clapham or Dulwich instead. Those stores aren’t aimed at low income shoppers at all.

You are right that the market is. But mine closes half day on a Wednesday and is for someone like me with a fatiguing illness a major event to visit as I walk round carrying bags and lifting and carrying. The shops are small and neither wheel chair or buggy accessible. You have your hands full and no trolley so how you keep toddlers under control and pay for the shopping with just two hands I don’t know. There’s no parking nearby and you have to jostle on and off buses carrying bags. Young able bodied people can do it, but older or disabled ones might not be able to.

And that’s the elephant in the room isn’t it Mister Oliver? You haven’t thought about why people are poor. It’s quite rare that people are poor long term just because they don’t earn enough money. Usually its because there are no jobs at all or because you’ve had employment gaps due to having kids, caring roles for other relatives, periods in prison or an illness or disability. Being sick or disabled makes you around twice as likely to live in poverty than your able bodied counterpart no matter if everything is the same.

3.3 million people in the UK are entitled to Disability Living Allowance. This is a non means tested benefit paid to people in work and out of work who have a long term illness or disability to pay for the extra costs of their condition. Some of those people (I believe around 400,000) only receive the mobility component which means according to the Daily Mail they get a free car. In fact they get to lease a Motability vehicle to use, making up for the fact public transport isn’t suitable for them to use. The other 2.9 million get the care component as well because they need help with their daily care levels.

In order to qualify for any of the three levels of DLA you must need help to prepare a main meal for yourself. The same goes for the two levels of Attendance Allowance, which is the equivalent benefit for the over 65s, and 1.6 million people claim it. So that’s by my maths 4.5 million people in the UK who struggle to make a main meal regularly due to health, let alone time or costs. Many of these people will have carers who tend to them often while holding down jobs, dealing with their own health issues and raising children and you know what? They might not feel like making a two course meal every night after struggling through the day.

And we can’t ignore them. We cannot continue to say that poor people don’t try hard enough and just ignore 4.5 million people in the UK like all currents discussions of food poverty seem to do. Everyone’s so keen to tell the story of those dreadful povvos we know who have a massive flat screen TV and eat chips at every meal. We also can’t ignore the fact that you can’t actually buy a cathrode ray telly anywhere anymore or the dirty little secret that poor people often have massive TVs because HP firms like the Provident and Brighthouse only offer the biggest ones, and most people no matter how deserving don’t want to sit in silence for the year it’d take to save up.

But Jamie, you’ve probably never had problem getting credit with your fixed abode, photo ID, two utility bills (tricky with a prepay meter) and parents who could guarantor for you, so you’re not well versed in pay by week options, credit cards with 45% interest and Wonga loans. Many people have no other way to get a telly. And before you suggest they buy a nice board game instead to enrich their minds, remember that people without tellies won’t be able to keep the ratings up for your shows and then you’ll have to flog lots more Flavour Shakers and classes at Recipease.

And that’s the thing, if the middle classes want to spend their money on your books and branded goods then you revel in it. You haven’t returned to Rotherham to see how the Ministry of Food is getting on 5 or 6 years later and make a TV show about the people who did learn to cook despite the hurdles and pass it on to someone. You’ve been busy flogging reinvented pizzas and opening city restaurants where the bread board alone costs a fiver.

Where’s that social conscience you made your name off? The one that changed lives in Fifteen or Kidbrooke schools where you harnessed the power and promise of food in people’s lives and made it a force for good rather than a pressure? Where’s the understanding that welfare ‘reform’ and the squeeze on wages, but rise on utility bills are making it hard for people to afford to cook a cheap cut of meat?

When did you last talk to a poor person? Someone like me who has done it day in day out for 13 years and never had more than £20 a week for groceries in their adult life? Or someone totally unlike me who doesn’t know how to cook or where to start? Or the person who can’t afford heat, light, council tax, bedroom tax and hot food without juggling so hard they’re exhausted? I suggest you need to start talking to us again Jamie, and this time instead of allowing us to be pithy parables of modern British life in your TV shows, you need to start listening.

Then you might understand that those 7 out of 10 families very often don’t have real choices. They simply make the best decisions from an underwhelming selection of poor options and they don’t deserve to be judged by you while they’re doing it. The fact that the family who eat chips and cheese you find so offensive probably can’t afford the £26 your new economical cookbook costs in hardback makes me feel that your current interest in thrift is actually a money making scheme for you. We all have to make a living Jamie, but if you’re going to be a hypocrite, at least be a self aware one. You’ve stopped trying to help the situation, but are simply inflaming it.*

*Although you are giving me ample opportunity to crack open one of those cans of Special Brew that are seemingly mandatory if you’re on benefits and play the fastest game of ‘poor person bingo‘ possible, so that’s nice. I’m tempted to replace the TV with that when the nights get long again.

Previous post:

Next post: