Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Jamie, food politics and Broadway Market

Don't smack the messenger
            While I away in August, a storm was thrown up in a tea cup after comments made by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.

Now I wasn’t going to sit on a beach and try to respond, but a wander up Broadway Market this morning inspired me to do so.

First – briefly – to the comments that caused an outpouring of ire and calls for boycotts etc of the chef in question. Would that the same people would call for a boycott of Tesco and the like – it would have far more actual meaning.

Of course Oliver isn’t going to ‘understand’ poverty: he hasn’t experienced it. But that is not, believe it or not, actually a fault.

I suspect, as only a slight aside, that he suffers from a rather widespread British attitude of decrying those who are successful by dint of actual talent – an attitude that really needs to be chucked right out of the window.

He made some crass comments – don’t we all – and was crucified for them. On flat-screen tellies, for instance, well try getting one today that isn’t a flat screen, Jamie. And nor are they particularly expensive.

Still, he makes an easy target, even though his heart, as they say, is in the right place.

Those screaming the loudest probably forgot his restaurant scheme to give apprenticeships to young people from underprivileged backgrounds – something that gives them the chance of a good career.

And then there his efforts to start cooking classes in Leeds market for a very small cost – an attempt to make knowledge and skills more accessible. And, of course, his championing of school dinners. He wasn’t alone in the latter, but his very celebrity made a big difference.

He did, however, raise important issues and these need looking at in a rational manner, as Joanna Blythman did here.

In the UK, we have long spent less as a percentage of household income on feeding ourselves than any other country in western Europe. That has decreased further in the last few years.

We have a problem with obesity. We have a problem with malnutrition, including but not limited to elderly patients entering hospital. Rickets has cropped up again, in part because of over-use of very strong sunscreen lotion.

But rickets – for fuck's sake, rickets: in the 21st century, in one of the richest nations on Earth. If that doesn’t indicate a problem, it’s difficult to know what does.

We have foodbanks on the rise and we have Save the Children having to spend money in this country for the first time since it started up.

All these are connected.

They are connected by some very simple facts: that income has gone down for the majority in the last 30 years, while the cost of living has risen massively.

As a debt counsellor that I interviewed late last year stressed, many of the people seeking help are not spending on ‘fripperies’ – whatever the likes of Michael Gove may wish to pretend. They are having to make real choices between food and something else – often fuel.

The welfare wing of the trade union UNISON has seen massive rises in members – in other words, working people – seeking help for debt counselling, for the cost of school uniforms and for help with heating bills and food.

These are working people, remember. People who get up and go out and do a job that is often menial and tough, but frequently undervalued.

According to a tweet from @BBCFood yesterday, food prices have risen 12.6% above inflation in the last six years alone.

The official inflation figures are part of the problem, as they selectively pick only certain aspects of the cost of living. They do not, for instance, include the cost of keeping a roof over your head or the cost of heating and lighting your home, or of the cost of water or of travel to and from work.

When a one-bed flat in Hackney costs £250,000, that should indicate the scale of the problem.

That was the price in a new development of 72 flats, in a trendifying but hardly spectacular area, approximately five years ago. Half the flats had to be ‘affordable’ and were therefore half that figure for ‘key workers’ – so £125,000 if you qualified.

On the old-fashioned understanding that a mortgage should be no more than three times annual household income, that still means a household income was required of £41,666 – which is well above what most UK workers earn.

According to payscale.com, the median salary for an office administrator is just over £16,200. For a PA, just over £24k. For a software engineer, £32,314.

In November of 2012, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) reported that the average UK income for a full-time worker was £26,500. That was a rise of 1.4% in the year to April 2012.

However, inflation over that same period had been 3.5%. Indeed, the ONS went on to state that inflation had outstripped income rises for the past 12 years.

So while pay has pretty much stagnated for all but a few at the top end, the cost of living has risen massively.

And that is at the heart of the problem.

Add in moves from government to further casualise the workforce and you have everything magnified.

It’s now appreciated that a major reason that unemployment has not risen in the way that many economists expected it to since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008, is because of an increase in underemployment, where people have work, so do not count on unemployment figures, even if that work is only for a few hours a week and vastly lower than what they want and need.

The government has, with the acquiescence of the bulk of the mainstream news media, set about demonising anyone on benefits (well, apart from pensioners, although suggestions have been touted of them having to ‘work’ for their state pension) and portraying benefits as a whole as one of the biggest problems that the country faces.

Even though secretary of state for work and pensions Iain Duncan Smith has been caught out being creative with his figures for those he claims are sucking the country dry by living a high life at the taxpayers’ expense (he himself doesn’t count, obviously), many people remain convinced by the views that have been put about.

The facts, though, portray a rather different picture – not least in that the biggest total paid out in benefits is not dole for the feckless, but pensions. And vast swathes of the rest of the benefit bill is paid to people who are in work – and much of that not is paid as housing benefit.

Given the cost of housing, which has risen massively since councils were ordered to sell off council houses cheaply and stop building any more, the state now has to help people simply to keep a roof over their heads.

Further, the bill has risen because, with so little social housing available, it is frequently being paid to private landlords who are charging far, far higher rents than social landlords would.

In response to all this, it’s perhaps hardly surprising that there are even moves to demonise the low paid.

You can hear, quite often, the view expounded that the low-paid only have themselves to blame. If they wanted, so the ‘argument’ goes, they could simply aspire their way into better-paid jobs. It’s a whole new take on the old Victorian belief that poverty was a sign of sinfulness.

It does, of course, ignores at least two points: first, that there are less jobs out there than there are people seeking work and second, that there are very few jobs out there that are provided as an act of charity, and that workers, whether low paid or not, are doing jobs that need doing.

It’s become especially the case with those working in the public services, where the entire ethos of public service has been damned and those providing services attacked as doing ‘non-jobs’.

Well indeed. My bins don’t need emptying; the roads don’t need sweeping; the hospitals and schools don’t need staffing and the streets don’t need policing. And all the people who do these jobs are really only charity cases who wouldn’t find work in the ‘real world’ of the private sector.

Even though, err, they’re increasingly employed by, err, the private sector.

And there has been a complete forgetting of that hackneyed idea that, for a fair day’s work, one might reasonably expect a fair day’s pay.

Attacks on trade unions over the same period of 30 years (no coincidence here) have also had a negative effect on incomes. Trade unions might not, on occasion, have helped themselves, but they have also been on the receiving end of that same mainstream news media, which has reported on them in an unfair manner for purely ideological reasons.

It remains a fact that trade union members tend to have higher incomes than people who are outside unions. No wonder they’re demonised.

The impact of all this is not just felt by those at the bottom of the pile or near it. The impact is felt by everyone in society.

In The Spirit Level, Professor Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett showed that, however counterintuitive it might seem, countries with the widest income gaps have worse results on health, on education, on crime – and many more outcomes. When the gap is smaller, the outcomes – for all in society – are better.

Nobody has been able to concretely refute their findings, yet while politicians cite them, they also plough on regardless, whether through ideological commitment or fear, kowtowing to the demands of big business and big finance, and paying little or no heed to the citizens who make up the electorate.

And here we come back to food.

It is little wonder, given all the above, that many people find themselves unable to afford a decent diet. After all, it’s difficult to cut and then cut again your fuel needs. Or your water needs. Food is not easy to cut, but is easier than those others – if you ignore quality.

The supermarkets play on and profit from this. It doesn’t matter what you feed the plebs, the routine seems to go, as long as you feed them as cheaply as you can – while still making a profit, of course. The horse meat scandal from earlier this year illustrated exactly how the system works.

But the problem is not just one of pay and its relation to the cost of living, although that is a substantial part of it.

Broadway Market, as I’ve said before – including in this interview with the most long-term trader on it – died a death many years ago.

It did so, in essence, because a generation decided, in effect, that it would abandon local, independent shops, and get everything from the big-box supermarket. And because it decided too, that convenience was key and that cost had to be as low as possible.

This is not just about those at the bottom end of the income scale. It's the middle classes, the white-collar workers too.

My mother, for instance, now in her 80s, buys a good deal of ready meals. But since she buys these from M&S, she has convinced herself both that she doesn’t get them from a supermarket and that they are of a quality that is equal to anything that could be cooked from fresh ingredients.

She tells me occasionally, by way of attempting to justify herself, that I won’t want to do much cooking when I'm her age. Given that she has never really liked cooking, and I do, and given that she has long had negative attitudes about any link between food and pleasure that was ‘too great’, and I have no such issues, I suspect (and dearly hope and believe) that she’s wrong.

I also know of a situation (not apocryphal) where a family with the adults in white-collar jobs decided that they had considered that time spent cooking could be far better spent in front of the telly, and that they would feed their child on finger food – take-aways and pizzas cooked in the microwave.

At seven, the child in question could still barely use cutlery.

These are just two anecdotes, but they are an indicator of the scale of the issue.

My parents probably aren’t doing too badly in terms of nutrition. But then again, while they’re far from rich, they don’t have to fret too much about the shopping bill. Many people do. And when the likes of Iceland and Tesco can offer processed food that’s as cheap as chips (so to speak), it’s not difficult to see why they make that choice.

Broadway Market has revived. When I moved into the area, 18 years ago, it was 3/4 dead. When the market started, some people complained – as though not dead was somehow worse than 3/4 dead.

But they also complained at the cost. The ‘£3.50 loaf of bread’ became a symbol of what was happening.

Now I drink and I smoke, and I am not going to start pompously declaring that The Poor should not. Unlike Jamie, I’ve been there and done that, but don’t have the t-shirt simply because all I could afford in those days was so cheap that it faded and went out of shape after a couple of washes.

The poor always end up paying more for things, simply because they cannot go out and buy quality and because they cannot afford to buy decently without gaining credit first. The same even applies to services such as ATMs and utility bills and metering.

But there is also something wrong when someone complains about that loaf of bread – at the same time as drinking one of three pints of Guinness, and smoking.

At a very simple level, why should something that will last most people at least a day cost less than the price of three pints, which won’t? And that’s without considering that the product in question is of a far, far better quality than any loaf that is available, pre-mixed but baked on the premises, at the street’s chain bakery?

Nobody is forced to buy that £3.50 loaf – not least because the £1.85 wholemeal loaf that never really goes off is just as available as it was before the market started up, at the same chain bakery that was there before and is still there.

Our expectations of food prices are skewed by an unhealthy attitude toward it: by a belief that it’s only fuel and that we don’t want to invest time, let alone money, in it.

In such a circumstance, complaining about the cost of food becomes at least as problematic as the relationship between pay and the cost of living.

As I’ve illustrated in the past, ready-made meals are not cheap – contrary to popular belief. I’ve shown, in basic experiments recorded on this blog, that you can often make at least the same, from fresh, quality ingredients, for either the same money or little more.

I’ve illustrated, for instance, that 100% venison burgers from Broadway Market, served with chips and peas, are cheaper than a McDonalds meal – a meal that even many on low incomes will regard as an affordable treat.

In opting for the supermarkets, we have, culturally, abandoned and largely lost the knowledge and skills that saw our grandparents know how to cook a cheap cut of meat for a big family.

Supermarkets concentrate on selling prime cuts. They don’t sell cheap cuts for a reason. They barely even bother to sell offal – but equally, how many people go: ‘offal? Urgh, I don’t eat that’? It’s nutritious, it’s tasty – and for goodness sake, it’s cheap!

There are very real and major issues that are affecting millions in terms of the cost of living and incomes. But they are not the whole of the problem and it is frankly patronising to those on low incomes to pretend that they are, and that everything that is wrong can be righted by a rant at a successful celebrity chef.

I’m personally all in favour of keeping the state out of as much as possible. But as the horse meat scandal showed, as the banking crisis showed and as the ongoing behaviour of the bulk of the mainstay news media shows, regulation is crucial for the benefit of the majority of us.

Government needs to remember its responsibilities to all the population and to put the interests of the majority at the top of the agenda – not those of multi and trans-national corporations that have no loyalty to any nation and any group of people other than their shareholders.

A mixed economy needs businesses and it needs successful businesses. But it does not need the demands of just the biggest businesses being met at the expense of everyone else.

In the long term, most would agree that the UK’s economy needs rebalancing away from an over-reliance on retail and services. In the shorter term, we need to restore consumer confidence.

And we need to get people into work, in jobs that pay a decent, living wage, which then allows them to be self-reliant and to contribute to their own local economies, thus boosting further employment and the national economy as a whole. This is infinitely more sensible than trying to return to the disaster of running a national economy on cheap credit.

A low-wage, casualised economy may be good for some of the biggest businesses, but it is not good for the country as a whole; for the national economy as a whole.

And it is not good for the nation’s diet, which itself can cause increased costs to the taxpayer as bad nutrition takes its toll.

But that cannot be seen in isolation: we also have to stop seeing food simply as fuel; we need to learn again to cook and, wherever possible, support local shops that will also then serve us better in return: a small business cannot afford to easily screw its customers – it’s that simple an equation.

We also need to seriously start looking at sustainability, both of food and of jobs.

For those on the lowest incomes, we need to stop pretending that they shouldn’t even have a television or a phone: try living without the latter especially, given how many zero-hours employers, for instance, insist that you’re at their beck and call, 24/7. Try applying for jobs – or increasingly, benefits – without computer access.

The idea that it is feckless to possess such things, many of which are increasingly becoming basics within our culture, is not only ridiculous and devoid of an understanding of the realities of modern life, it also misses the point in spectacular fashion.

We need better wages for the majority and we need to deal with the cost of living. We could approach the latter by a serious building programme of social housing, which will then help the former by employing many thousands at decent pay for the work they’re doing.

Personally, I’d suggest renationalising all utilities, and seeing them run for the benefit of the country as a whole and not just a few shareholders.

After WWII, the UK borrowed in order to invest – and produced the prosperity of the 1950s and beyond. At present, interest rates are so low that this is exactly the time to do so again to help get the country back on its feet.

The current government has, after all its austerity, merely made the deficit worse than when it took office.

Broadway Market is a revaluation compared to what it was just a decade ago. But the tragedy with what passes for the food revival in the UK is that is almost exclusively a middle-class issue.

The revival has also brought with it new problems – not least in terms of vastly inflated property prices and rents.

Henry Tidiman has finally been able to sell up. Shortly after our interview, he fell ill. In the intervening months, friends have run the shop for a few hours, a few days a week. Finally, it has been bought – and will become another restaurant.

Broadway Market is about to lose its last butcher. Which is a tragedy. And it illustrates that we need planning regulations that do not work against diversity in a community, but help it. There’s a place for a butcher here – okay, not as it used to be, perhaps, but one that takes account of new markets and new attitudes and the changing local demographic.

Just as the street has revived – it has even got a fishmonger and a new (organic) greengrocer – we lose our butcher.

Henry deserves his retirement – he’s worked damned hard for it and I hope it’s a long and healthy one.

But this community deserves a butcher too. A real butcher. Not just a once-a-week market butcher, but one who can cater for the old-time residents as well as the new ones who are moving in.

Would it really be so difficult?

We have a wonderful food heritage in the UK. We have some wonderful foods. That should not be the sole domain of the well-to-do and the trendy.

But the reasons that this situation has occurred are manifold, and laziness and a lack of concern for food and a lack of concern for and awareness of our culture and basic economic realities are part of them. And it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. Or to concomitantly pretend that the solutions only lie with government and regulation, just as it would be foolish to pretend that the solutions are only to do with personal, individual behaviour.

The solutions lie with government – and with each and every one of us, and with every basket of shopping that we buy. And with every meal that we cook.

And in the meantime, let's stop getting bloody distracted by a few crass comments from a man whose heart is, as I said earlier, ultimately in the right place.

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