Some thoughts on low-income cooking, health, guilt, and the punishment of the poor.
Food has always been characterised with angst, guilt, and worry for me. As a teenager I was dangerously underweight and tried to remedy this by stuffing my face with processed food, fizzy drinks, cakes and chocolate, in the hope that I'd develop a body shape other than that of an etoilated ten year old. I mostly just passed out a lot after the sugar rush had plummeted away.
In my early twenties I was diagnosed with a chronic and incurable illness called endometriosis, which is characterised by pain and fatigue, and has had only a limited response to surgical and medical interventions. As a result, I work part-time in a pink-collar job that's so far tolerated my inconsistent good days and bad days, and I earn a little more than I did last year when I got by on housing benefit and three casual jobs. But food is still an issue.
A few years back, desperate to try anything that might help me manage my illness, I saw a nutritionist that specialised in my condition, who recommended up to 12 different supplements a day (at £75 a month, this was... unlikely), recommended I cut out gluten1, avoid all red meat, eat 6 portions of (preferably raw, fresh, organic) fruit and veg per day, and a whole load of other measures that I kept up with for a few months. I felt better, but this feeling of elated control over my body was short-lived. I worked shifts, and split my food shopping with my partner. And slowly but surely my neurotic meal planning slipped, the carrot sticks were replaced by chocolate bars, the milk was fatty and laden with bovine hormones, and I felt a creeping sense of guilt that I was making myself ill, that I had failed to do the only things I could do to try and keep my illness at bay.
As my circumstances changed and I found myself scraping by for weeks, months, probably forever, I got increasingly annoyed at the suggestions and advice offered to me by everyone from medical professionals to smug student hippies who implored me to stop using poverty as an excuse (there's bins to raid)2, to think about the ethics of my shopping habits (don't you know why that chicken only costs £2.50?!)3, that if I just shopped around/planned things better/cared about my health more/was more of a self-righteous hippy cunt I wouldn't be in this situation, I'd be healthy and full of the foresight required to pre-soak pulses and turn a tin of sardines into a main course and desert. The control I'd once felt from targeting my diet to alleviating my illness turned into yet another unlivable, unrealistic standard that just made me feel guilty and personally responsible for my ill health.
There's a general background noise of sneering judgement about the food choices of people on low incomes. Sometimes the snobbery and hatred towards the poor, the sick, and the fat spews right into the open, for example Westminster council proposing benefits cuts for the overweight who "refuse" to excercise4. Those of us whose bodies are supposedly a drain on the welfare state and the NHS are continually reminded that our predicaments are of our own making, and the organic-everything-you-are-what-you-eat brigade are just as quick to tell us if we'd only stop eating all that processed sugar we'd be a lot healthier, and that a good diet is perfectly possible on the dole. But try making £71 a week last over a month, a year, the next 20 years. Combine that with a disability, factor in all your other expenses, try replacing some cookware or fixing your freezer, and then talk about how easy it is. You might not bother instagramming your lunch once the novelty wears off.
Of course, food guilt and demonising the sick and obese is tied up in layers of class, race, and gender. Behold arch-feminist Caitlin Moran keeping the kids quiet during her hangover by feeding them quails eggs,5 compared with the predictable hand-wringing outrage should some unfortunate benefits claimant be seen buying her kids a happy meal6.Think of Gillian McKeith flushing the fatty, stinking, shameful shit out of some white-bread guzzling prole on prime time TV7, or Etonian small-holder Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall teaching single mothers the importance of buying organic. The fat acceptance movement has critiqued the narrative that fat people are unhealthy, undesirable, or somehow morally repugnant, and the fat acceptance movement in turn has been critiqued for being colour-blind and ignoring the racial and class dynamics of fatness. But whichever angle you look at it from, the neoliberal shit sandwhich of choice, personal responsibility, and the ability to eat your way out of poverty and illness is laden with moral judgements about the shopping habits of the poor.
In a climate where the working class, and benefits claimants and the sick and disabled in particular, are constantly dehumanised and painted as the architects of our own misfortune, food and health become another stick to beat us with. Food blogger Miss South has written eloquently on the snobbery of well-meaning foodies advising us how to eat on a "budget", and the frequency with which "someone will take the chance to opine on how poor people just need to try harder, be less lazy, just read the labels and realise you can buy a week’s veg for two quid if you’re a good enough member of society". And she's pretty much nailed it - the reality of juggling chronic illness and a low budget is difficult enough, without adding in helpings of guilt and individualistic ethical consumer bullshit, that helps no one and reinforces the idea that if only we knew what was good for us, we would find a way to avoid those battery eggs. Because it really is bullshit:
What you eat may have an impact on your dietary fibre, but it has bugger all to do with your moral fibre. It’s patronising and reductive to suggest otherwise and to focus on the actions of an individual, rather than those of the food industry, helps no one and hinders many, while causing massive divisions in society.
Title inspired by the wonderful Austerity Kitchen blog
- 1. she was right about this one, but that cuts out pretty much all cheap convenience food. Though you'll never take my frozen potato waffles
- 2. like that's a viable option for someone who can barely carry a shopping bag on a bad day
- 3. just fuck off with that, seriously
- 4. yes, the very same council who wanted to make it illegal to give food to homeless people a few years back
- 5. no, really http://www.mamamia.com.au/social/mia-freedman-interviews-caitlin-moran/
- 6. I'm not going to dig out a link, it's undignified
- 7. or, don't, that's fine