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Don’t sneer at poor people for eating junk food

One of my least favourite things about the world we live in today is the readiness of so many people – even relatively enlightened people – to bash the poor.

To denigrate people who live on benefits. To mock council house dwellers. To laugh and jeer at people on low incomes for having too many kids and giving them ‘common’ names. Or to sneer at poor people for eating junk food.

This article in the Guardian the other day was fair enough – explaining as it does that the less money you have, the more likely you are to eat a bad diet. To fill up on sugar and carbs rather than sitting down to a home cooked nutritionally correct feast of hand reared lamb and home grown organic asparagus.

One is cheap; the other not. One takes time and skill to cook (and a well equipped kitchen full of Sabatier Knives and Le Creuset pots); the other can be stuffed in your mouth on the bus or bunged in a microwave. Jamie Oliver and Nigella would both disagree, but they’re both multi-millionaires.

Obviously you can live cheaply and nutritiously on lentils, offal, cabbage and sawdust – as the usual demi-trolls that commented on The Guardian piece were quick to point out – but it takes time, education and skill to know how to do this.

It’s also easy to do this if you are a single person or don’t have kids. Kids just don’t want to eat like this. Kids want to eat crap and if you’re a tired, stressed out parent on benefits or a low income, what better way to stop the tantrums than whip out some sweets or a packet of crisps.

Of course it’s bad, of course it’s not healthy, but about 99.9 per cent of parents regularly silence stroppy kids with some junk.

If you’re poor and stressed and unsupported – maybe living in a tiny flat or temporary accommodation – you’re likely to do this much more frequently than a middle class, employed parent with a partner, a good education, a nice house and the time and skills to cook healthy nutritious food. If you feel good about yourself, you will have the confidence to say no to a child; not always true if you feel tired and unhappy. If you feel bad about yourself, the psychological boost you gain from seeing your child’s face light up when you buy the sweets means so much more to you than it would if you gain validation from your work or from other adults.

I guess what I’m asking for, is compassion towards people who don’t have much and some understanding why people may not make the best choices when they’re up against it.

I also dislike the way individuals are automatically blamed for poor choices as if they are operating in some kind of vacuum. People eat junk because supermarkets push it on to us – especially if you shop at the cheaper end of the market.

Yes, you can buy perfectly good wholesome food in Iceland – milk, eggs and bread are all good value. Fruit and veg are also cheap – although you won’t get quite the range you do in Waitrose or M&S (or even Sainsbury’s or Tesco). But when you walk into the shop (or any supermarket really) all the offers are on biscuits and cakes and other sugary, carby treats. Yes, M&S does good deals on meat – 3 for a tenner – and our local Co-op does great deals on fruit and vegetables, but the bulk of supermarket offers are not so nutritious. In addition to this, all the really bad stuff (chocolates, sweets etc) is always next to the till, often at the perfect height for a small child.

Then there’s the practice of plastering all the world’s worst foods with pictures of characters from children’s TV. Junk food advertising may have gone from the commercial breaks of kids’ telly, but who cares when sugary snacks with Thomas or Peppa Pig or Dora the Explorer are right up in your face in Morrisons or Tesco.

A middle class parent with time to spare can steer little Arthur or Mollie past the nasties – or better still buy all the food online from Ocado. A poor, stressed single parent on benefits does not have the luxury to do this; if you live hand to mouth, you tend to buy your food on a day to day basis to avoid waste. Especially if you live somewhere small and cramped and don’t have the space to store food.

I could go on about this for hours, as I feel quite passionately about this subject. You see I am a total food Nazi who avoids bad food like the plague – not counting a weakness for wine and crisps. I am like this because I have real choices. I am middle class. I have the education needed to get above a minimum wage job. I am not a single parent. I am not disabled. I have a decent place to live. I can afford to pay the bills. I am not depressed. I am not an addict. And many other things as well. It would be tempting for me to be smug and critical of people who eat badly and give their kids junk. Yes, in an ideal world, they’d behave differently. But we don’t live in an ideal world. Far from it.


  1. Syzygy says:

    And who replaced ‘cookery’ with ‘Food technology’? Who stripped out the school canteens? Who relies on the food industry to regulate itself?

    Thatcher has a great deal else to answer for, but these were certainly greater crimes than milk snatching.

  2. Chris says:

    “A middle class parent with time to spare can steer little Arthur or Mollie past the nasties – or better still buy all the food online from Ocado. A poor, stressed single parent on benefits does not have the luxury to do this; if you live hand to mouth, you tend to buy your food on a day to day basis to avoid waste.”

    Probably worth pointing out that most people fall somewhere in between those two social categories, but in general you are correct.

    Wine is not bad though, it’s good for the soul.

  3. I agree with almost everything except the idea that eating healthily on a low budget is easier for single people. Adding fresh vegetables, for example, costs an extra couple of pounds per meal pretty much regardless of how many people you’re cooking for. Fruit and vegetables become a luxury for families and for single people. The fact is that I can spend about £5 making myself a healthy meal or I can go down to Poundbakery and get two unhealthy an vegetable-less pasties for a pound.

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