The footballer Marcus Rashford volunteers at FareShare in Manchester

November 11, 2020   6 mins

Should the Government feed poor kids? Marcus Rashford thought so. Few will be unaware of the petition launched by the Manchester United and England footballer in favour of extending free school meals provision during the holidays. More than a million people signed it. The Government rejected the idea.

Until this weekend. At which point a screeching U-turn was performed — though this may have been lost amid the hubbub in America. Now, free school meals will be provided to eligible children during the Easter, summer and Christmas breaks next year.

The debate, as it raged over the past months, was partly philosophical: is it correct for the state to step in where parents have failed, either through neglect, poverty or sheer ill fortune? The Conservative MP Brendan Clarke-Smith, taking the argument for personal responsibility to its logical conclusion, provoked mirth by telling the Commons that he didn’t believe in “nationalising children”.

Another feature of the argument — and a frequent component of all such ideological wrangling — was the light it shone on what politicians and commentators would define as food poverty in contemporary Britain. Indeed, some of those opposed to Labour’s motion clamoured to demonstrate that it is possible to eat well on a shoestring and that food poverty is more often a consequence of irresponsible choices than genuine financial hardship.

When I was researching a book on low-wage Britain, I stumbled across an article in the Daily Mail about a woman who managed to survive on ÂŁ1 a day. “Frugal Kath Kelly, 51, ate at free buffets, shopped at church jumble sales and scrounged leftovers from grocery stores and restaurants,” ran the story. “She even collected a staggering ÂŁ117 in loose change dropped in the street.”

The story was written in admiring tones — Kath Kelly was presented as a sagacious and resourceful example to the poor. The underlying message was that the lower orders were feckless and stupid. Instead of sourcing and preparing healthy ingredients, they chose to plonk themselves in front of a television set and inhale pot noodles and multipacks of crisps.

There is a George Orwell quote that is trotted out during every debate about food, with Orwell arguing that poverty and unemployment lends itself to the desire for “tasty” food over dour offerings such as kale and brown bread. “The less money you have,” writes Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier, “the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food.”

But is it actually more expensive to eat well? And how much does it cost to eat nutritious food in Britain in 2020?

Nutritious ingredients such as lentils (£1, all Asda prices), potatoes (49p), chickpeas (33p) and half a dozen eggs (75p) certainly go further than salt and sugar-filled ready meals (£2) or a calorie-dense stuffed crust pizza (£3.50). The food blogger Jack Monroe has demonstrated conclusively that it is possible to make tasty and nutritious meals on a budget: her website showcases recipes for Cornish fish pie, mustard chicken, salmon and pea pasta — each meal costing less than £1.50 to prepare. But the cost of these meals per person is typically based on making enough for four to six people, which is not applicable to every family. They also don’t take account of the cost of electricity and gas, and the limited storage and cooking space that people may have access to.

Moreover, there are other impediments to eating well on a budget. A lack of education about culinary preparation is one commonly cited factor, though that has been mitigated in recent times by the emergence of budget-food celebrities and more generally by access to the internet. Though a strangely snobbish attitude toward frozen food lingers in Britain, with one in three believing it is inferior to fresh food. Bizarrely considering the popularity of frozen food in France, a nation viewed as infinitely superior to us in terms of diet, 30% of Brits agreed with the statement “frozen food is not for people like me” according to a 2015 survey.

A lack of education has become a catch-all explanation for many contemporary phenomena, from bad diets, to Brexit, to the election of Donald Trump in 2016. However, a 2013 study concluded that unhealthy diets seen in poorer socioeconomic groups may be related to different physical activity levels. For example, the study found that adults of lower socioeconomic status were more physically active and expended more energy than those of higher socioeconomic status, perhaps explaining their higher consumption of sugar- and fat-rich foods.

A critical factor in poor dietary choices in the UK is a lack of time. Britons work some of the longest hours in Europe and have some of the largest waistlines. A 2014 survey found that three-quarters of British workers said a bad day at the office was the main reason for bingeing on foods such as pizzas, burgers and curries.

Moreover, eating for many occurs “on the go” — as a thousand advertorial blandishments like to phrase it (although less so during the Covid-19 pandemic). The reality is somewhat less glamorous: the “buffet” car aboard most trains is a degradation of the act of eating; the typical offering is a choice of sweets, crisps, stodge, grease and other high calorie snacks. And while it may be relatively easy to source cheap ingredients from the supermarket, motorway service stations feature a “choice” that is usually limited to McDonald’s, KFC, or a cold and unappetising salad box. It’s hardly surprising so many choose the unhealthy option.

During my brief stint at working in an Amazon warehouse, my diet was appalling. Orwell’s point about the unemployed seeking out something “tasty” to ameliorate misery also applies to the working poor. I didn’t go home and cook up a hearty stew of lentils and pearl barley after a gruelling 10-hour shift: I collapsed on my bed with a McDonald’s and a beer. Most human beings would do the same under similar conditions.

For those on low wages or benefits, poverty is the thief of time. Being poor invariably consists of countless hours spent waiting around for public transport, bosses, landlords or public sector bureaucrats. And that’s before one adds up the additional time it takes to care for a family. Even if it can be done relatively cheaply, preparing a healthy meal invariably takes longer than putting a pizza in the oven.

There have often been moral panics about what the poor are spending money on and what they are eating. In Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, inmates in the workhouse receive “periodically small quantities of oatmeal” and are served “three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll on Sundays”. When Dickens was writing in the 1830s, the New Poor Law had recently been introduced with the intention of making life for those without work as miserable and as harsh as possible. Those is the workhouse were to be fed no better than the poorest labourer; by such methods men and women would be forced to accept the lowliest job they were offered.

We no longer dictate the food those on unemployment benefits must consume (though the argument that we ought to is a frequent saloon-bar trope). But a peculiar moral tone to our conversations about food persists. This is not confined to one political tribe. Nowadays liberals too are often heard laying down pious strictures as to what the poor should eat and drink. Sugar taxes have been introduced and junk food advertising is set to be banned before the 9pm watershed. Newspapers such as The Guardian have called for the government to go even further in terms of regulating what people eat.

Food taxes are not necessarily wrong per se — there is evidence to suggest that levies on fizzy drinks (which are empty calories after all) can encourage people to make healthier choices (what’s wrong with plain old water?). But financially penalising people for their dietary choices feels like the complacent and morally satisfying option. Perhaps it would be better to pay more attention to the material conditions that give rise to the use of junk food as an emotional palliative in the first place. Binge-eating is more often a response to external pressures than a signifier of innate moral deficiencies.

And, despite the good news this week about the Covid vaccine, things are going to get far harder over the winter before they get better. Ministers have also been warned that the weekly shop is likely to become more expensive in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

It would be too reductive to remove individual agency from the healthy eating equation altogether. Yet we should ask more penetrating questions as to why poorer families often have such gruesome diets — questions that go beyond Dickensian moralising about personal responsibility and “nationalising children”, but which simultaneously eschew the sanctimonious finger-wagging of the “nanny knows best” approach.

There are myriad reasons why Britons eat poorly. Addressing them will require a radical reappraisal of our work-life balance and a better understanding of the indignities that are a daily feature of life on the breadline. Changes wrought by the pandemic may inadvertently bring about the former. But is a Conservative government — against some of its deep-rooted ideological inclinations — ready to see life through the eyes of its poorest citizens? Never say never. But the fact it was forced into an embarrassing climbdown by a Premier League footballer over school meals for poor kids doesn’t bode well.

James Bloodworth is a journalist and author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, which was longlisted for the Orwell Prize 2019.