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Let them eat day-old ciabatta.

Jamie Oliver (right).

CELEBRITY CHEF JAMIE Oliver, has stirred the spitting pot of social indignation with his comments on poor people and bad diet:

Britain’s poorest families could save money and enjoy more nutritional meals by eating stale bread, Jamie Oliver has suggested.

The multi-millionaire chef said most low-income families do not know how to feed themselves properly and instead choose expensive options such as ready meals. Oliver, 38, who has an estimated fortune of £150m, said that he finds it “hard to talk about modern-day poverty.” 

So says the suitably appalled Independent. Telling poor folks to eat stale bread is as low as you can get, isn’t it? Especially when you’re a chubby-faced millionaire who’s made his fortune writing about grub.

Oliver says it’s his own experience that has prompted his remarks, reported in Radio Times:

I’ve spent a lot of time in poor communities, and I find it quite hard to talk about modern-day poverty. You might remember that scene in Ministry of Food, with the mum and the kid eating chips and cheese out of Styrofoam containers, and behind them is a massive fucking TV. It just didn’t weigh up.

Charity bosses took umbrage, since they see it as their job to talk about the poor (and where would they be without them?). Bien pensant journos, who assume a duty of care for the disadvantaged, lent their boots for the kicking, quoting Orwell or digging deep into their own painful memories of poverty: “If only he could travel back in time and advise the homeless me of 2009” moaned Alex Andreou, lamenting the days when he had only a microwave for company.

Whatever his experience of being among poor people and whatever good intentions behind his comments, Oliver has made the big mistake of talking about an Official Victim Group (The Poor) without following the script. Firstly, he has not absolved them of all responsibility for their bad diet and secondly, he has not blamed the officially mandated culprits. Thus he omits to criticise food manufacturers for stuffing ready meals with salt, sugar and other addictive substances. He doesn’t pin the blame on the corrosive effects of capitalism, consumerism, the evil Tories, or whatever bogeyman fits the bill. And he doesn’t blame the rich for eating posh food. Or for being rich.

He has, however, put his finger on one undeniable truth, which is that a large number of people no longer know how to cook. It’s a complex situation that involves the rise of convenience foods, changes in work patterns, as well as the decline of local shops and markets. In addition we have experts on one hand saying the poor are suffering an obesity epidemic because food is too cheap, and experts on the other hand claiming poor people are going hungry because food is too expensive. Take your pick as to which you’d prefer to believe.

I KNOW WHAT I think. Statistics show that food and drink account for a smaller percentage of expenditure than 50 years ago (15 per cent in 2008, 33 per cent in 1958) — and that’s because food is cheaper than it was (and would be cheaper if it weren’t for the EU). Even when you’re at the bottom of the economic heap those proportions will remain similar. That’s no consolation when you’re strapped for cash, of course, and having a “massive fucking TV” may help you pass the time with some pleasure (provided you didn’t make your kids go hungry to pay for it).

I certainly have no answers to this. Neither does anyone else, especially the experts. The danger is that the “something must be done” brigade and the experts will convince the politicians that they must solve the problem. That way madness, complexity, unintended consequences and wasteful spending lie. And poor people will continue to starve. Or get fat.

Oliver’s difficulty in talking about modern-day poverty is easier for some to sympathise with than others. That’s where personal memories of cash-strappedness can prove useful in showing how relative poverty really is. In the last place I grew up in with my parents (early 1970s) we frequently had no money left at the end of the week. We had a Baby Belling cooker and no fridge. We did, I have to admit, have a rather big television. The only problem was that, apart from the radio, it didn’t work. If I wanted to watch anything I had to go to a friend’s house. Now that was real poverty.

Michael Blackburn.

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