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Opinion: 'Poor people can't cook' remark caused outrage – but consider the facts behind the headlines

Is a quick and cheap story about a rich woman talking down to poor people easier to stomach than the truth?

Image: Shutterstock/Warren Goldswain

WE LIVE IN an age of extreme political correctness, where outrage, can be manufactured to go along with just about any statement from a public figure. It’s a pity, because the wall of indignation that washes through our Facebook feeds and over the media every day drowns out the important outrages of our time and stifles meaningful debate on serious issues.

The form of what you say is more important than the substance of the argument you make. Enter, this week, Baroness Anne Jenkin; a Tory peer and former PR consultant who really should know better. The rich toff stood up to talk about a report on food poverty, and said that “poor people don’t know how to cook”. Cue predictable outpourings of indignation and rage.

A member of the House of Lords for the Conservative Party talking this way about “the poor” is about as emblematic as it gets in the common narrative of “the nasty party” and its approach to welfare. But if you take the time to look past the bold statement, much of the outrage would appear to come from a wilful misinterpretation of the message in favour of a quick and cheap story about a rich woman talking down to poor people.

Firstly, it’s important to note that hers is not an overly classist argument: she was not saying that poor people can’t cook, therefore middle income and rich people can. Jenkin was speaking specifically on the topic of a report into food poverty and the use of food banks in the UK.

One also has to note that sweeping statements or conclusions of research are never indicative of the behaviour of every individual. There are plenty of folks in the bottom decile of income earners who eat very well; and plenty of people in the top decile eating themselves to death.

Secondly however, and most importantly, the supposedly pejorative statement about poor people and cooking is backed by extensive public policy research. In both the UK and here in Ireland there is a clear link between income and obesity. Yes, middle and high income people are also putting on weight, and many of us are gearing up to fight the battle of the bulge come January. But across the entire population the poorer you are the more likely you are to put on more weight and develop the illnesses that come with it.

There are a variety of reasons for this. One that Baroness Jenkin was highlighting was the availability of cheap and unhealthy ready meals through food banks and in shops in general. It is the burden of our first world problems that we have plenty of food available to feed people, and starvation is extremely rare in the developed world; but much food is of detrimental quality to our health.

Even among home-cooked foods, we have a clear bias in developed countries towards high fat, high salt, high sugar preparations that are a fast route to heart disease, diabetes and rapid weight gain.

A number of studies have also shown that low-income communities tend to have greater availability of fast food restaurants that serve energy-dense, nutrient poor foods at relatively low prices. Is it elitist to point out that there are far fewer chippers, kebab shops and Chinese take-aways in places like Malahide and Dalkey than in the villages where I’m from in West Dublin?

As a society we are all fighting with obesity. It is a horrendously damaging affliction, leading to outcomes as bad as any from smoking or drinking. The ravages of obesity are not evenly spread, however, and it is the poorest who are most likely to have their lives cut short and quality of life curtailed by poor eating.

The government has attempted to address the problem mainly with public information campaigns through quangos like Safe Food, and by regulating food packaging and restaurant menus to mandate that clear nutritional information is provided. This is helpful and we have for example seen an improvement in the obesity situation among seven-year-olds between 2008 and today, according to research done in UCD. Among the poor, however, the situation is getting worse.

What are the solutions?

There are some suggestions that government should actively dissuade people from eating unhealthily by banning or taxing foods that are bad for us. This is the wrong approach, for several reasons.

Firstly, regulating food is as tricky as was regulating ‘legal highs’ in head shops: ban one thing, and a new formulation that does much the same will come along. This will increase costs for government and businesses and be unwieldy. The ultimate solution of banning head shops outright rather than individual things they sold probably won’t work for grocery stores.

Secondly, it is an overreach of government to punish all consumers for the choices of those suffering from obesity. A “fat tax” would be paid by one and all, fat or not, and represents an invasion into our lives that is not warranted, even for our own good.

Some people will point out that government is effectively picking up the bill for obesity, insofar as the public health system has to deal with it. Safe Food reckons that obesity is costing Ireland about €400 million a year. Therefore, maybe government should have a say in what you get to consume?

This is the pervasive side of the welfare state many people fail to consider: if government is paying for your mistakes, maybe government should get to tell you how to run your life so as to avoid making them? I’m not a big fan of that dystopian future, when Joan mandates what mobile phones we can have and Leo how often we can enjoy a Mars bar.

Government is best trying to influence people. Information campaigns are one thing, and I also find that clear information on packaging can have an impact. But so, too, government might take a more active approach to, for example, providing practical healthy eating courses to people who are at risk and availing of government services in health and welfare.

Educating children can be effective, but by and large they are not purchasing or cooking the food they eat. Giving adults a leaflet on how to cook better food is not nearly as effective as, for example, holding practical sessions. We have school home economics rooms across the country in which we could run cooking classes and also provide practical advice on shopping and stretching your money to buy good quality food. When you buy ingredients and cook them it is as cheap – or even cheaper – than unhealthy ready meals, if you shop and cook correctly.

If obesity is costing the health service and the country even a fraction of what is estimated by bodies like Safe Food, there is a clear return on investment to be had from utilising our existing infrastructure in schools to really drive home better eating campaigns. These courses could be free to those most at risk, and subsidised for others to encourage them to take some time out to learn how to, essentially, extend their lifespan and that of their children and loved ones.

Yes, that rich Tory toff put her foot in her mouth when she said “poor people can’t cook” but the evidence suggests that she wasn’t far wrong. Instead of being outraged at her words, perhaps we should be outraged at the notion that the generation in the ascendency today will have shorter, sicker lives than those of their parents and grandparents because of an entirely avoidable problem with unhealthy eating and lack of exercise. Maybe we need to do something about that.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

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