Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s characterisation of poor people eating “chips and cheese out of styrofoam containers” in front of “massive fucking TVs” doesn’t represent all poor people, working or otherwise. Inactivity and poor diet are indeed key drivers of obesity, but Oliver is just trotting out a lazy cliché of the undeserving poor.
Foods high in fat, salt and sugar are quite cheap and readily available in less wealthy areas. Fresh fruit and vegetable options are more limited, are in far fewer local retail outlets and are comparatively pricey. Admittedly, they also lack the convenience value, are not necessarily as pleasing, and readily go off.
Healthy, satisfying and affordable options are simply less available to many families for geographical as well as economic reasons and certainly don’t have the power of the food and advertising industry behind them. These foods and drinks (like the TV - which although expensive can also be bought very easily on heavily advertised credit) are often the only simple pleasures available.
In poor ethnic communities across Britain, where people traditionally tend to cook from fresh ingredients, there are many shops (at least in large urban areas) selling cheap fruit and vegetables laid out as old greengrocers used to do. But levels of both adult and childhood obesity are still high in these areas. How people cook things is also very much a factor. Recent data shows many celebrity chef meals - which included Oliver - are often quite high in fat, salt and sugar. They are just in more acceptable “middle-class” forms.
Of course diet is a matter of personal choice and parents do need to share the responsibility. But from looking at national data and the important public health work going on in Liverpool and the north-west, I’m not convinced the picture Oliver paints, as part of his promotion for his new TV programme Money Saving Meals, is truly representative of poor people.
Recommending stale bread or cooking like an Italian doesn’t tackle some of the issues and insecurities of being poor.
Choices are formed by lifelong learning and the environment in which it takes place. It’s a tall order to change behaviour and for behaviour change to last, the environment that it shapes must change too. By aligning himself with those keen to demonise the “undeserving poor” as Jeremy Kyle-style “chavs”, Oliver joins the ranks of the food and advertising industry keen to blame parents for obesity.
But it’s the food and drink industries that take every opportunity to bombard children with messages promoting health-threatening levels of fat, sugar and salt while supporting this “blame the victim” line.
We know victimisation doesn’t work in changing people’s behaviour (indeed the consequences are often counter-productive - making obese people more isolated and less likely to seek help) but it does grab headlines and ensures advertising sales, which is probably what Oliver was after in the first place.