In the last few years a moral panic over food has taken hold in Britain. Working class people are given rubbish to eat. This can mean a lifetime of health problems such as diabetes, obesity and even early death. We are then blamed for these effects.
The government and the media have made food into a personal and moral issue. What we eat – we are told – is down to decisions made by individuals. So if we make the wrong choices, it’s our own fault and we deserve the consequences.
I thought celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s new series “Jamie’s Ministry of Food” would follow this pattern. The media coverage of the show certainly has encouraged voyeurism at the “feckless” young mums who feed their kids nothing but crisps, chocolate and kebabs.
But this is a fascinating series. By making it, Oliver has unexpectedly pushed the issue of class into the centre of the debate over what we eat.
The trigger for the series was the resistance shown in some areas of the country when healthier school dinners were introduced off the back of Oliver’s previous TV campaign.
This was personified by Julie Critchlow, who was filmed passing burgers through the fence to children at a school in Rotherham.
Oliver wants to understand where this attitude stems from. But more importantly he wants to re-engage people with food and cooking. So he has come up with the idea of “pass it on” – teaching people new recipes who can then spread the skills throughout their community.
This is an enormous challenge for one person, and in the process Jamie Oliver goes on his own voyage of discovery of working class life. We see the difficult circumstances of ordinary people’s lives – so rarely portrayed on TV – and the tremendous capacity people have for change.
What is clear from the first two programmes is that the so called “choices” people make are not ones that they are happy about. As the scheme progresses we see people transforming their own lives as they learn to cook and share their excitement with others.
There is a sense of pride and achievement about the creativity of the cooking process and the great tasting final results.
There is the miner who had never cooked before in his life, regarding it as “women’s work”. He now cooks for his family five times a week and discusses recipes down the pit with his workmates.
Natasha, a “doner kebab mum”, ends up not only cooking but growing her own vegetables out the back (unprompted by Jamie) and becoming a brilliant teacher within the group.
But can this experiment transform thousands of people’s lives? One woman had to drop out because she simply does not have time to pass on the recipes to other people. She gets back from work “physically and emotionally drained”. Others struggle to afford ingredients on their low incomes.
In his book Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser claims that what we eat has changed more in the last 40 years than in the previous 40,000. We are eating less fresh fruit and vegetables. Our diets increasingly consist of processed, nutritionally debased industrial food – high in fat, sugar, salt and chemicals.
Leading the way in these trends are Britain and the US, two of the most advanced capitalist economies.
Food today is big business. Driven forward by the hunt for profits, the fast food giants, supermarkets and the massive food processing companies that supply them operate on a global scale.
The supermarkets and fast food chains make millions of pounds from serving up unhealthy industrial processed food – and do everything to keep us eating it.
Ready meals are presented to us as the solution in our time-pressed lives of long working hours.
At a time of economic crisis, unhealthy food is cheaper. As a study recently quoted in the Guardian showed, “the cheapest way to get your 1,000 calories is to buy fats, processed starches and sugars”.
In such circumstances, is it possible to change our food culture? Jamie Oliver cuts a controversial figure. But what differentiates him is his understanding that you have to start with people themselves – get them involved and inspired in order to get the message out.
However, I think the programme shows that we have to challenge the structures of society and big business that limit so many of our choices – not just over food, but over so many aspects of our lives.
The strength of this series is that it gives a voice to ordinary people, who do want something better for themselves and their children.
It puts food “choices” in the context of real life under capitalism and gives a glimpse of the tremendous capacity people have to change a when they are part of something collective.
Jamie’s Ministry of Food is broadcast on Tuesdays at 9pm on Channel 4