Breaking the bank
Although it’s easy to overlook, says Tom Wheeler, there is no political force more fundamental than food
Longer-suffering readers of this column may recall that it started out – way back when we were all so young, pretty and innocent – with a particular focus on creative cooking. Then one day, in a shift so subtle as to be almost imperceptible, it morphed into the mad ramblings of a gnarled old leftie viewing the world around him with ever-increasing horror.
And since you didn’t ask, the reason I rarely write food-specific articles any more is pretty simple: as the world goes rapidly to shit, it doesn’t need me blithely discussing the textural benefits of a crispy garlic crumb on a fish fillet. (There’s a fair argument that the world doesn’t need my diatribes either, but they do at least feel more pertinent to the times.)
Yet there’s a fundamental connection between my interest in food and my previously mentioned gnarled old leftie status. I’ve talked a fair bit on these pages about the benefits that cooking has afforded me on an individual level.
On a daily basis, it’s given me the opportunity to create, to explore and to unwind, and just as importantly, to enjoy eating the results and sharing that pleasure with others. The net effect of all this on my physical and mental health, especially in recent times, has been of immense value to me.
However, the fact that I’m in a position to derive all these benefits from cooking is a reflection of one overriding factor: the extent of my privilege.
That last observation requires a bit of context. I don’t earn a lot of money or live in luxury. I’m unlikely ever to write one of those columns for the Telegraph explaining how you too could afford your own Georgian town house if you’d simply cut out those pricey takeaway coffees and request a modest 200 grand leg-up from your folks.
But equally, I haven’t yet had to choose between eating and heating, or panicked about where my next meal is coming from. In other words, I’m significantly luckier than the overwhelming majority of people who have ever lived.
Although it’s easy to overlook, what with watching megalomaniacs playing war games in the nuclear era, there is no political force more fundamental than food.
It predates any country, currency or anything else we might recognise as society. Those with the food to dole out, control those who have to queue up for it, and so it ever was; but the longer the queue, the greater the opportunity for disquiet to build within it.
That being the case, we find ourselves in interesting times to say the least. What is currently presented in bland terms as a ‘cost of living crisis’ is only just beginning to manifest itself, in the form of energy price rises more dramatic than many of us have ever seen and food prices that are heading that way. Those who already can’t afford to meet their most basic needs are everywhere; but the prevailing narrative has yet to change.
Through a combination of the information age, shameless populist leaders and complicit media, blame for poverty continues to be placed squarely – and often successfully – on the poor. Asylum seekers? Opportunistic bastards. Long-term unemployed? Lazy bastards. People who work full time, pay their taxes and still can’t pay their bills? Clueless bastards.
An MP argued recently in the House of Commons that food banks would hardly be needed if people would only learn some cooking and budgeting skills.
Now, I began writing this column around seven years ago, since when the number of people using Trussell Trust food banks in the UK has doubled to over 2 million per year. Which means either that a net total of a million people have forgotten how to cook and budget in the past seven years, which isn’t ideal in itself, or that he’s talking bollocks.
I can see why he would perceive it as a tempting narrative. Much easier, after all, to blame the victims of a broken system than to reflect for too long on the system itself. But the more victims you create, the harder you have to work to demonise them all.
As I scroll through publicity photos of politicians looking just that bit too pleased at visiting or opening food banks, I can’t help but suspect that there’s a concerted effort going on to normalise the concept: to praise, quite correctly, the selfless work of those who volunteer and donate, but to do so in order to paint the whole grim cycle as a virtuous one.
The idea that access to basic nutrition should be a function more of charity than of government makes me shudder. And the convoluted principle of individuals buying food in the supermarket, to be ferried to a food bank and dished out to those who prostrate themselves for it, is fundamentally regressive.
The alternative – a modest redistribution of wealth to allow everyone, as a bare minimum, to buy food and heat their homes – has fallen out of fashion. I think we used to call it a welfare state.
There might be something to be said for it still...
I’m significantly luckier than the overwhelming majority of people who have ever lived. ■