Food is an economic weathervane. It’s associated with good times, sharing, celebrating. It’s also divisive. Some eat (well), others don’t. The rich have wider choices, the poor less.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Guardian just published a Breadline Britain report plus films on the nutrition pressures for people on low incomes. In households earning below £25k a year, food consumption has fallen 11% since 2007. They’re eating more high-fat and processed foods and 5-a-day consumption is dropping.
I’m not shocked. It’s what happens when wages drop and food prices rise. Thirty years ago, as Mrs Thatcher’s restructuring devastated Northern industry and jobs. I worked on a survey of food consumption among 1,000 low-income households in Manchester, Sheffield and Blyth Valley. People cut back on food.
I wish more people would read Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, written in the 1850s, and Seebohm Rowntree’s Poverty or How the Labourer Lives, of a century ago. These authors raised moral questions about how civilised Britain was. Or wasn’t. They studied working people, not the unemployed, then as now seen as ‘idle’.
” In homes earning below £25k, food consumption is down 11%”
Today the Living Wage Campaign walks that same path. Its goal is “for every worker in the country to earn enough to provide their family with the essentials of life”. It calculates the cost of living, and wages needed to meet that. In London £8.30 per hour is needed £7.20 elsewhere.
No soggy liberal thinking it’s actually a hard methodology pioneered in the late 19th century by the US nutritionist WO Atwater, who worked out food needs of labourers. It became the basis of US official government dietary, updated of course. The approach was brought to the UK by Seebohm Rowntree.
Defra’s Food Statistics 2012 assures us the poor can afford to eat adequately. This is the Defra now abolishing the Agricultural Wages Board, the Defra whose Horticultural Statistics show a ‘standard worker’ gets £6.77 an hour. Quietly, this country’s food divisions are widening.
Trouble brews. A food industry based on low wages and colluding policy-makers is edging towards a fault line.