I expect Margaret Thatcher’s father, Alfred Roberts, would have been a frequent reader of The Grocer. Being one himself, he would have wanted to keep up with developments in his trade.
As a member of the food tech team that figured out how to whip additives and air into ice cream to make it more profitable, his daughter certainly sensed the way grocery was going: away from small-scale, relatively natural foods towards value-added processing in factories.
Thatcher presided over a major shift in the British mindset from thinking collectively about ‘us’ (the common good) to a focus on ‘me and mine’ (each looks after his own). We stopped seeing ourselves as citizens and became consumers.
Further back in our history, governments were comfortable about being dictatorial, instructing us to dig for victory, eat carrots and stew rabbit. Thatcher stopped free school milk for primary school children because she abhorred the Nanny State, which she saw as only a step away from communism. Her new gospel, enthusiastically embraced by an increasingly less regulated, rapidly globalising food industry, was consumer choice.
“Cheapness has become the most important criterion for food”
And look where that has got us. Cheapness has become the most important criterion for choosing food. Our kitchens are stuffed with complex technofood concoctions, plastered with ‘empowering’ information that most studiously ignore. We gobble it up and become fatter and less healthy by the day. Food crises like ‘Horsegate’ come along as surely as the Grand National.
Can’t we do better? We could, for instance, decide to do at least a proportion of our food shopping in small shops and markets, purely because we see the value of such outlets to our neighbourhood. We can ignore the imported lamb supermarkets want to flog us and select instead local British lamb, because that helps keep farming families on the land and stops our heritage breeds from dying out. We can choose to eat more organic food because it’s kinder to the environment.
It’s time for us to become citizens again, and go back to thinking about food in a rounded, common good way that isn’t dictated by the food industry’s single-minded pursuit of profit.
Joanna Blythman is a journalist and author of What to Eat