In the middle of promoting his new television series millionaire television personality Jamie Oliver has gained a lot of publicity and caused controversy by expressing his frustration at the poor and their eating habits. He said: “I meet people who say, ‘You don’t understand what it’s like.’ I just want to hug them and teleport them to the Sicilian street cleaner who has 25 mussels, 10 cherry tomatoes, and a packet of spaghetti for 60 pence, and knocks out the most amazing pasta. You go to Italy or Spain and they eat well on not much money. We’ve missed out on that in Britain, somehow.”
This vision of the Mediterranean poor, making delicious soup, salads and desserts with left over bread and eating simple cheap fresh food is deeply engrained in the Anglo food fan’s mind. The desirability of cocina povera, authentic peasant food made by poor people who show great ingenuity with access to not very much but are able to create delicious meals out of three cheap ingredients has spawned a multi-million pound UK and US industry of “authentic” Spanish and Italian food books, TV programmes and chains of restaurants. They offer the food of the deserving poor, the ones who manage well on very little. They have very little but look how desirable their lifestyle is, the story goes, we middle classes want to be them, what has happened to our poor? Why can’t they be more like, say, the Spanish?
The poor are already being far more like the Spanish than we realise. In 2010 in the province of Barcelona, an area with a population of less than five million, more than 100,000 people were forced to use food banks for basics like rice, oil, tins of tomatoes, baby milk and other staples from one of three charitable food bank groups.
To get to the Spanish 2010 level of food bank use, we’d need to have three times more users than we have at the moment, at least one million more working poor would need to access food banks to make us more like Spain. Recent reports of an ever increasing in the use of food banks may enable us to get those extra million users.
Churches and civic centres have also opened “social dining rooms” to give people in their neighbourhoods the chance of a hot meal at lunchtime. People who can’t afford to heat food, or have had their electricity and gas cut off as they haven’t been able to pay their bills turn up between 12 and 2pm to eat the only hot meal they will get that day. In 2012 380,737 meals were served to 10,423 users in Barcelona, a city with a population of 3 million.
In my London neighbourhood of Walthamstow Frank Charles and Gary Nash set up Eat or Heat. As well as a food bank they try and draw attention to the plight of many in E17 who have to choose between heating themselves or their food in winter as they cannot afford the bill for both. Walthamstow also has a group running cooking classes, in a similar vein to ones run in Spain, to teach people how to cook simple cheap food using as little expensive electricity or gas as possible.
In 2011 a group of the best known chefs in Barcelona joined forces with a total of 48 restaurants to donate 50 cents of each tapa sold to a charity working with the newly poor in Barcelona. The project was headed up by El Bulli’s Ferran Adria and his brother Albert, with major names like Sergi Arola, Carme Ruscellada and Carles Gaig taking the front stage. They have also released a book of recipes with all the funds going to the same charities.
Chefs in Spain are far more revered by the general public than here in the UK. They are seen as figures of great cultural importance and their co-operation with both charities and organisations promoting healthy eating is well known. The united front presented by these famous chefs would be the equivalent of Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, Nigella Lawson and the Hairy Bikers being on the same platform, using their time free of charge to promote a project with the aim of raising funds for the increasing numbers of working poor in the UK.
There would be no TV series, book tie in, restaurant or cooking school promotion opportunity. Some of the above celebrities would even send some members of their team to quietly, without press attention, help at social kitchens or food banks or classes while being on the celeb’s payroll. They may even do it themselves. The help they gave to these charities would be ongoing, last far longer than their latest television series and be something that not very many people knew about outside of those directly working within the organisations. No chain of restaurants, magazines or expensive tomato plants would be sold on the back of the publicity that these “good works” would generate, as there would be next to none for any one individual.
The question, “why aren’t they more like the Spanish?” is something I regularly ask people in the UK. I just ask it about different people than Jamie.