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15 April 2019updated 24 Jul 2021 3:10am

Poverty and the porridge myth

By Anoosh Chakelian

Over the weekend, thousands of Twitter users were debating the cost and nutritional value of porridge.

In response to a BBC report on Wales planning to provide free sanitary products in schools, a Welsh journalist had tweeted his opposition to the government plan:

“Can we please stop all this nonsense about people not being able to ‘afford’ to give their children breakfast or sanitary products? A bag of porridge to feed a family for a week costs £1. 3 packs of sanitary towels cost £1 in Home Bargains”.

This prompted nearly 5,000 replies. “Why do the poor not simply chow down on dry porridge till their periods stop when the scurvy kicks in?” asked one comedy writer. “Right but I’m not gonna menstruate into a bag of porridge am I,” added another.

The food writer and anti-poverty campaigner Jack Monroe also picked up on the tweet:

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“Unless you’ve had to stick a sock up your chuff Marcus, while living literally on nothing but porridge for days, you can shut your god damn property developing mouth. Tired of rich white men and their nonsense opinions (yes men, poverty disproportionately affects women).”

This is not just a minor Twitter spat: what could be labelled the “Porridge Myth” is at the heart of how some very influential people feel about poverty.

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The “let them eat porridge” suggestion is not a new one.

In 2014, the Tory peer Anne Jenkin had to apologise for saying “poor people don’t know how to cook”. During an interview about a cross-party report on hunger, she partially blamed food bank use on an inability to cook cheap, healthy food: “I had a large bowl of porridge today, which cost 4p. A large bowl of sugary cereals will cost you 25p.”

A year earlier, the Tory-turned-Change UK MP Anna Soubry – then public health minister – was accused of “blaming” the poor for obesity. She claimed that underprivileged families were likely to be overweight due to cheap junk food: “You can almost now tell somebody’s background by their weight”. Analysing her comments at the time, the Times’ then nutritionist criticised her generalisation, but pointed out that healthy foods like “porridge oats and baked beans were not costly”.

It’s easy to see why people make this argument. Porridge is a cheap and healthy way of feeling full and having energy, sure. And perhaps it’s a comfort to feel, while living in the fifth richest country in the world, that people around you are only going hungry because they’ve got a bit lost in the cereal aisle, or haven’t worked out how to cook some oats. That somehow it’s their fault, and all they need to do is change their behaviour or diet or budgeting to make poverty disappear.

But as that very report that Baroness Jenkin worked on five years ago concluded, hunger is a structural failing – not an issue of personal responsibility. It’s down to benefit freezes, sanctions and delays, stagnant wages, insecure contracts, inflation and the precarious day-to-day existence they bring that families go hungry. Not even a warm, hearty bowl of porridge could solve that.