Whenever the economy is tanking and food-bank use is in the spotlight in Britain, there’s always a right-wing politician who suggests the hungry citizen is to blame. The crux of the argument is usually something to do with the cheapness of porridge, or how home-cooked healthy meals from fresh produce are better value than junk food, actually.
During the post-crash austerity years, the Tory peer Anne Jenkin had to apologise for saying “poor people don’t know how to cook”. In 2014 she partially blamed an inability to cook cheap, healthy food for a rise in use of food banks. “I had a large bowl of porridge today, which cost 4p,” she said. “A large bowl of sugary cereals will cost you 25p.”
A year earlier Anna Soubry, a public health minister at the time, was accused of blaming the poor for obesity when she claimed that underprivileged families were more likely to eat unhealthily. “You can almost now tell somebody’s background by their weight,” she said.
In July 2020, the first year of the pandemic, amid debates over free school meals in the holidays as children faced going hungry, former Brexit Party-turned-Conservative MEP Annunziata Rees-Mogg tweeted “Tesco 1kg potatoes = 83p, 950g own brand chips = £1.35”, as a riposte to people buying ready meals.
Later that year, a Twitter user describing himself as a former army major, Dominic Farrell — followed by a number of politicians, including Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith — tweeted a photo of an omelette, boasting that it only cost 30p a head to feed his sons breakfast: “3 eggs = 42p, 2 tomatoes = 20p, Cheese = 30p, Total cost = 92p. Fed my boys for breakfast.” (This was retweeted by the former Ukip MEP Roger Helmer and liked by the Conservative Staffordshire councillor Joe Porter.)
Farrell added: “Aldi wheat bisks (like Weetabix) are 3.9p per biscuit! So my breakfast was expensive!” And another culinary tip: “Pasta at Aldi 29p. Sauce 39p. Family meal = 68p! 17p a head family of 4. Play around with the sauce: Garlic, chilli, cost negligible.” Soon afterwards the hashtag #ToryFoodTips mocking such miserable recipes and patronising instructions began to trend.
Like clockwork, in our new age of price rises, it’s happened again. Lee Anderson, the Tory MP for Ashfield, has blamed food poverty on poor cooking skills while speaking in the House of Commons: “There’s not this massive use for food banks in this country. We’ve got generation after generation who cannot cook properly, they can’t cook a meal from scratch, they cannot budget.”
I imagine the same cycle will repeat: outrage from the left, sheepish ministers trying to sound more compassionate, people carrying on going hungry.
But let’s take Anderson’s comments in good faith. Imagine food-bank use isn’t down to benefit cuts, freezes, delays and sanctions, or in-work poverty — nor to sudden shocks to life circumstances such as redundancy and illness, or wage stagnation and spiralling bills. Imagine, in this libertarian utopia, that food-bank use has risen 14 per cent in two years simply because the number of people who just don’t know how to cook or budget properly has randomly jumped by that proportion… Well, still, whose fault is that then?
The National Food Strategy, commissioned by the government itself and substantial chunks of which were dismissed by Boris Johnson hours after publication, lists all the ways food education is failing in schools. It points out that in 2016 the government axed the food and nutrition A-level, that it doesn’t pay for the ingredients children use in cooking lessons (like it does for textbooks), that food classes are missing from nursery and reception curriculums and that Ofsted does not inspect cookery and nutrition lessons.
“Food tech remains a second-class subject — a fun but frivolous distraction from the real business of learning,” the report concludes. “It is time to take food education seriously.” And there are even fewer money management skills built into our education system.
Ministers are supposed to publish their response to the strategy’s recommendations this month, but insiders are sceptical about its place in government priorities: its author, Henry Dimbleby, has warned that it could end up pushed back until the end of the year.
Conservatives may argue that kitchen skills are a matter of personal responsibility rather than a school’s job, of course. But given the Tories have proved themselves so interventionist that they are literally dictating to people which own-brand products to buy, a laissez-faire approach to teaching basic recipes and money-saving tips makes little sense. Economically, too, such an approach is illogical: people would be in a much better position to contribute to Boris Johnson’s dream of economic growth if they weren’t, y’know, hungry all the time.
So when politicians such as Anderson make these arguments, they inadvertently expose their own shortcomings — and end up with (a 14p) egg on their face.