Jamie Oliver, Plastic Food and Plastic Politics


Jamie on poverty: “I took her to a supermarket, I don’t why but I had to start it somewhere, so it started there. I said pretend you’ve got no money, but she just laughed and said, ha you’re so funny…”

Multi-millionaire Jamie Oliver feels qualified yet again to tell poor families what they are doing wrong.A poverty tourist as opposed to an actual experience and understanding of poverty.

Jamie isn’t judgemental, honest. But when he did Ministry of Food, he saw a mum feeding her children chips and cheese out of stylafoam (shudder with the horror) with a “f*cking massive tv behind them”. Ah, the inadequate ‘chav’ mum feeling her kids takeaways whilst watching her brighthouse telly. Nothing like a deviant stereotype to plug your latest book, which ironically, those poorest would be unable to buy anyway. Probably the recessionistas who procure Aldi’s aisles in their latest Joules purchase will approve.. Shockingly, many people cannot afford an oven or hob, and when something breaks, they cannot afford a replacement. Microwaves are many families saviours. In house shares, access to a kitchen is not always available, and takeaways are the difference between eating and not eating. Not everyone can consume the Smeg fridge and John Lewis pans.

Presumably the middle classes all feed their children on nutritionally balanced clean food, being decent members of society. They absolutely don’t let their kids order Dominos and Nandos on speed dial. Only poor people eat junk food, and poverty is largely their own fault.

I am not a fan of Jamie anyway, largely because I find him offensive, patronizing and misogynistic, belittling largely women for the choices they make in feeding their families. Jamie also seems to have a complete ignorance for how poverty feels, or works. Is Jamie aware of how many of those living just above, or below the breadline work full time hours? And how the capitalist system which benefits him, exploits them and leaves them in poverty? That’s the problem with neoliberalism; the onus on personal responsibility makes it easy to dismiss the structural inequalities that cause and reinforce poverty.

Jamie’s plastic politics serves to depoliticize the marginalised. Look at them, it is their fault they are poor, they cannot budget they spend their money on widescreens and burgers. Owen Jones argues in Chavs The Demonization of the Working Class that the chav caricature has become entrenched in British society; that more and more of us blame the victims of social problems for playing a part in causing them. This is how stigma works, the labelled group is seen as sullied, soiled, problematic. It is very easy to dehumanise and exclude a group once we have blamed them for their situation.

Rhian E. Jones in Clampdown Pop-Cultural Wars on Class and Gender argues that the ‘chav’ stereotype is particularly useful for narratives that draw upon the tropes of the feckless and scrounging underclass to justify political attacks on all those lower down the socio economical scale.

Lynsey Hanley in Estates An Intimate History talks of growing up on a council estate, the depression of the concrete. “There is a name for this, the way in which one’s mental landscape is moulded by one’s physical environment: psychogeography”.. “It is horrible and hostile, designed by a cyborg, or someone who has yet to see what bad housing can do to people… you are twenty minutes walk from the nearest bus stop…” Is it any wonder people choose junk food as an option?

George Orwell said in 1937 of junk food and the poor:georgeorwell Because that’s the thing… eating pea soup and a cracker when you’re comfortable, when you go home to a nice warm house and activities of your choosing is one thing; but going hungry when it’s not by choice is the most depressing soul-destroying thing.

What Jamie fails to realise, is poverty gets into your bones like the cold. If you can only afford to top up your electricity card with £1, you have to watch every penny. Buying a bag of chips from the local chippy means saving your own fuel. It also means having contact with another human being, which for many marginalized people living in squalor, is a luxury. Their local corner shop, over priced and stacked high with convenience food, might be the only shop where they will have someone to help them choose what they need. It might be the only shop they can physically reach given high public transport costs and a terrible bus service for many council estates (you know Jamie, those horrible places poor people dwell). For those without transport and with physical illnesses and disabilities, a small light bag of expensive shopping from the corner shop might be all they can carry.

Cooking meals might be fun when you can choose what you like, but poverty and depression often live hand in hand. Cheap food gives that instant sugar rush that is comforting. A bag of chips will provide some small pleasure that leek soup simply won’t. After working a 12 hour shift in a care home or factory, and walking home in the dark and rain to a mountain of chores, and the kids already in bed, means cooking just isn’t a priority or an option.

I presume Jamie has heard of food banks? The idea that everyone in the UK can choose what they eat and cook fun meals of their choice is offensive. It is very different to eat well when you can afford the ingredients of your choice, to live on a meagre food allowance doesn’t pummel people into creativity, it pushes them into despair. I suggest Jamie goes and prices fruit against junk food. Or perhaps Jamie should live for a year on job seekers allowance. As for the greengrocer and market, the supermarkets he has made so many millions from have forced many of those out of business. For those with limited mobility or other restrictions on travel, getting to a range of food outlets is impossible. For those with childcare or caring responsibilities, it is also futile.

As cited in Imogen Tyler’s Revolting Subjects Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain quotes Dorling “A child’s chances in life are more determined by where (and to whom) they were born as to any other date in the last 651 years ” (Dorling, 1997, p.153 cited in Tyler, 2013, p.153). By ignoring the gaping gulf of childhood poverty in the UK, and focusing on kids eating chips due to ‘defective’ parenting, Jamie and the like can pretend these structural inequalities don’t exist. It’s everyone for themselves, everyone has the same chances. Whether you are brought up by parents on incapacity benefits due to chronic illness and debilitating mental health conditions; a single parent working all hours to make ends meet; an asylum seeking family unable to work or seek benefits; carer for a terminally ill spouse living on the 30th floor of a high rise; or a silver-spooned Mockney. You just need to cook the right food damn it.

I suggest Jamie keeps his plastic politics to himself.

Interesting papers on sociology and food here.