Many years ago whilst working with and for the poorest members of our society Brother Ivo came across a young man whose family was under threat from the Social Services.
They lived on what is called a “sink estate” which meant that the local school was heavily populated by what some call “problem families” but which ought properly to be known as families with multiple problems.
The couple were married. They had met in a school for the learning disabled; her family had some middle class wealth but he had been adopted and had lost touch with his adopters. They had no employment history but produced a number of young children. As is not infrequently the case, the number of young children, and the demands of that family grouping overwhelmed them and attracted the attention of the Social Services.
In the course of the investigation the Social workers complained about something which has become rather topical. The children were allegedly fed an “inadequate diet”.
None of them were physically malnourished but the complaint persisted in generalised form for months. The family did not have a table at which to eat its meals. That is a common feature of modern family life which Brother Ivo regrets at many levels. They did however attempt some cooking.
By the time mother left for another man, father was coping with two of the children feeding them on his limited variety of culinary expertise.
He could cook five things: potatoes, sausages, brussel sprouts, baked beans and fish fingers. In various combination, and supplemented by a cereal breakfast and school meals, the children were fed. As was belatedly pointed out, this might be reasonably described as a monotonous diet, yet drawn as it was, from each of the main food sources – greens, protein,pulses and carbohydrates – it met the children’s nutritional needs, albeit whilst offending the social workers standards. The children were not overweight. Doubtless the “professionals” would have described them as living in “food poverty” had that term been in vogue.
This recollection came back to Brother Ivo as he listened to the public debate over that modern term.
A Peer, Baroness Jenkinson has been upbraided for remarking that the poor don’t cook. Was it wrong (factually or morally) to say so?
Traditional cooking skills have been neglected and lost across the whole British social spectrum. If one has lost the abilities of budgeting, and preparation which had sustained past generations there is surely at the very least a skill shortage. Do we therefore have concurrent with “food poverty” a more widespread and regrettable “food preparation poverty”?
The number of take-away restaurants in poorer areas is observable to anyone; one rarely hears of traditional reciepes for the poor being cooked, and whilst processed foods abound in our supermarkets one sees less of the cheaper cuts and offal that were once a regular feature of our local butchers’ counters. If you want to try tripe, pigs trotter soup or stuffed hearts, you will now have to pay a celebrity chef to cook it for you.
We may not cook as we once did, but paradoxically, cookery shows have become the staple diet of much television.
The professional version of televisions Master Chef presents to its contestants a mixed box of faded vegetables, off cuts and trimmings from which they somehow manage to conjour remakably chic dishes: it may not quite be water into wine, but it does show what can be done with unpromising cheap ingredients, knowledge and imagination.
It is not suggested that such skills are readily available to ordinary folk, but in the same way that professional football or the National Theatre lifts the aspirations of many lowly participants of those skills,so the example of what can be done by stretching our food culture is not one to be ignored. Every culture across the world is rich in the dishes of the poor whose ingenuity in making good food from cheaper ingredients is both commendable and culturally enriching.
In the interests of transparency, Brother Ivo should confess that he is not a lover tripe: that said, very little food waste escapes his kitchen, with every chicken carcass boiled down for soup stock and stale bread frozen for breadcrumbs. He rejects any notation of the “best cuts” of meat, seeking out pigs cheeks, and skirt steak for pasties. He regards fillet steak as the Big Mac of the undiscerning palate.
He chose a provocative title to further the debate within that, recently set by the proposition that we need a new organisation “Feeding Britain” to address the problems of those visiting food banks or otherwise needing encouragement help to lift our nutritional standards.
The report was created after much inquiry. Brother Ivo confesses to being slightly disappointed to read that the answer is to create a co-ordinating top down bureaucracy, but respects the cross party nature of the investigation and the integrity of the leadership and accordingly holds back an initial scepticism of such approaches.
When there is real pressing need amongst those visiting food banks, it is no time to quibble.
The idea of using supermarket waste makes sense and yet, we need to be cautious about allowing the big corporations to not only feed the poor, but the source of this and problems by feeding a dependency on processed foods and their purveyors. If they were to meet the challenge by handing over just in date processed foods, it would be some, yet an insufficient response to a bigger problem.
Oscar Wilde once observed that Jesus did come to turn publicans into Pharisees. He wanted better.
In the same way, insofar as our poor have embraced the advertisers pitch of ready prepared meals, selling less than healthy foods at inflated prices. we do need to be careful.
Perhaps “Feeding Britain” might ensure that within the project, good practical information on cooking and nutrition is made available. Some of those attending food banks will be doing so having been hooked onto long term mobile communication contracts; we might as well give them good useable content to help them prepare what is offered.
Brother Ivo comes from a generation that experienced the legacy of post war rationing. Paradoxically, it was probably the healthiest cohort of children to be born. We may even outlive some of our grandchildren.
If caring is to be comprehensive, it must stretch beyond knee-jerk welfarism and if that means taking a critical view of families food culture -rich and poor alike- we cannot be overly timid to say where things have been going wrong.
These issues are too important to have any aspect marginalised by over concern with what can and cannot be said. Brother Ivo thinks that when we explore the debate about “food poverty”, all contributions should be gratefully received.