Illustration: Gabriella Marsh
Illustration: Gabriella Marsh

OPINION

A diet of disadvantage – and how food forms a backdrop to life

The poor in Britain are vilified for their unhealthy diets. But eating when poor is complicated and fraught, says Laura Waddell

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By Laura Waddell on

Treats, when I was growing up, were true to the word. It’s only now, as an adult with my own disposable income, I can overindulge in them, and render what was once rare and special routine.

A hole-in-the-wall pizza place in a neighbouring town was a joy metered out on uneven paydays. My mum would have a pizza, loaded with mushrooms and ham, peculiar with pineapple. For me, a crisp baked potato to suit my plainer palate. The cardboard box and polystyrene container emerging steaming from the counter, with a little round tub for cheese, contained riches of butter and salt. Memory mixes the taste of the food with the papery smell of the card and plastic packaging, and the feeling of picking up food with salt-grained, grease-licked fingers. Taking it home, we might sit cross-legged on the floor to eat it – a small party.

Similarly, tea from a polystyrene cup meant being on holiday, from a sizzling burger van parked near a sodden beach, en route to a caravan to listen to rain patter on the roof. Or, sometimes having the coins in my pocket to buy a hot drink from the canteen in the arcade market where, at 14 years old, I sold hair scrunchies, three garish ones for a pound (often picked as local football colours and worn stacked one atop the other, an earnest 90/00s scheme style now adopted by insouciant middle-class art-school kids. I, a council-estate goth, stuck to solitary red velvet, which better matched a concrete backdrop not yet popularised by this decade’s resurgence of think pieces on Brutalism). I’d bite circles into the foamy edges like overlapping flower petals with stupid sugary glee, and my grandfather would tell me not to eat the cup too, while he fixed watch batteries nearby.

Fast food, growing up in a small working-class town, can be entertainment in itself. Perhaps you can’t afford a new video game, but you can afford chocolate or crisps. It’s free to sit in the park or in your friend’s bedroom with cigarettes and cider. You can wander, winding around the newsagent’s familiar aisles, before wandering the streets. When the ice-cream van bell chimes, run to it, joining a queue of people from your street, if you have 10p for sweets scrunched into a white paper bag. You can afford small pocket pleasures decried in tabloid scare features, found in stock-image libraries tagged “ill health” and “impoverished communities”. The streets I grew up in, where these scenes took place in food-colouring technicolour, rank within the top five to 10 per cent most-deprived areas of Scotland, according to the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, which analyses factors such as income, employment, health, education, skills, housing, geographic access and crime.

Treats, when even the bus fare can be a stretch, are always a compromise, weighing up pleasures and necessities, a stomach veering between the immediate aching now and the austere later. A moment of deciding whether to step over the threshold of the window you’ve been looking in for fleeting hedonism after filing the gas bill out of mind. In a cartoon, a fox might consider whether snatching a cooling pie from a windowsill will result in the pane slamming down on his paw. In these moments, treats are a taste of pure escapism.

Andy Warhol’s affinity for the Coca-Cola bottles gracing his screen prints stemmed from the joy of knowing the experience of drinking Coke was the same for everyone. “You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the president drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too.”

Frequency aside, a democratising effect takes place when it appears a pleasure can be felt by anyone from any social strata. More than the taste of the drink itself, what makes a Coke or the other everyday mass-manufactured foodstuffs fascinating enough to have been a motif for Warhol and an emotional trip line for me is perhaps that brief intense moment when socio-economic worries dissolve on the tongue and bodily satisfaction is all there is.

Treats, when even the bus fare can be a stretch, are always a compromise, weighing up pleasures and necessities, a stomach veering between the immediate aching now and the austere later

Advertisements for fast food drill down into that feeling, promising happiness, friends, glamour, and whatever else research data indicates consumers are really searching for when emotional impulse spends money, making kings of paupers when they bite into a stuffed crust.

I still seek this feeling learnt in youth, pressing it like a pleasure button. Celebration? Press the button. Feeling ill? Press the button. Tough day? Press the button. I press the button with the same eager expectation the internet dial-up tone used to evoke, seeking a baked-in emotional thrill and comfort which has never left me.

Jarvis Cocker sings in searing class polemic Common People of those who try on the lifestyle: “The chip stains’ grease will come out in the bath.” As an adult whose purse has wavered over the years, saving little, dipping at times into overdraft, I order the pizza that has sometimes felt excruciatingly out of reach. Deep-pan margherita with barbecue sauce. I buy chocolate, cheese, crisps and chips when I feel up and when I feel down. I feel, mostly, not satiated as expected, but merely too full.

A mental association has forged between this foodstuff of my youth, low in nutritional value and high in salt, sugar, fat and hollow carbs, with good times or deservedness; with being kind to myself, happiness, birthdays, a life I ought to live, cheering myself up, distracting from depression and other balms. I associate bad food with free time; it has gotten into me that it’s how to relax. If I can buy it, even from an overdraft or ignoring bills, I give in.

Comedians sometimes laugh at the unsophistication of food in working-class areas. They are really laughing at being poor. We are no worse and no better by any moral or intellectual standard of judgement for where we happened to fall at birth, within a socially ordered geographical grid on a square containing more takeaways than fresh bakeries.

While Andy Warhol’s Coke bottles represent glamorous uniformity, food more often marks out social differences.

At an age when any differentiating behaviour is a target, recipients of free school meals can be singled out. Everyday financial anxiety and young social groupings predicated by wealth form in moments such as these. Imagine being a child anticipating being picked upon for simply eating. Poverty builds invisible assault courses into getting through the day for children who should instead be carelessly swinging from the bars of jungle gyms.

I grew up in a council flat with no room for a dinner table. Although as a student I worked as a waitress, serving food I could not afford to eat, residual self-doubt means I still feel daunted before setting cutlery

Children who grow up alongside peers even marginally more comfortable notice the differences, small and big, everyday and overarching. I was not one of the poorest children in my school, but I noticed the own-brand crisps in my lunchbox did not match the Walkers my best friend ate. The sliced baguette habitually on her kitchen table was bought in a run-down Asda but seemed exotic to me. I grew up in a council flat with no room for a dinner table. Although as a student I worked as a waitress, serving food I could not afford to eat, residual self-doubt means I still feel daunted before setting cutlery.

Poverty puts people from a very young age into isolated boxes, sometimes clearly stamped, but sometimes as internalised and invisible like clear glass.

Noticing differences creates an interior narrative of fear and anticipation of awkward moments; not just struggling to pay but feeling like the odd one out. Reflexive self-protection double-checks pennies before handing them over, trying to act naturally in front of the shopkeeper.

For those without a car, financially stretched or poorly served by public transport, or for workers of antisocial shift patterns, the cost alone of fresh fruit and vegetables is only part of the problem. In recession-hit towns where independent grocers have switched off shop lights, hit by squeezed margins and supermarket dominance, it can be easier to buy cheap cupboard staples from a pound shop. Malnutrition is not a problem confined to history, with millions of people in the UK, particularly with low-income or mobility problems, suffering from undernourishment now.

Finding fresh fruit and vegetables can mean a lengthy trip to a retail-park supermarket on the outskirts of town as the only alternative to the limp pickings of a newsagent. Bargain frozen-food shops with rows of icy cabinets and strip lighting psychologically evoke richly harvested fields in farm-based names only, like new estate street names referencing geographical landmarks no longer existent, ponds and glades long paved over. Processed hockey-puck burgers or cartons of concentrated juice can be had in BOGOF promotions, but it’s not so easy to stock the shelves with leafy greens high in iron and vitamins. Neither is it cheap to be poor, without the scale of economy bigger purchasing budgets stretch to.

Forget the difficulty of finding pomegranate molasses for a celebrity cookbook recipe or choosing organic – it can be a challenge to find basics that satisfy daily nutritional requirements.

Public Health England, an executive agency of the UK Government’s Department of Health, has found diet is the primary cause of poor health in the UK. This statistic creeps into newspapers with a disdainful tone, making poverty a target of pious, head-shaking morality.

"Cutting down on junk food diets, couch potato lifestyles, cigarettes and booze could make Britain one of the healthiest places to live in the world”, said Oxford-educated Simon Stevens in 2015, chief executive of the NHS, who has spoken in favour of increased privatisation. Putting the onus of blame on individual lifestyle choices when there can be few choices available is to ignore the more pressing political factors of austerity and inequality directly causing food poverty and illiteracy.

As hunger in the UK grows, food banks are more strained than ever, and people in low-paid work are struggling to cope with welfare cuts, while initiatives to combat food inequality are up against bigger political structures perpetuating class inequality. Little-varied routine of industrialised, processed foods creates a barrier to kitchen skills and confidence. Pop-up food markets and cookery lessons only go so far. Yellowing posters about nutrition flap dog-eared from walls of local surgery waiting rooms with five-a-day photographs of vegetables even less visually appealing than those on the front of frozen food store packs. I don’t want to eat those apples, clinically dissected into units of health, peeled of enjoyment.

The knock-on effect of food poverty spins out in all directions. Low-income demographics are more likely to suffer from diabetes, cancer, lower life expectancy and obesity. Cheap foods high in saturated fat, sugar, and salt leave the eater unsatisfied. On a low-nutrition diet, a cycle of slumps and cravings compound other factors working class people can face in their working day. The energy to work a manual job or ability to focus becomes strained. Children struggle to pay attention in class. Mental health, already under-resourced and under discussed, can worsen as moods dip, eaten into by hunger and stress.

Until it is at the forefront of discourse that ideological politics are behind the societal inequality which causes many communities to be fundamentally impoverished, with lesser access to food, education, employment, transport and all the other building blocks of informed choice, to blame the working class individual for the flaws in their lifestyle is a deception worse than the non-existent farm names printed on budget food packaging.

I take joy in a little round plastic tub of cheese, with its matching round plastic lid, because it was one of the purest pleasures I’ve ever known. I press the pleasure button to order pizza. I press the pleasure button to temporarily forget all of this. I press the pleasure button because the other buttons were disconnected, ringing out.

This essay is taken from Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class by the Working Class from Dead Ink Books. It is being funded on Kickstarter and needs your support to make it happen.  

@lauraewaddell

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Illustration: Gabriella Marsh
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