Unpicking food snobbery
Updated: Jan 27, 2021
Going to the supermarket is one of my favourite things to do – not only do I love buying each ingredient excitedly, ticking off the list on my phone as I go, but I love the people-watching that I can do.
There’s always a parent trying to keep their restless kids at their side while pushing a buggy and reaching for something on the top shelf; an older couple browsing the pasta aisle happily, hand-in-hand; a group of students trying to find the cheapest wine possible that will taste the least like lighter fluid.
I will often think about the people I see, their lives, their homes, looking into their baskets and trollies as I go. I’ll wonder: “What are they having for dinner tonight? Or, what are they making that needs thirty tubes of tomato purée?”
Humans have a few things in common. One of them being the need to eat. Food is at the centre of our lives and it brings us together. It’s at a supermarket where you’ll witness the smorgasboard of life, and whether rich, poor, or somewhere in the middle, everyone needs to eat.
With even the smallest Tesco Extra, supersize Morrison’s or corner shop being able to offer at least three different brands of three varying qualities and price, for exactly the same item, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to our food shops.
But has being able to opt for luxury over basics lead to a generation of food snobs?
To eat well and lead a healthy lifestyle, especially when it comes to food, has become an unavoidable part of life.
Of course, it’s important to live a healthy life. But with the idea of good health being capitalised so hugely by giant supermarket chains, food brands and marketing campaigns (not to mention drilled into us by the media and the government) it seems, underneath the normality and everyday-ness of food shopping – there lurks a snobbish disdain for people’s behaviour and values.
Whether a person buys their food from a supermarkets’ finest range and branded items only, or at the other end of the scale, where someone’s shopping basket is filled with items from the basics section and the supermarkets’ own alternatives, it is normal to have personal preference when food shopping.
But there is also ignorance in a great deal of us and how we view others for what food they choose to eat.
Jack Monroe is a food writer and activist, otherwise known as the Bootstrap Cook. Having grown up in poverty, Monroe has dedicated their life and love of food to campaigning on poverty issues, particularly hunger relief.
Now a successful cookbook author and journalist, Monroe continues to fight against food snobbery and for more consideration when it comes to the treatment of people who live in poverty.
Monroe was only 24 when their career truly began when, as a single parent living in Southend-on-Sea, they started a blog about the struggle to feed their young son on a food budget of £10 a week.
Childcare issues and an inflexible shift pattern had forced Monroe to give up a job with Essex fire service, which left them living on benefits in a shared flat with their toddler and five other people. The blog is still going, and shares recipes, as well as views about life and financial struggles.
“There are many, many myriad reasons why people choose convenience foods over preparing their own from scratch,” Monroe wrote honestly in their unforgiving blog post, “You Don’t Batch Cook When You’re Suicidal“.
“My main point is that poverty and privilege are largely accidental,” Monroe says, and in the current climate, where the battle for children’s free school meals is on-going, unfortunately, this point couldn’t be any more significant.
As of January 2020, 1.4 million pupils – about one-in-six – were eligible for free school meals, and this figure increased hugely as coronavirus continues to hit communities nationwide. There are now just over 2,000 food banks in the UK, a shocking increase from the 445 food banks in 2014/15.
You don’t “choose to be born into an income bracket, a country pile, a housing estate, a double-barrelled name or a damp tenement bedsit,” says Monroe, “but ignorance is a choice.”
In order to tackle food poverty on a real level, something the Bootstrap Cook is adamant about is that you first need to understand the value of compassion.
Like many charities and groups which have cropped up over the last ten years with a purpose to help those experiencing poverty, The Long Table is a community food hall supporting community food hubs and local supply chains around Gloucestershire; it was started in 2018 by Tom Herbert and Will Mansell.
The organisation has grown rapidly from serving 50 hot meals a week on-site to neighbours, to providing more than 48,000 freshly cooked frozen meals (with the help of partner kitchens) during recent national lockdowns.
“My main point is that poverty and privilege are largely accidental.” Jack Monroe
With an aim to offer support and education when it comes to food and poverty, The Long Table was founded after Tom and Will met and shared a mutual dismay of how society “is doing food badly, leaving people sick and lonely.”
Launched as a social enterprise and now running a kitchen, dining space and community space where everyone is invited to cook, learn and eat, Tom and Will admit they “cannot help but feel the weight of food poverty in the wider community,” and that they wanted to create a space where “people with barriers to employment can gain meaningful work and learn invaluable skills through food.”
Yet seeing television chef personalities like Jamie Oliver being praised for their efforts put into healthy eating, for example when Oliver fought for more nutritious school dinners for children, one can’t help but see the flaws in what are unquestionably moralistic campaigns aimed at the working classes, dressed up as health advice.
But blaming a failed attempt to make school meals healthier on eating well being a “posh and middle class” concern, Oliver told Radio Times, is simply untrue, and blinds us to the real issues at hand, when it comes to eating well.
Is it really acceptable that a footballer like Marcus Rashford, who as a child relied on free school meals, should have to be the voice of millions of children, fighting for meals to be provided for free throughout school holidays?
Buying, cooking and eating nutritious and good food is something everyone should be able to do. But in the UK, and ironically many other Western countries, we are expected to accept that some people in society cannot achieve the same as others.
Meaning, people face judgement, generalisations and scapegoating because they simply cannot afford to eat ‘good’ food.
With my lifestyle heavily supported by a student loan from the government, paying for the cost of living in London still isn’t a walk in the park. But I can’t say that I have any struggles when it comes to paying for gas and electricity to cook, or for the food to put on the table.
I also can’t admit that I have ever experienced the struggle to do so in my life before. Yet some people, many people, don’t have the luxury of being able to comfortably provide for themselves, let alone their family too, and be considered stereotypically ‘healthy’ in their food choices.
For some, their circumstances mean that working one, two or even three jobs in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, is still not enough to ensure that every meal can be cooked from scratch with fresh, good quality ingredients.
Perhaps buying fruit and vegetables tinned rather than fresh, frozen food, ‘ready meals’ and supermarket basics, is not the preferred way to shop for food for some. But for some, it is the easiest, most affordable, and the most generous way to buy, based on what they can get in return.
The truth is, today’s food snobbery is not really only about health at all: it is an attack on other people’s morals.