Poverty, malnourishment and Pecksniffery

By Jill Segger
December 30, 2014

Recently (28 December 2014) the Independent newspaper published a piece outlining some of the reasons why millions of Britons cannot afford a diet that will keep them healthily nourished.

It described the figures as a "powerful marker" of there being a problem with food poverty in Britain and said it was clear there were "substantial numbers of people who are going hungry and eating a pretty miserable diet".

Combine this uncomfortable truth with our society's almost hysteric responses to issues of weight, and you have a toxic mix. Malnutrition, affecting the poorest of our fellow citizens, frequently manifests as obesity. That segment of the population which has the resources to buy and cook healthily and to frequent gyms or take regular exercise, is largely oblivious of both the psychology and practical circumstances of deprivation.

Take a look round almost any large estate where incomes are low and unemployment high. You will see a very limited range of shops. There will probably be a fast-food take-away and where there is a store selling food, it will typically have limited stocks of fresh fruit or vegetables while its shelves will be stocked with processed convenience foods and snacks which have a high content of sugar, salt and fat. Take a moment to imagine yourself as a single parent on the minimum wage or subsisting on benefits. You have young children of pre-school age – can you afford the transport costs, to say nothing of the hassle, of getting yourself to an area where healthier choices are available?

Then there is the issue of stress and depression. If your kids are whingeing or pestering you at a low moment, how certain are you that you would be able to resist giving them a couple of pounds to go for the bags of chips that would give them a temporary sense of satiety? It is easier to sneer and tut than to look at investing in a route out of ignorance and of taking the kind of grip on the market that would make wholesome alternatives more readily available.

Where an individual manages to escape this spiral of stress, anxiety and poor nutritional practice, they may still not fit into the agenda of the comfortable critics. Jack Monroe, blogger and food writer, has attracted a good deal of unpleasant comment because, having experienced real deprivation and gone hungry to feed her child, she now campaigns and comments on the causes of these experiences. Such well informed honesty is dangerous to the hypocrites who thrive on unexamined indignation.

That indignation is taking its toll on both justice and the possibility of reform. Northerners “die of ignorance and chips”. Thus Edwina Currie when she was a junior health minister. Although this was around a quarter of a century ago, that blinkered and self-exculpatory spirit remains alive and well. Earlier this month, Tory peer Baroness Jenkin, launching a report on UK hunger, delivered herself of the opinion that “poor people do not know how to cook”. There have been plenty of other comments in the same vein on phone-ins and social media.

It seems that it is easier for some people to categorise the behaviours of deprivation as feckless and blameworthy than to exercise any empathetic or logical thinking about why poverty restricts choice and opportunity. Public criticism led to Lady Jenkin apologising and withdrawing her words, but the harm was done. Partial and distorted facts create and confirm bias while doing nothing to enlarge understanding or enable change.

The food environment in the UK is poorly regulated. Academies and Free Schools are exempted
from the nutritional standards required of Local Authority schools. The government has shown itself unwilling to take on the food and drink industries over food and alcohol labelling or to fund programmes of education that would help more people to learn about nutrition, food budgeting and cooking skills. Add to this the benefit cap, sanctions and wage freezes, and it is hardly surprising that there is widespread hunger and malnourishment in our divided and increasingly unequal society.

In addition to the real and present misery caused by food poverty, there will be a heavy price to pay in future health and in the well-being of many children. Liz Dowler, Professor of Food and Social Policy at Warwick university, says "At the extreme, [malnourishment] is a cliff edge, but mostly it's not. It's a slow, miserable grind of bodily impoverishment, where you're gradually depleting your body's stores and your strength is way below what it should be. Your skin is very pale, you are exhausted all the time, you feel very low, often extremely depressed and you find it difficult to work. Children who are malnourished cannot concentrate at school, have endless coughs and colds and they get sick all the time. It's a pretty negative existence."

That über-hypocrite Seth Pecksniff was likened by his creator Charles Dickens to “a direction-post which is always telling the way to a place and never goes there.” The indignant might take note.

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen

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