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(en) Britain, Anarchist Federation (AFed) Scotland - AUTONOMY* #2 - Guilt, choice, and responsibility in the austerity kitchen

Date Sun, 29 Sep 2013 11:32:39 +0300

Millionaire chef and TV celebrity, Jamie Oliver, was in the news in August for condemning people in poverty for what they chose to eat. Oliver, a supporter of right-wing UKIP and the workfare scheme, said he’s “spent a lot of time in poor communities, and [found] it quite hard to talk about modern-day poverty”. People with large TVs live off of ready meals and chips. Whereas people in Sicily “eat well with not much money”. His comments feed into a wider narrative which emphasises blaming working class people. In fact, there are many things that people like Oliver don’t take into account—including time, disability and living in a city. Research shows that people’s diets improve with their income. Here’s Ramona from libcom.org with her thoughts on food choices.

Food has always been characterised
with angst, guilt, and worry for me. As
a teenager I was dangerously
underweight and tried to remedy this
by stuffing my face with processed
food, fizzy drinks, cakes and chocolate,
in the hope that I'd develop a body
shape other than that of an etoilated
ten year old. I mostly just passed out a
lot after the sugar rush had
plummeted away.

In my early twenties I was diagnosed
with a chronic and incurable illness
called endometriosis, which is
characterised by pain and fatigue, and
has had only a limited response to
surgical and medical interventions. As
a result, I work part-time in a pink-
collar job that's so far tolerated my
inconsistent good days and bad days,
and I earn a little more than I did last
year when I got by on housing benefit
and three casual jobs. But food is still
an issue.

A few years back, desperate to try
anything that might help me manage
my illness, I saw a nutritionist that
specialised in my condition, who
recommended up to 12 different
supplements a day (at £75 a month,
this was... unlikely), recommended I
cut out gluten, avoid all red meat, eat 6
portions of (preferably raw, fresh,
organic) fruit and veg per day, and a
whole load of other measures that I
kept up with for a few months. I felt
better, but this feeling of elated control
over my body was short-lived. I worked
shifts, and split my food shopping with
my partner. And slowly but surely my
neurotic meal planning slipped, the
carrot sticks were replaced by chocolate
bars, the milk was fatty and laden with
bovine hormones, and I felt a creeping
sense of guilt that I was making myself
ill, that I had failed to do the only things I
could do to try and keep my illness at bay.

As my circumstances changed and I found
myself scraping by for weeks, months,
probably forever, I got increasingly
annoyed at the suggestions and advice
offered to me by everyone from medical
professionals to smug student hippies
who implored me to stop using poverty as
an excuse (there's bins to
raid), to think about the
ethics of my shopping habits
(don't you know why that
chicken only costs £2.50?!),
around/planned things
better/cared about my health
more/was more of a self-
righteous hippy cunt I
wouldn't be in this situation,
I'd be healthy and full of the foresight
required to pre-soak pulses and turn a tin
of sardines into a main course and desert.
The control I'd once felt from targeting
my diet to alleviating my illness turned
into yet another unlivable, unrealistic
standard that just made me feel guilty
and personally responsible for my ill
There’s a general background
noise of sneering judgement
about the food choices of
people on low incomes.
There's a general background noise of
sneering judgement about the food
choices of people on low incomes.
Sometimes the snobbery and hatred
towards the poor, the sick, and the fat
spews right into the open, for
exampleWestminster council proposing
benefits cuts for the overweight who
"refuse" to excercise. Those of us whose
bodies are supposedly a drain on the
welfare state and the NHS are
continually reminded that our
predicaments are of our own making, and
the organic-everything-you-are-what-you-
eat brigade are just as quick to tell us if
we'd only stop eating all that processed
sugar we'd be a lot healthier, and that a
good diet is perfectly possible on the dole.

But try making £71 a week last over a
month, a year, the next 20 years.
Combine that with a disability, factor in
all your other expenses, try replacing
some cookware or fixing your freezer, and
then talk about how easy it is. You might
not bother instagramming your lunch
once the novelty wears off.

Of course, food guilt and demonising the
sick and obese is tied up in layers of class,
race, and gender. Behold arch-feminist
Caitlin Moran keeping the kids quiet
during her hangover by feeding them
quails eggs, compared with the
predictable hand-wringing outrage
should some unfortunate benefits
claimant be seen buying her kids a
happy meal. Think of Gillian McKeith
flushing the fatty, stinking, shameful
shit out of some white-bread guzzling
prole on prime time TV, or Etonian
small-holder Hugh Fearnley-
Whittingstall teaching single mothers
the importance of buying organic.

The fat acceptance movement has
critiqued the narrative that fat people
are unhealthy, undesirable, or
somehow morally repugnant, and the
fat acceptance movement in turn has
been critiqued for being colour-blind and
ignoring the racial and class
dynamics of fatness. But whichever angle
you look at it from, the neoliberal shit
sandwhich of choice, personal
responsibility, and the ability to eat
your way out of poverty and illness is
laden with moral judgements about the
shopping habits of the poor.

In a climate where the working class,
and benefits claimants and the sick
and disabled in particular, are
constantly dehumanised and painted
as the architects of our own
misfortune, food and health become
another stick to beat us with. Food
blogger Miss South has written
eloquently on the snobbery of well-
meaning foodies advising us how to eat
on a "budget", and the frequency with
which "someone will take the chance to
opine on how poor people just need to
try harder, be less lazy, just read the
labels and realise you can buy a week’s
veg for two quid if you’re a good enough
member of society". And she's pretty
much nailed it - the reality of juggling
chronic illness and a low budget is
difficult enough, without adding in
helpings of guilt and individualistic
ethical consumer bullshit, that helps
no one and reinforces the idea that if
only we knew what was good for us, we
would find a way to avoid those battery
eggs. Because it really is bullshit:

“What you eat may have an impact on
your dietary fibre, but it has bugger all
to do with your moral fibre. It’s
patronising and reductive to suggest
otherwise and to focus on the actions of
an individual, rather than those of the
food industry, helps no one and hinders
many, while causing massive divisions
in society.”
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