How the Poor Eat, by Will Hatchett
The latest guest blog from journalist, Will Hatchett
12 Oct 2023
The latest guest blog from journalist, Will Hatchett
12 Oct 2023
Meanwhile, just as they were in Edwardian Britain, the poor are blamed by the well-fed for their irresponsible behaviour.
In 1901, social reformer and chocolate magnate, Joseph Rowntree, calculated, from a comprehensive survey, how much money a family in York would need a week in order to sustain ‘physical efficiency’. It was 21s and 8d (£1.08 in today’s money). By his calculation, a little more than half of that would be spent on food. But such an income, he asserted, would provide only a meagre diet, less varied than that enjoyed by able-bodied paupers in workhouses.
Rowntree concluded that around half of York’s population were living in poverty and 28% in extreme poverty, unable to acquire even basic necessities such as food, fuel and clothing. Echoing the conclusions of a similar survey conducted by a wealthy shipping-line owner, Charles Booth, in the East End of London between 1886 and 1903, this assertion caused shock and, in many cases, frank disbelief, among the affluent.
How could this be possible? These people must be improvident or feckless, the wealthy opined, in their favourite newspapers, wasting their money on alcohol, tobacco and trips to the music hall. In any case, if they were educated in healthy diets, they would not need to go hungry.
In reality, the poor lived on white bread, tea, sugar, stewed greens and cheap cuts of meat. The thrifty and eagle-eyed would shop at anti-social times, such as Saturday nights when spoiled food was disposed of. They would buy food in tiny quantities. Groceries were generally bought by the ounce, meat and fish by the halfpennyworth. Popular purchases included cheese crumbs from the grocer and cods’ heads for fish cakes, ‘pairings’ from the tripe shop and bones from the butcher that could be boiled into a watery soup. No KFC or McDonald’s then.
Life on a pound a week For the poorest, bread could account for an eighth of family income. Some food was, frankly, weird. In Birmingham, a dish called ‘slosh’ or ‘slop’ consisted of the leavings of a teapot, poured over a slice of bread and drained off, with the addition of a knob of margarine. Universally, a stale loaf would be toasted and mashed with tea and sugar (milk was too expensive) to provide an alternative to rusks for babies. ‘Cag-mag’ was butchers' trimmings, often of dubious quality, parcelled together. A shilling’s worth of cag-mag could be made into a stew on a Saturday night and served up for breakfast on a Sunday morning. Yum.
For comparison, Edward VII, Britain’s monarch from 1901 to 1910, known by his subjects as ‘Bertie’ and ‘tum tum’, enjoyed four meals a day and dinners of 12 or 14 courses – pheasant stuffed with truffles, quails filled with foie gras, sole poached in Chablis garnished with oysters and prawns, and boned snipe with Madeira sauce were favourites. He would have a cold chicken placed at his bedside, in case he became hungry in the middle of the night.
An Australian-born journalist and feminist, Magdalene Reeves, researched typical expenditure and diet in south London in 1911. It was the year after King Edward, died, aged 68, his demise hastened by his heavy smoking and gluttony.
Her pamphlet for the Fabian's Women's Group, ‘Family Life on a Pound a Week’, breaks down the 50 pence that was spent by a city warehouse worker, Mr W, and his wife each week on food. At 15p, meat made up the largest part of the budget. In descending order, came bread, butter, flour, milk, tea, sugar, dripping, potatoes and greens. She writes: “Cold meat, with bread and butter and tea, would be provided for the evening meal. The ‘eternal bread, butter and tea’ would be breakfast.”
Life wasn’t that different for the hard-up when author George Orwell travelled to industrial Lancashire and Yorkshire in 1936 to research ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’. Publisher Victor Gollancz had commissioned an account of unemployment and social conditions in the north of England. But he took violent exception to Orwell’s description of how ordinary people perceived socialists – as bearded sandal-wearers, vegetarians and nudists.
Orwell’s description of the psychology of the poor and their attitude to food is acute. Like Booth, Rowntree and Reeves, he carefully itemises the weekly budget of an unemployed Yorkshire miner and his wife. It totals £1.60, with almost a third allocated to rent. He observes: “The miner's family spends only tenpence a week on green vegetables and tenpence halfpenny on milk and nothing on fruit; they spend one and nine on sugar and a shilling on tea. The basis of their diet is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea and potatoes.”
He adds: “Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw?” It would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. When you are underfed, harassed, bored and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. Like “three pennorth of chips” he suggests – in today’s terms, a Deliveroo, Big Mac or pizza.
Obesogenic environment Our food choices are not rational. They are governed by emotions and volitions that we do not understand and by simple proximity and convenience. The same arguments that were deployed against Booth and Mayhew are still used today – that the poor could eat healthily if they wanted or chose to. But the odds are stacked against them more than ever.
Unhappy humans are still governed by perverse instincts of immediate gratification from energy-rich sugar and carbs, as identified by Orwell, but they face additional problems that he did not anticipate. We live in a world which encourages us to eat unhealthily from every supermarket aisle and billboard and in which sugar and salt-laden, ultra-processed and additive-filled foods are relatively cheap and ubiquitous. It has been called an obesogenic environment.
A hundred years after Orwell’s journey to Wigan, the food landscape has changed radically. Today, just eight companies control 90% of the UK’s food supply. A quarter of places to buy food on the high street are fast-food outlets and food advertising is dominated by confectionery, snacks, desserts and soft drinks.
According to The Food Foundation, the most deprived fifth of the UK population would need to spend 50% of their disposable income on food to meet the cost of the government-recommended healthy diet – a metric that is worsening year by year. This compares to just 11% for the least deprived fifth. The default UK diet – low in vitamins and minerals, high in starchy carbohydrates, fat and sugar – has produced an epidemic of obesity. And it’s getting worse.
A Defra select committee reported this July that rising food prices caused by the Covid pandemic, Brexit, climate change and the war in Ukraine mean that a fifth of UK households are resorting to unhealthy, high-calorie diets, due to trouble in accessing good-quality food at reasonable prices. The report states: “The promotion of cheap, calorie-dense foods lacking essential nutrients has resulted in 30% of the population becoming obese. This figure is expected to rise to 40% by 2035, with NHS spending on Type 2 diabetes treatments outweighing current expenditure on treating all cancers.”
Government retreat The Government has retreated in the face of this unravelling catastrophe. Attempts to modify our obesogenic environment appeared, in a modest form, in 2011 in the form of a ‘voluntary public health responsibility deal’ for the food industry. In 2016, a sugary drinks tax was introduced. But in June 2022, Henry Dimbleby’s 300-page Defra-commissioned food strategy, proposing taxes on salt and sugar, free fruit and veg for those on low incomes, advertising restrictions and expanded free school meals was kicked into touch, causing Dimbleby to resign.
Introducing, in his Conservative Party conference speech, a modest progressive restriction on the sale of cigarettes, Rishi Sunak said that smoking is the UK’s biggest entirely preventable cause of ill health, disability, and death. However, as campaigners pointed out, obesity costs £27 billion a year through its knock-on effects – £10 billion more than tobacco.
Why act on one public health issue and not another and fail to save the NHS billions? Put on the back foot in an interview with the BBC, Sunak said that there is “no safe level of smoking” and it “isn't the same as eating crisps or a piece of cake”. These statements are misleading and disingenuous. The argument that we are ‘free’ to choose junk food, or not to, is a fig leaf – especially for the poor.
The tobacco industry is also in retreat and has shifted its gigantic marketing budgets in wealthy countries from smoking to vaping, especially among the young, with flavoursome, addictive options. The UK food industry, led by the Food and Drink Federation, has lobbied hard, and successfully, against measures that would risk reducing its profits so that nearly all healthy food options are more expensive than the alternatives. Where is the freedom in that?
Will Hatchett has been a journalist since 1986. He was editor of Environmental Health News from 1998 until 2018. The views expressed here are purely his own.