Thursday 24 March 2016

Eating Well is a Right, Not a Luxury

Eating well is a right, not a luxury.

As a slogan it sounds simple, and for most of us the distinction is irrelevant: we eat well, and we can afford to do so. For people at the other end of the spectrum the distinction is also irrelevant: if you are in food poverty you generally must be grateful for what you are given. 

So what do we give to our poor? 
Oldham Foodbank Manager Andrew Barr

Recently Food Banks have been given a hard time because of the type of food that is distributed. Invariably, for reasons of storage and shelf life, goods that are given through food banks are prepackaged dry goods or tinned. Often they are processed foods. This seems reasonable to tide over a family in an emergency. 

This week our home town Oldham has also been given a bit of a hard time in the media: we are, apparently, the nation's most deprived town. In light of this, I spoke to Andrew Barr of Oldham Foodbank, to see what he made of it, he says. 

'Oldham has a number of geographically small areas that are consistently very poor according to the data. This means that overall, the whole borough is shown as the poorest in the country. 

'We give parcels that are designed to be as nutritionally balanced as possible, and sufficient for at least three days. We are there for emergencies and ordinarily only give four parcels in a six month period. We don't want to create Foodbank dependency and work hard to help people get past their difficulties, but it's no coincidence that the families we see using the Foodbank again and again are from these areas.'

So for some families living in Oldham's most deprived areas the Foodbank is more than an stop-gap, it has become a means to keep the wolf from the door for some considerable time. 

If that makes Andrew Barr's role sound like a thankless one it doesn't come across when you speak to him. Barr's love of food overrides his work as social justice champion. 

'My aim is to help people move on from the Foodbank by teaching them about food. This isn't just about handing out food to the poor, it is about teaching people with limited resources to use those resources wisely to eat well.' 

This sounds like a message for us all; after all, who doesn't have limited resources? Barr's life's work has been food, not social justice: previously working with Michele Roux Snr. and Anton Mosimann he developed menus for high-end long haul air flights. He now runs Oldham's Eat Well, Spend Less course yet you get the sense that enthusing students with a passion for food is no less important to him. The course is open to anyone in the borough who thinks they might benefit from some thrifty cooking tips. 

'We've lost a sense of what food is. I grew up in the fifties and sixties, war rationing had only
just ended and my parents taught me to see all food as valuable. Food is seen as a commodity now, you'd be surprised how many people with not much money still buy pre-prepared vegetables. They are amazed when they see how they are being ripped off compared to the price of proper food and veg.' 

He recognises the importance of skill and passion in those who produce our food: 

'Many butchers [for example] now only sell prepacked joints of meat, a good butcher who knows meat and can sell cheaper cuts of good quality meat is a valuable resource. I tell people to buy good meat. One of my favourite tips is to make burgers from good mince but spin it out by mixing it with mashed kidney beans to make burgers. They are great burgers!'

Access to fresh food is a problem though for Foodbanks, Oldham's will soon move into new premises with kitchen facilities to enable the provision of hot meals cooked with fresh ingredients. Yet regularly providing fresh food to people in food poverty remains challenging. 

In Liverpool campaigners are working to make the city a 'fresh food, food aid' city, recognising that people in food poverty are entitled to be able to choose good food to feed their families well, just like the rest of us. They have a way to go, but the project has the backing of the City's mayor Joe Anderson, and that means money to help build the sort of infrastructure necessary. 

In Oldham Barr recognises the challenge but takes the pragmatic approach that cheap fresh food is available, it's sometimes a question of wily shopping: 

'Supermarkets are not the best places to get fresh food. In communities where people shop every day or so shops sell fruit and veg that has a shorter shelf life because they know it will be used quickly.' 

Oldhamers are also being encouraged to rediscover the joy of growing food: 

'We are working with Incredible Futures to Get Oldham Growing, this is brilliant. When I was young growing veg was absolutely normal. It was cheap and the food we grew was far better than what we could buy.' 

Watching the news and seeing my hometown painted as a dreary grey place, with dreary grey people made me sad. Talking to Andrew Barr and seeing the passion, energy and determination to help everyone eat well made me smile. 

Eating well is a right, I believe that strongly. But eating well is also a skill and I was pleased to see that there are people to help us to relearn the skills we need, to love and eat good food.  

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