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Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Food Fight! - Is There a Class War Over Food?

There's a food fight going on though it's more like a class war. And, as often is the case in war, the rich and the powerful are calling the shots while the rest of us fire the bullets. 

Last week food journalist Marina O'Loughlin put her head above the parapet when she reviewed a new branch of the Wetherspoons in Ramsgate, Kent. You can read what she said here, but going off the social media response, you would think she had murdered a kitten rather than give some robust views on what was essentially poor quality food. Immediately she was badged as elitist for criticising basically bad food. 'Don't you dare mess with our Wetherspoons, you middle class metropolitan hack!' came the tribal response. 

This fits with the drawing of battle lines hinted at in Dr Jessica Paddock's research of farmers' markets. Her work at Bristol University investigates social inequalities associated with everyday eating. She discovered that predominantly working class people consider themselves to be out of place and possibly not welcome at farmers markets: a sort of 'not for the likes of us' entrenchment in the minds of poorer people. My own observation is that the same attitudes are equally prevalent in farm shops: the buying populations of say Aldi and those in farm shops don't seem naturally interchangeable. 

You could argue that this delineation is just market driven: farmers markets simply sell higher quality, more expensive foods that less well off people cannot afford, so they don't go there. Equally you wouldn't expect the people who go out to eat in Wetherspoons to sit down at Anton Pitrowski's new restaurant Rosk  for example. So it's no wonder that Marina Loughlin experienced the excoriating feedback she received from the pie and a pint public.

But hang on, wasn't one of the reasons for introducing farmers' markets to shorten food chains; bring us closer to the producers and make decent fresh, well made food more easily available; to try to break the stranglehold that the supermarkets have? Don't we aspire to decent fresh food for all? Where did this elitist, middle-class image that farmers' markets have, come from? Why do Wetherspoons loyalists staunchly defend poor quality food as a defining working class characteristic?

Dr Jessica Paddock herself admits that this division exists, she says:
'My research focused on a market (of the distinctive artisanal kind) and a community food co-op selling fresh fruit and veg at affordable prices...those on low incomes still wish to eat good food (their absence [from farmers markets] being both about price and cultural discomfort among those with some money to spend on 'good' food'. 

'[They] find they do not belong in a farmers' market kind of space, and therefore frame sustainable food as snobby or for the middle class'.
Farmers markets seem to sit with the high-end artisanal craft products rather than simple decent food. They may be vitally important in retaining and developing traditional food craft like charcuterie and many would argue that such producers push up quality by showing us how food should be made properly thereby raising our aspirations and expectations. This though seems to simply feed the foodie culture that working class people view as middle class and elitist. 

In Marina O'Loughlin's response to the outpouring of anger at her slating of Wetherspoons' food she points out that there are many independent cafes and restaurants selling reasonably priced decent fresh food: her criticism is not snobbery it is fairly aimed at poor cooking. So why don't the Wetherspoons public seek out better food? I guess that most of them think that that is how food should be, it perhaps tastes similar to the processed diet experienced by a great many people on low incomes. So when you have enough spare cash for a treat and head to the chain that is Wetherspoons you can understand why a Guardian writer's criticism might make you huffy. 

So if good food is for all of us where do people in food poverty, for example access and learn about it? How do you get to know that prawns can taste better and not be chewy. Certainly one of the criticisms of Food Banks has been that food given to the poor is what we expect the poor to eat: tinned and processed foods. 

Bucking that trend are some food banks (Oldham for example) where cooking classes are given, and especially Liverpool's Can Cook programme seeking to smash the traditional Food Bank model.


I'd argue that there is a better over all solution. Certainly in the Northwest our town markets remain a go-to alternative to the supermarket where you can conceivably do a big shop. I'd like to see farmers' markets have the hipster taken out of them and put artisan makers alongside traditional fruit and veg stalls. Let's see Wetherspoons customers rub shoulders with Masterchef-watching hipsters: one buying venison and red wine sausage, the other buying bangers for mash at teatime - each though made with the same attention to quality by the same producer.

I'd love Wetherspoons customers to read Marina O'Loughlin's descriptions of their food she and give a wry chuckle at her descriptions like I did, knowing enough about food to know she is right and say 'fair enough'. 

So who am I writing this for? If you are a food writer, a journalist an academic or food policy maker; a Food Bank volunteer, a campaigner or a town planner I'm writing for you to spur you on in the battle to take decent fresh food out of niches, to stop making it seem special and get it alongside what most of us buy each day.

In this class war it is in the interests of the big beasts like Wetherspoons to have people feel that they are the champions of the less well off; they would love to have people feel that that is where they belong; that that food is for the likes of them. So let's fight back: support projects like Can Cook (take a minute to have a look at it, it's fab), and influence where you have influence. 

Let's stop making well cooked, well produced food seem so up itself. I like Masterchef as much as anyone but can't help thinking that sometimes it seeks to elevate food above most people's aspirations, rather than getting alongside them to encourage and inspire them to eat better.

Good food IS for the likes of us. All of us.