Thursday, 29 March 2012

Let Them Eat Cake

England's NHS is in crisis; a top government advisor has been proven corrupt; there is mass unemployment and many disabled people are losing their only means of support - so why are we talking about pasties and pies? It's easy to ally oneself with those who are crying foul, describing this as a distraction. Indeed, it was very likely intended as such. But for a fair number of people, the affordability of food is the most fundamental issue there is.

It's a testament to the successes we have enjoyed as a nation that most people here rarely have to think about going without food. When they talk about cutting back on their food budget, most mean doing without treats. But there remains a substantial minority for whom finding enough to eat is an ongoing challenge. And whilst there may seem better ways to go about doing that than eating a lump of hot fat and sugar from the nearest Greggs, the fact is that some people depend on doing precisely that.

Foe me, the crisis came way back in 1992. It was my first summer as a student and the rules had been changed just a few years before so that people in my position were not eligible for government support. There were complex (and very personal) reasons why living with my parents was not an option for me. John Major was in Number 10 and unemployment was close to three million; though I would happily have supported myself through work, I simply couldn't find anything. So I sub-let a room and subsisted on a food budget of ten pounds a week; five when the soles of my shoes wore through and I had to save up to buy more.

In that situation, getting enough calories was difficult. I didn't have the skills I would acquire later from an Australian friend whose weekly budget was £2.50, who subsisted on chocolate for calories and cabbage for nutrition. I did discover that I could get free vegetables by visiting a local greengrocer who had to get rid of items that would go off by the following day. But getting enough calories was harder. After six months I would find myself in hospital, weighing less than seven stone, with multiple infections (starvation is hell on the immune system). Without the occasional bit of hot bakery food, I doubt I would have survived that long.

I always assumed that cases like mine were rare, but since I raised my voice over the 'pastygate' debate I have been contacted by a whole heap of people with similar issues. For some it's about poverty. Of course it is usually cheaper to buy ingredients and cook at home, but not everybody has a home to go to. For others it's about disability. Severe anxiety disorders can make cooking terrifying and mean comfort food is important because otherwise one might not eat at all (for a significant number of people, anxiety is accompanied by serious weight loss). Then there are those on the autistic spectrum who struggle to cope with the sequential tasks of shopping, cooking and eating - things that might sound ridiculously easy to others but which they also find it hard to get help with. As people in these groups are more likely to be living on very low incomes, affordable hot food becomes all the more important.

In addition to these, there are the people on low incomes who need to get something to eat during breaks at work. If you're working long hours (as many on the lowest wages do) or if you're living in poor conditions, making a packed lunch can be difficult, and many workplaces have no facilities for heating food. This isn't just an issue for those struggling to survive, it's an issue for those with few sources of pleasure for whom an extra couple of pounds a week in VAT will mean having to give up the hot lunch that makes a grim job bearable on a cold day. Little things like that matter a lot when life is hard.

This isn't a plea on behalf of Greggs, who were bending rules that many other bakeries felt obliged to hold to. It's simply a plea that these issues be treated with the seriousness they deserve. It's all very well to protest that food like this is unhealthy - I'd far rather people could get calorie-dense food without the fat and salt - but if the solution is simply to price that food out of people's reach, with no alternative put in place in the interim, very vulnerable people will have their lives made even harder. We really do need to find ways of reducing the price of fruit and vegetables but we also need to ensure people can get enough calories. Because when you're in that situation, you can't wait for the next piece of legislation. I was lucky. I found somebody to help me. I wouldn't have lasted much longer without.

When Margaret Thatcher was in power, doctors petitioned for the right to prescribe food to patients who kept ending up back in hospital basically because they couldn't afford enough to eat. Last year a young mother starved to death in Dublin. We don't like to talk about hunger in the First World but it does exist. Ultimately we need to tackle it by creating more employment, providing assistance to those with specific difficulties and improving our welfare system. In the meantime, we must think carefully about anything that increases the price of cheap, hot food at a time when inflation is already outpacing wages.

That old story about Marie Antoinette - false, of course, like many of the best historical anecdotes - stems from an old French law which required bakers who had run out of bread to supply customers with cake at the same price. It represents, then, common beliefs about the failure of the privileged to grasp what being out of bread means. Sadly, those beliefs are all too easily substantiated. Of course it doesn't matter where David Cameron bought his pasty (though it might matter that he thinks all Northern cities are essentially the same) but it matters that, to him, that expenditure was utterly insignificant, and he is making decisions on that basis, whilst others make choices between eating, heating and paying the rent.

Fortunately I am no longer in such desperate straits, but others are, and this isn't all pie in the sky to them.