Un-whitewashing food media, taking a lunch break, & navigating a jumble of UK food strategies
Nice Pear: a weekly(ish) feminist foodletter | Issue #003 | 02 August 2020
If you’re new to this newsletter, you can read my mission & ethos here.
This weekend, I drove to the East Coast this weekend and saw my in-laws for the first time since January. I went thrifting in the charity shops (seven books, three dresses, two shirts and a cardigan), went for a run through the countryside, swam in the sea and got caught in a thunderstorm and all of it was all glorious. Speaking of cardigans… is anyone else physically incapable of listening to anything but Folklore?
Okay, enough of my ~life updates~ let’s jump into this week’s essay. It’s a little different from my last two, in that its a reflection on a few stories that have been in the news lately, which affect food, dining and health inequality in the UK.:
Obesity, poverty and half-price meals
This week, the UK government released both an obesity strategy that emphasizes individual responsibility and a national food strategy that warns of the danger of food poverty.
The cognitive dissonance between these plans and the (hilariously-named) Eat Out to Help Out scheme is striking.
On Monday, the New Obesity Strategy was announced. The strategy bans price-deals on ‘unhealthy’ foods and restricts junk food ads before the 9pm watershed. It also makes calorie counts on menus mandatory (for restaurants, cafes and takeaways with over 250 employees).
This focus on calories puts the responsibility for obesity-related health problems squarely on individuals - when countless studies* have shown obesity to predominantly be a result of structural inequalities, and a symptom of poverty.
This link between poverty, structural inequality, and obesity was then addressed in the National Food Strategy report, Part One of which was released just two days after the New Obesity Strategy.
The report, chaired by Leon co-founder Henry Dimbleby, offers “urgent recommendations” for weathering the biggest upheaval to the UK’s food system since WWII - namely Brexit and a worldwide pandemic.
One of the key themes of the report is on childhood food insecurity: “it is a peculiarity of the modern food system that the poorest sectors of society are more likely to suffer from both hunger and obesity”. The report proposes an expansion of safety nets like Free School Meals, Holiday Activity and Food Programmes, and Healthy Start vouchers.
So, which is it? Are we individually responsible for our weight? Or are the health outcomes of obesity a symptom of wider structural issues?
Certainly in the short term, access to healthy foods (like fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, etc.) as well as to the time, facilities and knowledge required to prepare and store it, is harder to access than the ‘unhealthy’ fast foods mentioned the New Obesity Strategy - especially with the government’s introduction of half-price fast food in the Eat Out to Help Out scheme.
Expanding the state assistance that can give more disadvantaged children access ‘healthier’ foods is certainly a start - but it shouldn’t have taken a global pandemic to get here.
And, while the New Obesity Strategy is an official government policy and the Eat Out to Help Out scheme is definitely taking place this month, the National Food Strategy is only a recommendation. Dimbleby characterises it as such in the report itself, adding that: “the Government has committed to publishing a White Paper six months after I publish Part Two [in 2021], and has asked me to review progress six months after that”.
Additionally, if this Government were serious about the health outcomes of children and young people living in poverty, wouldn’t they also be properly funding the NHS, defunding the institutions that perpetuate generational wealth inequality, and seriously addressing the climate crisis that threatens our food supply chains?
*See, for example, Poverty dynamics and health in late childhood in the UK, Social Inequalities, Poverty and Obesity, and Effects of Economic Inequality on Obesity, all published in 2019 alone
Things to read this week
Food media is incredibly white-centred and that needs to change. Read this discussion in Bon Appétit on the way recipe writing specifically has been whitewashed in the US (and, by extension, in the rest of western media): “If you look at a lot of early, popular American cookbooks, who are they written by? White people… At first, the power came from being able to read, write, and have access to the resources to actually record and publish their process—all things that require privilege”.
This piece in Vice explores the way the (predominantly white) food media rename recipes that have roots in non-western cultures - calling paratha ‘flaky bread’ - to make it more palatable to white audiences: “What we call a dish can either ground it in a particular culinary history, or it can remove a dish from that culture entirely. With translation comes a level of separation”.
So what can we do to fix it? I don’t have a perfect answer, but we can start by listening to Black people and people of colour, commissioning writers of colour and writers from non-white/western backgrounds, and hiring BIPOC in roles across the media.
Something that has happened this week was the Instagram hashtag #ShareTheMicFoodAndBev, which saw “high-profile figures… share the limelight with those typically excluded from it” by hosting Instagram takeovers. It saw Zoe Adjonyoh use Nigella Lawson’s account, Ashleigh Shanti use Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond’s account and Therese Nelson use Vivian Howard’s account for 24 hours.
In other UK news, areas of the North have been sent back into lockdown - kind of. Residents of Greater Manchester, parts of East Lancashire, West Yorkshire and Leicester have been instructed at the last minute (in a 10pm announcement from Health Secretary Matt Hancock) that we are no longer permitted to gather inside households. We are, however, still allowed to gather with strangers in pbs, bars and restaurants (anywhere with a card reader, essentially).
As well as putting an additional strain on the small businesses and low-paid service workers that make up much of the hospitality sector, the announcement seems to unfairly target Muslims who were set to celebrate Eid al-Adha with family this weekend.
Our perceived lack of time affects not just our food and eating habits, but our relationships, our mood and our health. This story was published in 2019, but I read it this week and in ~current times~ it seems especially pertinent: “When we never allow ourselves time to stop, sit and digest, we are in effect saying that our own nourishment doesn’t matter very much”. Make sure you take a real lunch break sometime this week, okay?
On a not-unrelated note: demand for small-plates, family-style service and other dining options that encourage sharing is (almost unbelievably) on the rise. In spite of fears around Coronavirus, diners are, apparently, more willing to share their food than ever. Perhaps we’ve missed group dining more than we realised?
Something I too have been thinking about for a while is the faux-simple-life, post-war countryside aesthetic that abounds on Instagram and has undeniably become more popular since the start of ~all of this~. An article in The Elephant sums it up perfectly: “for all its inclinations towards thrift and scarcity, this is fundamentally a bourgeois, middle-class aesthetic”. It’s the carefully crafted images of home stitched clothes, a single piece of fruit on a distressed ‘vintage’ dresser. It is a fantasy of imagined ‘poverty’ - which actually requires a lot of time and money to curate.
As a bit of a food photography nerd, this history of the topic was really interesting. Who knew we’d been sharing pictures of our brunch for the past 170 years?
I don’t use a garlic press, but its more laziness (if I’m using garlic I probably already have a knife and a chopping board out, why would I create more washing up with a garlic press?) than snobbery. How do you chop garlic?
Things to eat this week
I have a loaf of gluten-free and vegan banana bread ready to go in the oven as I write this (I live in a very warm flat, so baking is best left until nighttime at this time of year)
It’s birthday season in my family - my baby sister turned 19 this week, my dad turns 50-something next week and my mum’s birthday is at the end of August. Cue: lots of summer barbecues in the garden. I plan to make a batch of these vegan black-eyed pea patties with ChowChow for our next family event. This recipe not only sounds delicious (and vegan) but is also wrapped up in the writer’s history - both ancestral “these fritter recipes made their way to other countries along with the seeds carried by my stolen ancestors” and personal “I remember arriving at those backyard gatherings as a child, seeing and smelling all the delicious dishes we were about to enjoy”
Where to find me this week
Once again, I haven’t actually published anything new (my meds dosage is being adjusted and my brain has been like mush this week), but as always you can find me @ZoePickburn on Twiter, Insta, TikTok and other social media.
Say firstname.lastname@example.org with stories, commissions & foodie chit chat