Cooking With Class

Baroness Jenkin may have got herself into trouble by claiming that the poor can’t cook, but, as with all such complex issues, the attacks on her were as lacking in nuance as her initial comments. It is certainly true that a lot of poor people either do not know how to or are constrained from cooking. The problem is that the chattering classes are incapable of seeing past the surface, whether it’s assuming that the poor are stupid, calling for the teaching of cookery in school or denouncing proponents of such.

Yes, there are poor people who have never learnt to cook, but that is a symptom not the root of the problem. Teaching poor people to cook would not be some panacea to solve health and budgeting problems (and, let’s be blunt, those same problems can be found in affluent households, so cannot be blamed solely upon poverty).

What such debate overlooks are all the reasons why poor people who can cook or who would like to learn to cook are unable to do so. People on benefits and in low-paying jobs generally live in bedsits or cramped houses or flats that lack adequate kitchen and storage space. It is all very well to pontificate that the poor could cook themselves cheap, healthy meals, but if they lack storage space for utensils and ingredients, and lack the space to actually work in (or, perhaps, even the space for a cooker), they are going to be limited as to what foods they can actually prepare.

Then, there is cost. Although cooking from scratch is usually far cheaper than eating ready meals or takeaways, when budgeted for properly, it has to be remembered that people on low incomes lack the money to invest in the initial outlay. Although a false economy in the long term, on a limited budget saving is always the first casualty of poverty – a mother wants to feed her children today, not save to buy a new cooker so she can feed them in a year’s time! This also applies to the learning curve of becoming a cook – poor people do not have the luxury of spare cash for a takeaway if they ruin dinner – a problem aggravated by the lack of space and equipment to do a proper job. Thus, they are much more likely to stick to ready meals and takeaways and a guaranteed meal than risk their money on a gamble.

Time, too, is also a factor. Although the image of poverty today is frequently of someone scrounging on the dole, the truth is that most poor people are workers on low incomes (and even the unemployed are expected to be doing full-time jobsearch or to be on courses, not just sitting around at home boozing). The irony is that low wages almost always go hand-in-hand with long hours and multiple jobs, as people struggle to earn enough to survive on. Too often, people working such long hours just do not have the energy, inclination or time to cook when they get home.

Finally, and touching on both time and cost, is the issue of access to ingredients. Those who sit in judgement on the poor for their lack of culinary skills fail to consider that most poor people are not well served with butchers and greengrocers from whom they can buy ingredients. Often they will only have takeaways and cornershops within walking distance. Remember they probably cannot afford to run a car or pay for a taxi or even a bus fare. If they are lucky, there may be a free bus to a supermarket. But, even in this age of late-closing supermarkets, it is unlikely they will have the energy or inclination to head out on a long trek to buy ingredients when they can just pop over to the cornershop or a takeaway.

All of which only serves to aggravate the problem for the next generation – parents who could cook if only circumstances allowed are not passing on their skills to their children, creating yet more people for whom cooking isn’t even an option.

So, while Baroness Jenkin was right to highlight the issue and didn’t deserve a knee-jerk denunciation, merely teaching cookery skills isn’t the answer, nor is the provision of ingredients through foodbanks, although they are part of it. Society needs to ensure that everyone has sufficient space in which to cook meals and has access to the ingredients to cook them, as well as the time and money necessary. Only then will the poor have the opportunities that are being denied to them. These are issues that go deeper than any simple solution or blame apportioning. Fundamental changes need to be applied.

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