Food, class & capitalism

In a recent Prospect magazine article, Geoff Mulgan ponders what next after capitalism. He delineates clearly a pattern of social changes after major recessions from 1797 onwards and he proposes some possibilities for the changes ahead of us in the next decade or three.

Acknowleding that the rise of mass consumerism in rich countries has been a key feature of the post WWII landscape, he then goes on to posit that we can see changes to this domination already:

[T]here are already strong movements to restrain the excesses of mass
consumerism: slow food, the voluntary simplicity movement and the many measures
to arrest rising obesity, are all symptoms of a swing towards seeing consumerism
less as a harmless boon and more as a villain. The mayor of Sao Paolo, Gilberto
Kassab, banned all billboards in 2006. David Cameron has railed against toxic
capitalism corrupting young children, as well as toying with the idea of
personal carbon accounts to limit high carbon lifestyles.

Well I am glad to see that Mulgan can find three examples across the entire world. I'm all for the power of counter-consumerism initiatives such as the slow food movement and voluntary simplicity. But consider then an article by Felicity Lawrence for the Guardian from October 2008. She uses a word which Mulgan keeps out of sight in his article: class. Lawrence notes that:

[T]oday the language of class has been almost removed from the political
discourse. In Thatcherite and Blairite Britain, it has been framed instead in
terms of "choice". There is talk of the need to give people opportunities, but
after that, it's down to individual responsibility. It is no accident that the
government's white paper on health and obesity was called "Choosing health"
rather than the "social determinants of health".

Here in New Zealand the word 'class' has been all but obliterated from public discourse. Near to our small town, where work continues to create a lasting memorial to the birth of the New Zealand union movement in Blackball, the local council have rejected a rather reasonable request to have the $1100 resource consent fee for the project waived as it is a community project. 'Foreigners came in and caused that trouble - they were all communists and we can't be supporting that' sums up how at least one councillor sees a key project for the voice of New Zealand working people to be heard.

Back to food. And class. Lawrence again:

A child born in one deprived Glasgow suburb can expect a life 28 years shorter
than another living only 13km away in a more affluent area, a three-year
investigation for the World Health Organisation found in August. Commenting on
one of the key factors, the report concluded: "Obesity is caused not by moral
failure of individuals but by the excess availability of high-fat, high-sugar
Where are McDonalds and KFC and their other multimillion dollar international corporate mates mostly to be found? Down the poor end of town, that's where. The same end of town where most of the pokie machines are found in pubs.

They do so many wonderful things in the community, don't they? Ronald McDonald House, and the gaming grants to community groups. You betcha. At the prizegiving for the healthy food week (it had a flasher title which escapes me) at my son's school, each and every child in the school was given a Moro bar, courtesy of the local MacDonalds outlet. They were right on their use-by date and apparently such waste must be avoided by dumping them on the local school.

I talk to teenagers who go entire weeks without vegetables. What is easy to get your hands on if there is no food at home? Pies, chips, junk. You can't fill yourself up on $2 worth of oranges or bananas, but you can get a lot of calories out of $2 worth of fried spud.

I come from what used to be known as a respectable working class home, back in the days when sex and death were still a little taboo but class hadn't yet been buried. I learnt how to cook from my mother, who had in turn learnt from her mother. All the women in my family have spent time on farms as well as in suburban kitchens, and my legacy from this is that I know how to feed ten people if they turn up on the doorstep without warning. Shared meals around tables and on chairs have been the norm for our family meals for at least the last hundred years.

I remember being most irked by my mother's endless cautions if I was less than enthusiastic about a meal. "People are starving in Africa." "Some people have to eat out of cans. You should count your lucky stars I cook for you."

Mum never said who these people were who ate from cans. But I was sure I knew. They were from the state housing area, the kids who never got invited to our home and who, as legend has it in our house, stole my gumboots at school on the first rainy day after I turned five.

I torture my children about those less fortunate than themselves when they whinge and whine about my food. My son has a nice line going at the moment about how shop food is always nicer than home made food. Except for home grown broccoli, since he has had his own vege patch. He is keen on broccoli these days as it is going to give him the strength to score tries this coming rugby league season.

Just like I was, my kids are rolling in food wealth. Never a missed meal because of a pay packet which hasn't stretched far enough. The lentil soup we had tonight is the kind of food which does stretch a pay packet really well. So long as you have a decent saucepan, the power on, some vegetables to go in it with the lentils and some cooking skills so that it tastes good enough that they will want it again.

I remember the freezing works strikes when I was a kid. There was big one when I was 14. No one ever told us we weren't getting pocket money, or why there was a lot of soup and no ice cream for the six weeks and longer. We just knew and respected it. If I can muster the skills to manage the house like my mother did through long strikes, then I'll be very proud. We seem quite profligate by comparison.

The skills I have are the skills of a privileged woman. Poor enough that my mother ensured I learnt them; rich enough that we don't have to pull out lentil soup variations every night. I wish I knew how to pass these skills on in my community without being a patronising bitch. Because if you aren't coping, Mrs Superwoman with her broccoli in the garden and 100 ways to stretch a piece of dough is not quite who you feel like hearing from.


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