I’ve just browsed around some articles online about the latest Jamie Oliver “controversy.” The issue, in which Oliver is persistently laying himself open to criticism for blaming the poor for some of their own travails, basically boils down to this (from an essay in The Guardian by Alex Andreou):
“The poorest families in this country choose the most expensive way to hydrate and feed their families. The ready meals, the convenience foods.”
If only he could travel back in time and advise the homeless me of 2009 how to replace a Tesco Value lasagna or Tesco Value chicken curry, both under £1, with something healthy that I can buy from the King’s Cross Tesco Metro (the only supermarket within walking distance) and cook in a microwave (the only cooking apparatus at my disposal).
This points to the idea that the real issue, the one Oliver isn’t seeing – despite his generally acknowledged good intentions – much less addressing is actually infrastructural, as opposed to attitudinal, cultural, or whatever “boot-strappy” fallacy Oliver is allowing himself to get caught up in.
Where I live it is relatively easy to walk or catch a bus to a well-stocked grocery store, but this is not always the case – especially in places of concentrated poverty. Additionally, the tools and equipment needed to cook cheap, healthy and *fast* meals may be neither readily available, nor cheap to purchase in those same areas. For example, I can make a lot of staple foods pretty quickly in my kitchen with just a bag of flour and a few other common ingredients.
However, this would take a prohibitive amount of time without my stand mixer and the attachments I have amassed for it over the years. Plus there’s the fact that cooking anything from raw ingredients requires, even more fundamentally, a bare minimum of clean, uncluttered counter space (to say nothing of a functional stove, oven, pots and pans, etc.).
Maybe instead of writing more cookbooks (even giving copies of them away to every public library in the country – as he did in an odd effort toward damage control) and spreading himself around on the TV, Jaime would do well to partner with or mentor some potential business operators in impoverished neighborhoods in order to open fresh food co-op stores. They could go further and add well-equipped co-op kitchens/dining rooms around the backs of the stores.
These cooperatively run businesses could become pillars of their neighborhoods where people could come together and strengthen themselves with healthy food and robust social relationships. They could benefit from sharing the knowledge of individuals in those communities some of whom undoubtedly work in food service or have family food traditions and would be only too happy to give back to their neighbors in this way. Kids could go there to learn how to make their own healthy after school snacks and eat them while hanging out and doing their homework in the co-op dining rooms in the hours before the evening neighborhood dinners available through pay-at-the-door or multiple-meal punch card buy-ins.
The economy of scale – especially if the idea could somehow be “franchised” – would benefit everyone in the neighborhoods by providing lower prices for and higher availability of healthy fresh food.
I am not a business person myself, but I suspect something like this would require ongoing charitable donations or an endowment of some kind to ensure that it wouldn’t just fall into disrepair almost immediately after the grand opening. Such funding would likely also be required for core staffing needs. Volunteerism is great, but even good organizations that run mostly by the grace of willing volunteers need a core of paid staff in most cases. Maybe Jaime and his fellow celebrity chefs could rally some of their millions to provide that seed money instead of (or at least in addition to) trying to sell poor people copies of the companion book to his new TV series.
Imagine all the free publicity and product placement possibilities present in these proposed shop/cook/dine hybrid storefronts. (I do think it’s important to balance being hopeful about positive social change against a touch of skepticism or even cynicism regarding the ability of celebrities to drive that change.)
Come to think of it, the journey to setting up something like that would probably make a really lovely, very sincerely uplifting reality TV series.