The Politics of PORRIDGE
With inflation now at 5.4% and the cost of living soaring with it, the humble oat has become an avatar of moral virtue in a right-wing culture war, Sian Norris reports
Is there a foodstuff that holds more political and social metaphors than the humble bowl of porridge?
From staple peasant food to the gruel demanded by hungry orphans; from a word associated with prison to an aspirational-detox-wellness-glowing-green-eating-clean-eating luxury (posh porridge for dogs now only £50 a bag!), porridge’s most recent incarnation is as a right-wing meme to attack those living in poverty and a way to fix the cost of living crisis.
The politics of porridge was in the spotlight again after the energy company OVO was forced to apologise for a blogpost that advised consumers to save energy by tucking into a bowl of hot oats. The company said it was “embarrassed” by its “poorly-judged advice”.
The message that poverty can end if the poor eat porridge is one repeatedly voiced by politicians and activists on the right whenever hunger or the cost of living crisis is in the news.
Take this 2017 tweet from political commentator Isabel Oakeshott, who complained that parents which didn’t provide their children with breakfast were “failing woefully” and should consider buying a “bag of porridge for £1; will last a family all week”. The tweet came a month after reports that up to three million children would go hungry in the school holidays.
The journalist Marcus Stead also waded into the porridge discourse when he tweeted that we should “stop all this nonsense about people not being able to ‘afford’ to give their children breakfast… A bag of porridge to feed a family for a week costs £1”.
Back in 2014, Baroness Jenkin had to apologise after saying that hunger stemmed, in part, from losing cooking skills, concluding that “poor people don’t know how to cook”. She went on to say that she had “a large bowl of porridge today, which cost 4p” – the implication being the masses could and should follow her example.
A quick keyword search for “porridge” on Twitter reveals how widespread the belief that poverty can be fixed through oats is.
“Food poverty is a myth, it only exists through choices,” reads one tweet that details a shopping list of porridge, yoghurt and tinned peaches. Another tweeter agrees that “food poverty is a choice… feckless, thick parents”. “What is food poverty?” asks another. “The choice to have a bowl of porridge oats at 7.5p per serving or a bowl of chocolatey sugary cereal at a much higher cost per serving?”
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Let Them Eat Porridge!
In the right-wing, libertarian mind, porridge has become the cure-all for food poverty: it’s cheap, it’s good for you and it is imbued with a nostalgia of sturdy old-fashioned British grub. Never mind that this nostalgia seems rooted in Dickensian poverty.
But the commentary on porridge hides an inconvenient truth about the cost of living crisis and the costs of being poor, at a time when inflation has hit a 30-year high of 5.4%.
Let’s take the price analysis first. Whether your bowl of porridge rings in at Baroness Jenkins’ 4p or Oakeshott’s £1 a packet, the cost of porridge goes beyond the oats. It requires electricity or gas to heat the milk or water, it requires a pan to cook it in, it requires time and it requires a topping such as honey, fruit, jam or syrup (plain porridge is no one’s first breakfast choice).
People living in poverty are more likely to be on prepaid gas and electric meters, meaning their energy costs tend to be higher as they miss out on the best fixed rate tariffs. Five minutes on a gas hob clocks up a few kilowatt hours, unlike pouring “chocolatey sugary cereal” into a bowl.
Around four million households in England are classed as fuel poor, as are 25% of households in Scotland, 12% in Wales, and 18% in Northern Ireland. Now, with energy costs set to soar, a further two million homes are at risk of falling into fuel poverty. This comes at a time when food costs are already going up, including the cost of porridge, and the removal of the £20 uplift to Universal Credit took up to £1,040 a year out of the poorest families’ budgets.
The rising cost of fuel means that low income households are set to spend 18% of their income on energy bills. Suddenly, 4p a bowl isn’t so realistic.
Then there’s access to a hob or microwave to make the porridge in the first place. Nearly 125,000 children are currently living in temporary accommodation such as hotels or hostels. People living in temporary accommodation often have to share cooking facilities or have no access to cooking equipment at all – a situation worsened by the Coronavirus lockdowns. In a survey by Shelter, a third of respondents said that they struggled to prepare food and eat properly during lockdown because of inadequate cooking facilities.
Speaking in 2019, a homeless mother shared how she couldn’t even go to the food bank to get porridge or tinned goods to feed her daughter “as there was nothing in our accommodation to cook with. We were living off fast food, or what friends could give us”. She and her daughter were housed in a hotel for nine months.
Women with histories of gender-based violence who are housed in mixed-sex spaces have spoken of their discomfort of sharing facilities with men, meaning that they are less likely to take advantage of communal cooking spaces. How can you cook porridge when the kitchen is a threatening place, or when you have no kitchen at all?
The Joy of Food
In the UK today, around 1.8 million children are now growing up in very deep poverty, meaning that the household’s income is so low that it is completely inadequate to cover the basics. This is an increase of half a million in the last decade.
Food poverty is not an individual failing or a choice – it’s not a question of picking Sugar Puffs over porridge. It’s a combination of poor housing, rising energy costs, the cost of food and the time needed to cook and prepare healthy meals.
In one ironic way, Baroness Jenkin was correct in that there is a lack of cooking knowledge. Such ignorance spans wealth demographics, not just families living in poverty. Cooking rates are highly gendered – only 46% of men cook for themselves every day compared to 71% of women – and 2014 statistics say one in 10 British people don’t know how to cook. There is a need to provide practical advice on how to cook healthy and nutritional meals across the board.
But cooking skills are meaningless if you can’t afford the oats, and the honey or jam, and when facing a choice between food and fuel. They are meaningless when there are no facilities to cook with or no accessible space to cook in.
While porridge with honey or fruit is a nutritious and warming breakfast, it is just one meal. It’s hard to believe those preaching the benefits of oats would think of feeding their (real or hypothetical) children the same dish, day in, day out, creating a misery out of mealtimes.
Even children living in poverty deserve a tasty treat, don’t they?
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