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Bread Lines

Most of my friends went slightly mad as they finished their PhD dissertations; some cried compulsively, another forgot to eat, and I knew a couple who never wore anything other than pyjamas for months on end. My lowest ebb came when I developed a mild addiction to The Archers, a daily, fifteen-minute soap on Radio 4, featuring the activities of a large, extended family in the fictional village of Ambridge.

Described by Sandi Toksvig as ‘a memorable theme tune, followed by fifteen minutes of ambient farm noise and sighing,’ The Archers was created in 1950 as a kind of public information service: the BBC collaborated with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food to broadcast information about new technologies and methods to farmers during a period when Britain was trying to increase agricultural productivity.

The series still has an agricultural story editor, and there’s at least one fairly awkward moment in each episode when Ruth Archer discusses milking machines, or Adam Macy mulls over the relative benefits of crop rotation. But its appeal lies now in its human drama. It’s been criticised – rightly – for avoiding complex or uncomfortable social issues, but, recently, it’s featured an excellent storyline involving the series’ poorest family, the Grundys.

Struggling with cuts in benefits and reduced wages, Emma Grundy runs out of money and takes refuge in a food bank, where she and her daughter are given a free lunch. In a sense, this thread dramatizes the Guardian’s excellent Breadline Britain Project, which tracks the ‘impact and consequences of recession on families and individuals across the UK.’ The project has demonstrated convincingly that British people are eating worse as they become less financially secure.

One of its most arresting reports argues that Britain is in a ‘nutrition recession’:

Detailed data compiled for the Guardian, which analysed the grocery buying habits of thousands of UK citizens, shows that consumption of fat, sugar and saturates has soared since 2010, particularly among the poorest households, despite the overall volume of food bought remaining almost static. Food experts and campaigners called for government action to address concerns the UK faces a sustained nutritional crisis triggered by food poverty, which is in turn storing up public health problems that threaten to widen inequalities between rich and poor households.

The data show consumption of high-fat and processed foods such as instant noodles, coated chicken, meat balls, tinned pies, baked beans, pizza and fried food has grown among households with an income of less than £25,000 a year as hard-pressed consumers increasingly choose products perceived to be cheaper and more ‘filling’.

Over the same period, fruit and vegetable consumption has dropped in all but the most well-off UK households, and most starkly among the poorest consumers, according to the data.

It’s no wonder that so many columnists have evoked George Orwell’s description of the very poor eating habits of Wigan’s most impoverished residents during the Great Depression in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). But the use of the term ‘breadline’ harks back to an earlier, and arguably more influential study, Seebohm Rowntree’s Poverty: A Study in Town Life (1901). Rowntree (1871-1954), the son of the philanthropist and chocolate tycoon Joseph (1836-1925), had studied chemistry in Manchester before beginning work as a scientist in the family business in York.

Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree*

But like his father – whose awareness of poverty had been awakened, apparently, by a trip to Ireland during the potato famineRowntree’s encounters with York’s poor led to the first of three studies which he undertook into poverty in York. Inspired partly by Charles Booth’s The Life and Labour of the People (1886), which analysed the lives of London’s poor, in 1899 Rowntree conducted a survey of the working-class population of York. His findings caused a national outcry, as Ian Packer explains:

Poverty: A Study of Town Life (1901)…became an important subject of debate because of its assertion that not only were 28 percent of the total households in York in poverty but nearly 10 percent had incomes so low that they could not keep the members of the family in what Seebohm termed ‘physical efficiency,’ that is, provided with sufficient nutritional food to maintain health.

Rowntree used access to food as a means of gauging poverty, and it is here that he originated the idea of the ‘breadline’. Diana Wylie writes:

Rowntree latched on to food, or, more precisely, its lack, as a convenient and revealing means of measuring socially unacceptable levels of deprivation. He drew an absolute poverty line; below it, people did not earn enough to buy the ‘minimum necessities for the maintenance of merely physical efficiency.’ If working men did not consume 3,500 calories of food energy daily, and women four-fifths that amount, their intelligence became dulled and their stature stunted. This quite pragmatic definition of hunger, the ‘underfeeding’ that would destroy a person’s stamina, served for Rowntree as the index for judging Britain’s social progress.

This and Rowntree’s subsequent two studies of poverty in York, published in 1936 and 1951, became some of the most significant evidence on which arguments for the creation of a British welfare state, were based. Rowntree’s point was that unemployment and low wages – and not bad eating or spending habits – were at the root of working-class poverty. It became, then, the ethical duty of the state to provide the means of freeing the population from the threat of hunger.

There is a direct line between Poverty: A Study in Town Life and the 1942 Beveridge Report, one of the most important documents of the twentieth century, which provided the foundation for Britain’s welfare state. But the influence of Rowntree’s work was felt beyond Yorkshire and the UK. In Starving on a Full Stomach (2001), Diana Wylie demonstrates the impact of the idea of the breadline on social scientists in South Africa during the early twentieth century.

In 1935, Edward Batson, a graduate of the London School of Economics, Beveridge enthusiast, and professor of social science at the University of Cape Town, arrived in South Africa and began work on ‘the first systematic survey of black urban poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.’

By 1938, Batson had surveyed 808 Cape Town households to discover how much they spent on six essential food groups, and compared their diet with the…minimum daily standard recommended in 1933 by the British Medical Association. His figures revealed that half of Cape Town’s Coloured people lived below the poverty datum line.

Like Rowntree

Batson refuted some common social scientific assumptions such as that ignorance determined the poor diets of poor Capetonians, a perspective that, he said, had recently become ‘fashionable.’ … On the contrary, Batson wrote, most people simply could not afford to eat better.

Batson’s research was undertaken in the midst of widespread debates around the founding of a South African welfare state, the underpinnings of which were put in place during the 1920s and 1930s with legislation such as the 1928 Old Age Pensions Act, and the 1937 Children’s Act. But although his work concentrated on black people, the South African welfare state was established largely to benefit whites. Indeed, Jeremy Seekings makes the point that pensions legislation in the 1920s emerged out of concerns about protecting the white (and, to some extent, coloured) ‘deserving’ poor from a perceived black ‘threat.’ This meant that evidence of significant hunger among black people was not a force in the formulation of South African welfare policy, at least before the Second World War.

So whereas Rowntree’s research contributed to the creation of a universal welfare state in Britain, where all people qualified for assistance from the state through the provision of social security payments, and free healthcare and education, in South Africa, welfare was raced: the welfare state was created to protect and to maintain white power, and to entrench racial segregation.

Understanding the origins of the term ‘breadline’ helps us to see the extent to which attitudes towards, and efforts to eradicate, hunger have changed over time, and the ways in which they’re influenced by thinking about race, as well as class. That being hungry and white meant – and means – something different to being hungry and black.

This photograph is from the National Portrait Gallery‘s collection.

Sources

William Beinart, Twentieth-Century South Africa, new ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Timothy J. Hatton and Roy E. Bailey, ‘Seebohm Rowntree and the Postwar Poverty Puzzle,’ The Economic History Review, vol. 53, no. 2 (Aug. 2000), pp. 517-543).

Ian Packer, ‘Religion and the New Liberalism: The Rowntree Family, Quakerism, and Social Reform,’ Journal of British Studies, vol. 42, no2 (April 2003), pp. 236-257.

Jeremy Seekings, ‘“Not a Single White Person Should be Allowed to Go Under”: Swartgevaar and the Origins of South Africa’s Welfare State, 1924-1929,’ Journal of African History, vol. 48, no. 3 (Nov. 2000), pp. 375-394.

Diana Wylie, Starving on a Full Stomach: Hunger and the Triumph of Cultural Racism in Modern South Africa (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 2001).

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Children’s Food

I’m writing this post while listening to this week’s podcast of BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme. The episode is about nine year-old food writer Martha Payne, whose blog about the dinners served at her school became the cause of a strange and troubling controversy a month ago.

Martha uses her blog, NeverSeconds, to review the food she eats at school. As Jay Rayner points out, although she may criticise – rightly – much of which the school provides for lunch, NeverSeconds is not intended as a kind of school dinners hatchet job. She rates her meals according to a Food-o-Meter, taking into account how healthy, but also how delicious, they are.

As her blog has grown in popularity, children from all over the world have contributed photographs and reviews, and it’s partly this which makes Never Seconds so wonderful: it’s a space in which children can discuss and debate food.

NeverSeconds came to wider – global – notice when the Argyll and Bute Council tried to shut it down in June, after the Daily Record published an article featuring Martha cooking with the chef Nick Nairn, headlined ‘Time to fire the dinner ladies.’ The blog’s honest descriptions and pictures of some of the food served to schoolchildren can’t have pleased councillors either.

As Private Eye (no. 1317) makes the point, the council’s bizarre – and futile – attempts to silence a blog probably had as much to do with internal politicking and minor corruption as anything else, but the furore which erupted after the ban also said a great deal about attitudes towards food and children.

What is really scandalous about the blog is that it reveals how bad – how unhealthy, how heavily processed – school meals can be. When Jamie Oliver launched a campaign in 2005 to improve the quality of school dinners in the UK, his most shocking revelations were not, I think, that children were being fed Turkey Twizzlers and chips for lunch, but, rather, that the British government is willing to spend so little on what children eat at school. Last year, the state spent an average of 67p per primary school pupil per meal, per day. This rose to 88p for those in high school.

Michael Gove has recently announced another inquiry into the quality of school meals – this time headed up by the altogether posher-than-Jamie Henry Dimbleby, the founder of the Leon chain of restaurants, who also seems to spend the odd holiday with the Education Secretary in Marrakech. It’s a tough life.

But as Sheila Dillon comments during this episode of the Food Programme:

Martha Payne, a nine year-old who seems to understand better than many adults, that dinner ladies, or even individual school kitchens, are not the source of the school dinner problem. It has far deeper roots.

When did it become acceptable to serve schoolchildren junk food for lunch? The way we feed children tells us a great deal about how we conceptualise childhood. Or, put another way, what we define as ‘children’s food’ says as much about our attitudes towards food as it does about children.

The idea that children should be fed separately to adults has a relatively long pedigree. The Victorians argued that children – and women – should be fed bland, carbohydrate-heavy meals to prevent their delicate digestive systems from being exerted. Fruit, meat, spices, and fresh vegetables should be eaten only in strict moderation.

There is, of course, a disconnect between what experts – medical professionals, childrearing specialists – recommend, and what people actually eat. In the late nineteenth-century Cape Colony, for instance, the pupils at an elite girls’ school near Cape Town were fed a diet rich in red meat and fresh fruit and vegetables.

But the belief that children’s bodies are delicate and potentially vulnerable to disruption was an indicator of shifts in thinking about childhood during the mid and late nineteenth century. The notion that children need to be protected – from work, hunger, poverty, and exploitation and abuse from adults – emerged at around the same time. As children were to be shielded from potential danger, so they were to eat food which, it was believed, was ideally suited to digestive systems more susceptible to upset and illness than those of adults.

But as scientists became interested in the relationship between food and health – in nutrition, in other words – towards the end of the 1800s, paediatricians, demographers, and others concerned about high rates of child mortality during the early twentieth century began to look more closely at what children were being fed. For instance, in the 1920s and 1930s, scientists in Britain and the United States drew a connection between the consumption of unhealthy or diseased food – particularly rotten milk – and high rates of diarrhoea, then almost always fatal, among children in these countries.

They were also interested in what should constitute a healthy diet for a child. As childhood became increasingly medicalised in the early twentieth century – as pregnancy, infancy, and childhood became seen as periods of development which should be overseen and monitored by medical professionals – so children’s diets became the purview of doctors as well. As RJ Blackman, the Honorary Surgeon to the Viceroy of India (no, me neither), wrote in 1925:

Food, though it is no panacea for the multitudinous ills of mankind, can do much, both to make or mar the human body. This is particularly so with the young growing child. All the material from which his body is developed has to come from the food he eats. Seeing that he doubles or trebles his weight in the first year of life, and increases it twenty-fold by the time he reaches adult stature, it will be seen that food has much to accomplish. Naturally, if the food be poor, the growth and physique will be poor; and if good, the results will be good.

Informed by recent research into dietetics, doctors advised parents to feed their children varied diets which included as much fresh, vitamin-containing produce as possible. In a popular guide to feeding young children, The Nursery Cook Book (1929), the former nurse Mrs K. Jameson noted:

Many years ago, I knew a child who was taken ill at the age of eight years, and it was thought that one of her lungs was affected. She was taken to a children’s specialist in London. He could find nothing radically wrong, but wrote out a diet sheet. By following this…the child became well in a month or two. This shows how greatly the health is influenced by diet.

This diet, she believed, should be designed along scientific principles:

Since starting to write this book I have come across an excellent book on vitamins called ‘Food and Health’ (Professor Plimmer), and I have found it very helpful. I have endeavoured to arrange the meals to contain the necessary vitamins, as shown in the diagram of ‘A Square Meal’ at the beginning of the book.

Indeed, she went on to explain that children who were properly fed would never need medicine.

In 1925, advising mothers on how to wean their babies in the periodical Child Welfare, Dr J. Alexander Mitchell, the Secretary for Public Health in the Union of South Africa, counselled against boiling foodstuffs for too long as it ‘destroys most of the vitamins.’ He argued that children’s diets ‘should include a good proportion of proteins or fleshy foods and fats’, as well as plenty of fruit, fresh vegetables, milk, and ‘porridge…eggs, meat, juice, soups’.

What is so striking about the diets described by Mitchell, Jameson, and others is how similar they were to what adults would have eaten. Children were to eat the same as their parents, but in smaller quantities and in different proportions. For example, some doctors counselled again children being allowed coffee, while others believed that they should limit their intake of rich foods.

So what is the origin of the idea that children should be cajoled into eating healthily by making food ‘fun’? Mrs Jameson’s recipes might have cute names – she calls a baked apple ‘Mr Brownie with his coat on’ – but they’re the same food as would be served to adults. Now, our idea of ‘children’s food’ differs from that of the 1920s and 1930s. When we think of children’s food, we imagine sweets, soft white sandwich bread, pizza, hotdogs, and brightly coloured and oddly shaped foodstuffs designed to appeal to children.

As Steven Mintz argues in his excellent history of American childhood, Huck’s Raft (2004), the 1950s and 1960s were child-oriented decades. Not only were there more children as a result of the post-war baby boom, but with the growing prosperity of late twentieth-century America, more money was spent on children than ever before. Families tended to be smaller, and increasing pocket money transformed children into mini-consumers.

Children either bought, or had their parents buy for them, a range of consumer goods aimed at them: from clothes and toys, to ‘child-oriented convenience foods… – “Sugar Frosted Flakes (introduced in 1951), Sugar Smacks (in 1953), Tater Tots (in 1958), and Jiffy Pop, the stovetop popcorn (also in 1958).’

The same period witnessed a shift in attitudes towards childrearing. Families became increasingly child-centred, with meals and routines designed around the needs of children, rather than parents. In many ways, this was a reaction against the orthodoxies of the pre-War period, which tended to emphasise raising children to be obedient, well-behaved, and self-disciplined.

So the definition of children’s food changed again. For the parents of Baby Boomers, food was made to be appealing to children. Fussiness was to be accommodated and negotiated, rather than ignored. And children’s desire for food products advertised on television was to be indulged.

I am exaggerating to make a point – in the US and the UK children during the 1960s and 1970s certainly ate less junk than they do now, and this new understanding of children’s food emerged in different ways and at different times in other parts of the world – but this change represented a bonanza for the burgeoning food industry. Although the industry’s attempts to advertise to children are coming under greater scrutiny and regulation (and rightly so), it does have a vested interest in encouraging children and their parents to believe that that is what constitutes good food for children.

I think that it’s partly this shift in thinking about children’s relationship with food – that they should eat only that which they find appealing, and that children will only eat food which is ‘fun’, brightly coloured, oddly shaped, and not particularly tasty – that allowed for the tolerance of such poor school food for so long in Britain.

Martha’s blog is a powerful corrective to this: she, her classmates, and contributors all have strong opinions about what they eat, and they like a huge variety of food – some of it sweets, but most of it is pretty healthy. The irony is that in – apparently – pandering to what children are supposed to like, politicians and policy makers seem to find listening to what a child has to say, fairly difficult. If we’re to persuade children to eat well, then not only should we encourage them to talk and to think about food, but we need to listen to what they have to say about it.

Further Reading

Linda Bryder, A Voice for Mothers: The Plunket Society and Infant Welfare, 1907-2000 (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2003).

Deborah Dwork, War is Good for Babies and Other Young Children: A History of the Infant and Child Welfare Movement in England 1898-1918 (London and New York: Tavistock Publications, 1987).

Steven Mintz, Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2004).

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Quackers

Patient and loyal readers – immense apologies for the absence of this week’s blog post. I have just emerged from this semester’s marking hell, so normal service will resume this weekend. (For colleagues currently contemplating the point of their existence and wondering why they didn’t become professional tennis players, I give you this, and this. They helped immeasurably.)

This is, then, just a short post to point you in the direction of a recent ruling by South Africa’s Advertising Standards Authority. Last year, the respected NGO Equal Education laid an official complaint with the ASA about radio advertisements for a nutritional supplement called Smart Kids Brain Boost developed by quack nutritionist Patrick Holford. In the ads, Holford claimed that the product would improve ‘mental vitality’ (whatever that is) and better children’s performance at school.

As a submission from Harris Steinman demonstrates – in exhaustive detail – Holford’s claims are based on a clutch of peer-reviewed articles (good) whose research is outdated (not good) and which occasionally contradict him (really bad). This is not the first time that the ASA has ruled against Holford – an earlier complaint lodged by Steinman (who’s a real doctor) against the Mood Food nutritional supplement was upheld. Steinman proved that it was unlikely that Holford’s pills would make people feel happier or more motivated.

This most recent decision by the ASA pleases me enormously. Not only does it strike a blow against the nutrition industry which peddles the misinformation that all people need to take supplements in order to be healthy and happy, but it prevents a very wealthy man from benefitting from parents’ credulity. South Africa’s education system is dysfunctional, and it is likely that pupils’ poor performance is linked partly to bad diets. But these diets will not be improved by taking magic tablets. Only by alleviating poverty, and ensuring that parents are able to afford to buy the fruit, vegetables, protein, and carbohydrates that constitute healthy diets, will children’s performance at school improve.

This post owes a great deal to the excellent work done by the magnificently-named Quackdown! Do check it out.

Square Meals

The best television chef ever is Adam on Northern Exposure (surely the greatest series ever made). Dirty, self-centred, arrogant, appallingly rude, yet phenomenally talented – he once turned down a job at the legendary Tour d’Argent – Adam appears periodically, often accompanied by his neurotic, hypochondriac, and equally selfish wife, Eve, cooks incredible food, and then vanishes.

Adam is the anti-foodie. His enthusiasm for cooking isn’t borne out of snobbery or a desire to demonstrate either his sophistication or moral superiority, but, rather, out of a liking for food and eating. And possibly a hatred for the people for whom he cooks.

He is a world away from the TV chef-celebrities who populate cooking-driven channels like the Food Network. Indeed, when Northern Exposure aired between 1990 and 1995, the idea that a single TV channel could be devoted entirely to food was relatively new. In the US, the Food Network launched in 1993, and the now-defunct Carlton Food Network – for which, incidentally, a young David Cameron did PR – aired for the first time three years later in the UK.

Now, food is everywhere on television, and food programmes have evolved from their most basic format – a chef cooking in a kitchen – to embrace travel and reality programmes. There’s been a lot of fuss about the launch of the most recent incarnation of the unbelievably successful MasterChef franchise in South Africa. In fact, the evolution of MasterChef says a great deal about how food on television has changed over the past few decades.

The original MasterChef series aired in the UK between 1990 and 1999 and was presented by pasta sauce entrepreneur and mid-Atlantic accent promoter, Loyd Grossman. It was all very serious and restrained and most of the contestants were terribly tense ladies from the Home Counties who replicated the nouvelle cuisine they had eaten at Le Gavroche, with varying degrees of success and anxiety.

It was revamped in 2005. With two shouty judges and considerably more socially representative participants, its popularity demonstrating the shifting significance of food within middle-class Britain. The new series’s focus on training contestants to be good, highly skilled chefs is meant to produce people who could, conceivably, run their own restaurants – which, to the credit of MasterChef, winners like Thomasina Miers and Mat Follas have done successfully.

The Australian, American, and South African versions of MasterChef have increased the emphasis on teaching would-be chefs how to work in professional kitchens. Of course, people watch these series for the same reasons that they tune into The Amazing Race, Strictly Come Dancing, and Project Runway. But MasterChef has the added appeal that it aims to teach its audience about cooking: the master classes offered by its presenters are aimed as much at those watching the series as at the contestants.

In fact, the earliest and most enduring TV cookery shows were intended primarily to educate, rather than only entertain, audiences. Dione Lucas – who claimed, incorrectly, to be the first woman graduate of the Cordon Bleu Cookery Institute in Paris – taught classical French cooking to the affluent American middle classes during the 1950s. Julia Child, an altogether warmer and more appealing presenter, did the same in her long-running series. Their aim was to teach Americans how to cook properly – and during the 1950s and 1960s, ‘proper’ food was French food.

Even Fanny Cradock, despite her increasingly ridiculous television appearances towards the end of her career, cooked a version of French cuisine which was meant to be affordable and accessible to her audience. Delia Smith’s first series, Family Fayre, in the mid-1970s was intended to teach its audience how to cook. Her success – built partly on the fact that her impeccably-tested recipes always do work – owed a great deal to her ability to teach and to de-mystify processes which may at first seem difficult and complicated.

Many of the cookery shows of the 1980s and early 1990s were made by the BBC’s Continuing Education Department: Madhur Jaffrey and Ken Hom, among others, owe their early success to the Beeb’s efforts to educate audiences. It was only with the coming of Graham Kerr – the ‘Galloping Gourmet’ – and, more successfully, Keith Floyd, that cookery programmes began to shift their emphasis from education to entertainment.

I’ve never really understood Floyd’s appeal, as Paul Levy writes:

Keith Floyd was a television cook who enjoyed and profited from a large audience despite having no outstanding talent, either as a cook or as a TV presenter, no great knowledge of his subject, or any apparent passion for anything but drink.

But he could be amusing – and more so than most of the considerably more serious presenters of food programmes in Britain. In many ways, the entertainment- and lifestyle-driven series presented by Nigella Lawson, Ainsley Harriott, Sophie Dahl and others are part of Floyd’s unwitting legacy.

I’m more interested in the way that presenters of food programmes have linked their teaching to wider, social projects. In post-revolution Cuba, cookbook writer Nitza Villapol used her long-running television series to teach Cubans a cuisine which was at once ‘authentically’ Cuban but also compatible with the country’s system of food rationing. During the Special Period, she provided recipes and advice for making limited supplies go further. She is still – regardless of her association with the period – seen as the pre-eminent expert on Cuban cooking.

In Egypt, Ghalia Mahmoud has recently emerged as a popular TV chef on the 25 January cable channel. From a working-class background, Mahmoud teaches audiences ‘traditional Egyptian food, such as mahshi (stuffed vine leaves), bisara and keshk, simple fava-bean and buttermilk-based stews.’ Not only do her recipes respect the differing dietary requirements of Egypt’s range of religious groups, but she cooks with an awareness that many members of her audience have limited resources. This is patriotic cuisine for a new Egypt: one which demonstrates how to feed a family on only 250g of meat a week.

It’s particularly telling that the TV chefs of the final years of the Mubarak regime were, as Mahmoud says, ‘bigger than movie stars and spoke English and French.’ The most popular cookery teachers on television – and this includes Ina Paarman in South Africa – have been lower- to middle-class women. It’s a common observation – even complaint – that while the majority of people who cook family meals are women, the best-known and most feted cooks are all male. This isn’t entirely true. Arguably, the most influential cooks of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries – those who actually teach their audiences how to prepare food – are women.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.