Baroness Jenkin is the wrong target for our outrage over food poverty

We shouldn't let press hysteria distract us from the real problems with the UK food industry.

We shouldn’t let press hysteria distract us from the real problems with the UK food industry

Yesterday a damning report was released about the rise in food bank usage in the UK.

The coalition’s cuts have created a barely credible situation where huge numbers of British people cannot afford to feed themselves.

A combination of inflation, a badly administered benefits system and falling wages have hit society’s poorest families; the government is failing to meet its citizens’ most basic needs.

But this is not what is dominating the headlines today. Instead, it is the unfortunate words of Tory peer Baroness Jenkin and her comments on the report – “Poor people don’t know how to cook” – that have sent the papers mad.

Embarrassing, but ultimately a relief for the Conservatives because scrutiny is being deflected away from deeply harmful policies to an on-the-spot blunder.

As the Emily Thornberry incident showed, the press much prefer to direct their scorn at individuals, and will seize any chance to vilify a wrong-footed politician (see Candy Crush Saga, Plebgate).

Also, Baroness Jenkin is the wrong target. She is one of the few Tories who has actually been active on this issue. She was on the team behind the inquiry published yesterday, which was deeply critical of the government and made a number of sensible recommendations aimed at helping food bank users to recover their independence.

In November she told parliament that, she was going to “bang on and on” about the issue of food waste. Hopefully, the report that she was part of will do the same thing, and go towards making some much-needed policy changes.

But even if the report has real impact, Baroness Jenkin will be remembered mainly by the public for her offensive language choice, such is the effect of an hysterical and petty press.

Of Baroness Jenkin’s assumption, it seems that ‘poor people’ eating ready meals are probably doing so because of a lack of time and money, not because they don’t know how to cook. Even if education is the issue, people cannot be expected to make good nutrition choices when packaging and promotions are so confusing.

As if to illustrate this point, the Department of Health has revealed today that it is considering putting the official ‘five-a-day’ logo on pizzas and ready meals. Public Health England found that 40 per cent of pre-prepared products, including lasagne and meatballs, contained at least one portion of fruit and vegetables.

This sounds like a bad joke – “wine contains grapes so it must be healthy” etc – but it will be a very serious bad decision if it is implemented. It is completely misleading, and simply a way of making people feel better about themselves without actually having to change their lifestyles.

It is also a way for food retailers to refute claims that they are perpetuating an obesity crisis by making unhealthy foods so much cheaper; they will be able to facetiously point to the deals on pre-packaged things in tomato sauce.

If children grow up believing pizza to be a balanced meal, then why would they bother to learn to cook?

But it is not only poor people who would be affected by this change; it will be a godsend for anyone who prefers pizza to apples and doesn’t want to feel guilty about it, making all the problems we already have worse.

Kawther Hashem, from the Action on Sugar (AOS) campaign group, told The Times today that retailers should be making it easier for consumers to eat whole fruit and vegetables through their promotions, rather than confusing them with added logos.

Action on Sugar have previously campaigned to remove fruit juices from the recommended list of ‘healthy things’ that should be eaten daily, on the grounds that it is confusing for parents.

Only 150ml glass of unsweetened fruit juice counts towards five-a-day, but most supermarket fruit juices for children are either less than this or filled with extra sugar; AOS found that over a quarter of fruit juices were more sugary than coca-cola.

Parents cannot be expected to make the right choices when the advice is so conflicting.

If Baroness Jenkin is really concerned about nutritional education then she should denounce this idea immediately, while the spotlight is on her, as a huge step backwards.

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

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