- a blog about food and value

Snobbery against cheap food: How doing the right thing is a stick to beat the poor

You don't buy all your food here? You're a terrible person.

You don’t buy all your food here? You’re a terrible person.

Cheap eats. German discounters. Euro value shops. Big supermarkets. Iceland.

We’ve often lambasted here for being excessively focused on the cheap. Or told that it’s immoral to not buy organic. Or that we should only eat Fairtrade or totally ethical produce. Or that decent humans buy from small, local producers at farmer’s markets, choosing fresh and seasonal all the time in order to whip up a delicious and healthy midweek supper for all the family, and that the most decent of all the humans grow their own. Mostly very laudable, with ideals I largely support for everyone, and great if you can afford to. More power to anyone who can do it, including two good friends who have kindly made me some gorgeous seasonal meals using local produce and their own home-grown veg; I want to be more like them.

But frankly – and this may lose us some readers – there can be some serious snobbery and self-indulgence about the eating habits of people on low incomes, something not far from “why can’t they just make their own foie-gras at home and dig up some fresh vegetables from their acre of land?” These attitudes are based on an unwillingness or inability to understand the real causes of poverty. People on lower incomes don’t usually have the opportunity to learn about the healthiest choices, or the time to buy them, or the money to afford them.

It is middle and upper class indulgence and arrogance, I write, without a hint of self-awareness, as I point you towards that not-remotely middle-class organ The Guardian, where the controversial polemicist Suzanne Moore says today that:

Food has become the ultimate signifier of class. Superstar chefs say eat seasonally and simply. Again, this requires dosh. Choice costs.

This, Moore points out with reference to Nigella’s “goosefat cheesecake with poured cream”, is leading to a proliferation of platitudes and lectures, aimed at the beastly poor, about how to eat well and won’t they all stop being so fat if we just tax their fizzy drinks- while at the same time people on welfare are stripped further and further of choice, opportunity, dignity, and money, and demonised as welfare cheats by politicians and the media. Moore is talking about the UK. She could just as easily be talking about Ireland.




  1. Well said. I completely agree.

  2. Same here. I’m very lucky that I have a garden and enough spare cash that I can try and grow my own or shop at a small farmer market. It makes me no better or worse. It just means my circumstances are easier than most.

  3. The horse meat scandal brought it home to me. The prevailing attitude of columnists and bloggers was “well if you eat that rubbish, you deserve to eat horse. I never eat food out of a box”. I do admit that I don’t have much sympathy for someone who has no job but lives on ready meals. I don’t care what you say, when fruit and vegetables are 29c in Aldi, a ready meal and is not cheaper.

  4. No-one’s asking for sympathy though Claire, this is about not passing judgement on others because of their diet. I’d recommend reading the excellent food blogger Miss South’s piece in the Observer about the reality of feeding yourself while living in poverty: She explains very clearly why it’s not just as simple as picking up cheap veg from Aldi.

    Peter, great piece – I read a really good book on this topic recently called ‘Panic on a Plate’ (Rob Lyons), which makes a very good case that the current panic about diet is just another Victorian-style morality attack on the poor.

  5. I know no one is asking for sympathy jean, it’s a turn of phrase.

    I read that piece at the time and her situation is exceptional and not specific to what I mean but you have to wonder what’s going on when Coke is cheaper than milk.

  6. I don’t know how anyone could think Miss South is in exceptional circumstances, long term poverty is extremely widespread and even if you’re not ill or disabled, you’re still faced with many of the same obstacles – like needing to pay for public transport to get to the cheap supermarkets, etc.

  7. Education is what’s required. Ready meals are far more expensive than making your own especially for a family. There are even sausage snobs out there.

  8. Mary, that may be true about ready meals, but it’s still going to be cheaper to cook sausage, chips and beans, or cheap food from the frozen section of Iceland, or tinned food from a euro value shop. Fresh fruit and veg, even if they’re cheap, are not easily within everyone’s reach – nor are the other ingredients required to whip them up into a decent meal. And the expense and time of getting to the shop and preparing a home-made meal still needs to be weighed against other socio-economic factors such as access to transport, education, time, illness, and other demands – money is not the only issue.

  9. i don’t think you have to spend lots of money to eat well, I cook most of my foods from fresh and it’s rare I eat processed food, but still manage to shop in supermarkets and save money.

  10. Seems like the comments on this thread are sadly proving you right Peter!

  11. Reading Miss South’s blog was a real eye opener. I thought that by cooking your own meals from scratch, everyone could save money. Not so. Even when fruits and vegs are only 29 cents in Aldi, the choice is limited and not everyone has access to Aldi, Lidl or even a large-ish supermarket. If you don’t have a car or don’t live within walking / cycling range to a large shop, it can cost you quite a lot. I realised that buying frozen ready meals was sometiomes cheaper than the fresh products. A pack of crisps in the local shop (sometimes the only shop around) costs less than apples or oranges.
    And education is paramount, but sadly not accessible to everyone. Before seeing real food poverty, I thought everyone knew the basics, that fruits and vegs were better for you than fish and chips, that exercising and not smoking were the best way to extend your life. But I’m a typical middle class child, I guess. I now understand that some people lack the very obvious and that lecturing them from my middle class status won’t help them. Making fresh food more accessible would be a first step for the government. Providing food tickets rather than money that would be spent on non essentials would help. Even for us, my 2 kids could do with meals provided by the school and I’d happily hand the child benefit money back to have this.

  12. Katia, I agree. It’s depressing. Miss South puts it really well:

    “What isn’t needed is people with privilege telling those without what they are doing ‘wrong’ or that they don’t budget well enough. Most poor people I know can price stuff to the penny and many, myself included, run their entire household on less than £100 a week. The problem isn’t the budgeting, it’s the size of the budget, especially as food prices rise along with everything else.”