Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The Road to Wigan Pier: Orwell on food and poverty

George Orwell is often quoted by people who say that poor people can't afford to eat healthy food.

George Orwell The Road to Wigan Pier Chapter 6

"Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn't. Here the tendency of which I spoke at the end of the last chapter comes into play. When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don't want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit 'tasty'. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you."
  1. Orwell was talking about unemployed miners' families before the war, so what he says is hardly applicaple to today's unemployed. Benefits were low and families were big.
  2. He seems to be confusing healthy food with health food. Where I live now, Liverpool, there is a healthy cheap food called scouse. Scouse has some meat in it, quite a bit of potato, and loads of different vegetables. It's a healthy cheap food, but it's not 'health food'. It's not dull either. Other regions have similar foods, in Scotland they have Scotch Broth where barley is the cheap starch instead of potato.
  3. I can remember when brown bread was regarded as a health food and quite expensive. Today in supermarkets it's the same price as white. Brown (or wholegrain) bread has sustained populations in Europe and the Middle East for thousands of years; it's only in the past 100 years or so that white bread became cheap.
  4. There are about 800 million people in the world who are starving. Do you think that if you offered any one of them a loaf of brown bread they would say 'No thanks, I would rather starve'? We know what people are prepared to eat when they are starving because of accounts of life in concentration camps. So it's nonsense to say 'The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots'.
  5. Who gave Orwell the right to put words into the mouths of unemployed miners and their families in the 1930s? I don't believe that they would say that they would prefer to starve than eat brown bread.

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