Opinion Articles

The poor still can’t cook

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When Baroness Jenkin said that ‘poor people don’t know how to cook’ she was expressing beliefs common a century ago, when concerns about the health of the nation and poor nutrition were highlighted by the Anglo-Boer War. Baroness Jenkin was speaking at the December 2014 publication of The All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the UK, Feeding Britain. She later retracted the comments, apologised for any offence, and explained that she meant society as a whole had lost its ability to cook. This initial response to the Feeding Britain report shows that the poorest in society today face similar economic difficulties – and attitudes – to those found a century ago.

The Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1901 raised concerns about the health of the nation. Many men were declared physically unfit for active service. Poor nutrition was believed to be the problem and particular focus was placed on how mothers fed their children. Poor women, it was felt, did not know enough about nutrition to raise healthy children, the soldiers of the future. When a woman was criticised for feeding her child condensed milk, she was reprimanded for her ignorance on its lack of nutrient; however, it was likely to be best milk she could afford. Others had no choice but to feed their babies ‘milk’ made of flour and water.

Organisations were set up to educate women, specifically the poor, in how to look after their families. Schools for Mothers, which were known as Welcomes, were founded in London and provincial towns to teach working class women domestic skills, including cookery, and show them how to look after their children. Women could have their babies checked by a doctor or nurse, and receive advice about how to feed, clothe and care for their children. They could also purchase food and other necessities at a lower cost than in shops, and attend cookery classes. Attendance at the Welcomes was voluntary but often women were pressured to attend. Cooperation from local churches and registrars allowed them to keep track of births in their district and pay visits to new mothers if they did not come to the Welcome.

The Welcome in St. Pancras, London, offered ‘private cooking instruction’ from ‘The Pudding Lady’, Miss F. Petty, in the homes of poor women. When The Pudding Lady was published, detailing her visits to inspire other well-meaning women to do the same, it was prefaced by a letter from Mrs Humphry-Ward, who believed that working class women:

knew hardly anything of what can be done on a few pence to please and nourish their families.

Similarly, Baroness Jenkin compared the cost of porridge to cereal:

I had a large bowl of porridge today, which cost 4p. A large bowl of sugary cereals will cost you 25p.

Both Jenkin and Humphry-Ward failed to consider the cooking facilities available to low income families. In the early twentieth century, some families had cookers with ovens and hobs, while others made do with an open fire; some had an assortment of frying pans, pots and crockery, while others had a saucepan, a spoon and a few plates. Regardless of culinary knowledge, poor people often couldn’t cook through lack of facilities. Feeding Britain shows that cooking facilities are still a luxury for some. The report recommends that local authorities survey properties where landlords are in receipt of housing benefit from their tenants to ensure that they are equipped with adequate cooking facilities. It’s very telling that the most popular items at some food banks are those that require only a microwave and a kettle.

For many, cooking facilities often go unused because they cannot afford to run them. The report shows that between 2003 and 2013 the price of electricity, gas and other fuel rose by 153.6%. The problem is not that the poor are hungry because they can’t cook but that their economic situation is preventing them from doing so; a food bank is of little use if you have nothing with which to cook the food. 

The poor of the early twentieth century were often criticised for their consumption of food purchased from street vendors. Cooking and storage facilities limited the amount and type of food that could be purchased, so instead of buying food that would spoil, ready hot food such as pies, fried fish and roast nuts were popular. Today, families are criticised for their reliance on convenience food and takeaways but often it can be such a struggle to put any food on the table that many are happy to be eating at all. When challenged, Baroness Jenkin said that her unscripted comments were really about how cooking skills are no longer passed down through generations and that as a society we have lost our knowledge of cooking. This argument was made in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as Britain became more urbanised. When the North Islington School for Mothers was established in 1913 they believed that because poor women had to work to survive from a young age, they had little opportunity to acquire the domestic knowledge necessary to raise a family. Feeding Britain does reveal a lack of basic cooking skills, and recommends that lessons in basic cookery skills be reinstated in the national curriculum. It also recommends greater provision of adult education cookery classes, such as those run by the Trussel Trust. But that is only part of the problem.

Food prices have risen by 47% in the last decade but there has been no corresponding rise in wages. Organisations campaigning for the ‘living wage’ argue that it is not only people reliant on benefits who cannot afford to buy food. Other changes in how we shop increase the challenge of eating well on modest means. To take meat as an example: a century ago, it was possible to request specific amounts of many different cuts from a butcher; today meat is generally bought pre-packed from a supermarket, in fixed quantities of popular products in a limited range. Education, however, is only one part of the problem. Increased knowledge of cheaper alternatives (there is more to a chicken than just the breast) and how to cook those will help, but until the price of food and fuel becomes manageable, no amount of education will help solve the hunger problem in Britain.


Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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