Class, food and poverty

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You won't be surprised to know that I don't have much in common with Jamie Oliver.

He, after all, is an internationally renowned chef, while my cooking skills are so bad that on occasions I have been known to burn water. He has a media fortune estimated to be worth a cool £25 million, while according to the latest correspondence from my bank I am part of its toxic debt.

Jamie was launched to television stardom in 1998 with the show The Naked Chef. This was more than a cooking show - it was about "Jamie": the scooter riding, laddish "mockney". He was "Cool Britannia" personified. A slew of recipe books, a million pound a year advertising deal with Sainsbury's, an endorsement or two for New Labour and, most importantly, a myriad of cooking programmes followed.

Speaking personally, there wasn't much to like about the man.

But all of a sudden he became a social campaigner. His TV series, Jamie's School Dinners, highlighted the crap food our kids were being fed at school. He shamed the government into spending an extra £280 million on improving the quality of school meals. He then went on to launch a chain of high class restaurants staffed by kids from the inner cities. Only those with the coldest hearts could have failed to be moved as these youngsters began to develop their skills and come into their own.

Over the summer our paths fleetingly crossed. He was in Rotherham making his new TV series, Jamie's Ministry of Food, and I was in the same city building the Love Music Hate Racism carnival.

Rotherham is just like hundreds of working class towns. Its industrial heart has been ripped out and it is blighted by poverty. It was also the town where Julie Critchlow was filmed passing burgers through the fence to her children in reaction to Jamie's campaign for better school dinners.

The premise of the show was to re-engage people with food and cooking. He came up with an adventurous plan to teach five people to cook a series of healthy meals. They in turn each had to teach five other people the same recipes and they would be asked to repeat the exercise. It was the equivalent of a food chain letter.

You got to meet Kya, a five year old whose teeth have fallen out because all her mum feeds her is kebabs and sugary drinks. Then there was a family who ate nothing but pizzas and fried food. They weren't cruel parents; they weren't stupid; they were broken by grinding poverty and a fatalism that seeps into your soul when life offers little.

A poor diet contributes to the early death of countless working class people.

In the London borough of Westminster a women aged 65 living in the affluent Little Venice ward can expect to live, on average, until nearly 96 according to a report released by Westminster Primary Care Trust. In contrast, a woman who lives just a stone's throw away in the poor Church Street ward can only expect to live until 79.

True to form, one TV critic sneered, "The question still remains unanswered, why do these people spend so much money on 'junk food' when instead they could buy more healthy food for a lot less money?"

This is not a new argument. George Orwell brilliantly took it up in his book The Road to Wigan Pier. In 1936 the New Statesman and News of the World ran stories bemoaning the fact that working class people were not eating healthy food - these scoundrels were instead spending too much money on tea, sugar and white bread. Orwell fired back with this wonderful retort:

"A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn't. 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'."

As Jamie's programme shows, it's not true that the poor want to live on a diet of garbage. Hundreds of people gathered around his stall in the town centre as he prepared cheap, tasty and nutritious meals.

In the first episode Jamie shows a young woman how to make meat balls and spaghetti for less than a fiver a day. Brilliant! But then there is the sting in the tail - he discovers that the woman can't afford her bus fare to the shops to get the fresh ingredients and her dole money could not stretch to spending £5 a day on food.

Just as poignant is when Jamie opens up a school kitchen to show a small group of people how to cook and prepare good food. He asks why Gordon Brown couldn't open up every school kitchen so that people can use the equipment and learn to cook.

Is Jamie Oliver just a culinary evangelist proselytising to the poor about their eating habits? I think that is just crude. Sure, he sometimes patronises the people he is trying to help and every now and again Sainsbury's gets a free placement, but when he gets it wrong he is not afraid to say so.

More importantly, isn't it a positive step to see a TV chef showing the realities of working class life and trying to grapple with the question of class, food and poverty?