Several incidents have occurred this week which have led me to the conclusion that there is a vast conspiracy to turn me into a rabid fascist. I shan't bore you with the details just now as I may return to them in another post, instead I shall draw your attention to a story in today's Sunday Herald before going off on one about food and poverty.
Apparently the Scottish Prison service has been warned that it is likely to be sued by inmates because they aren't getting their 'five a day'.
By a strange coincidence I have just finished reading an essay written by Theodore Dalrymple, himself a prison doctor on the subject of malnutrition in prisons. In it he tells us that on an average day around six out of twenty inmates admitted to prisons are malnourished on arrival.
Naturally he is surprised as the rest of us that so many people in the worlds fourth richest country at a time when food is cheap and readily available should be in such a condition. If the inmates are to be believed and on this I see no reason to doubt them they do not eat meals, instead snacking on crisps and chocolate when hungry. This follows a childhood during which they were not served meals at home but instead ate whatever was in the fridge.
I have no idea what food is served in prisons but I find it hard to believe that it could be less nutritious than many of the inmates pre-prison diets. Of course the cry will go up that this poor diet is caused by poverty but it isn't and a walk round any supermarket supplies all the evidence you could wish for.
On leaving work on Thursday I was shattered and in no mood to cook. I hopped into Morrisons in Easterhouse and purchased the following 1 tin of chickpeas (45p), 1 tin of tomatoes with chopped peppers (48p) and 1 lemon (20p) . On arriving home I lobbed the chickpeas and tomatoes into a pot added 1 tablespoon of curry paste (1.45 for 283g) heated it up, squeezed a a quarter of a lemon over it and ate it with some couscous (70p for 500g). Whilst I can't say it was the most exciting meal I've ever had it filled a hole on Thursday and Friday night was healthier and cheaper than chocolate and crisps and the final two portions are sat in the freezer waiting to be scoffed at a later date. If I without even trying can prepare a meal containing two of the required five a day for less than 50p a portion, I fail to see why the chocolate and crisps mob cannot do so. More so when one considers than I spent more than I had to on the above. Had I been planning the meal I could have soaked some dried chickpeas or used dried lentils instead, I could have made my own curry paste which would have been much cheaper and better. Alternatively I could have visited a branch of Lidl or Aldi and paid even less. If I was being really clever I could have popped into one of the many ethnic grocers around Glasgow and got yet more for my money.
Had I decided to have chocolate and crisps instead one meal would have cost me roughly 80p per portion. To equal the four portions I managed to make at less than 50p a shot I would have to have spent £3.20 in total . Had I spent £3.20 on my meal I could have added an onion (18p), a sweet potato (52p) and a pepper (43p) and had a few pence change to play with. I've taken the prices for these extra items from the Tesco website, however could have easily obtained all these items more cheaply. In any case the £3.20 budget can provide an evening meal that just falls short of the five a day requirement.
Oddly enough the asylum seekers I work with have 20% less to spend each week that a UK benefit claimant but manage to eat healthily. Surely if poverty were causing bad diets in the UK they'd all be munching crisps and chocolate for dinner every night. Instead having a lot of time on their hands they make everything from scratch.
I have no doubt that there are many problems caused by poverty, indeed I fear poverty and take steps to avoid it. In fact the only reason I do any work at all is to avoid poverty but if I were poor I'd have to look at my spending. Cut my cloth accordingly as my granny would have put it. Curiously all the food I'd have to give up is not terribly good for you and more expensive than healthy food. No more ready meals or takeaways when I'm too tired through working and late night reading. No more red wine. No more pre-packed sandwiches. Actually the pre-packed sandwiches are one instance of bad diet caused by poverty in that the vast numbers of poor folk visiting my office leave me no time to make a proper lunch.
Whilst I appreciate that people in prison are not free to make choices about what is served up to them I'd be amazed if many inmates can legitimately claim that their health has suffered as a result of the prison diet. If anything I'd guess their physical health at least would be vastly improved by a spell inside. Personally I suspect most of the prisoners would find it more of a punishment to be given their five a day and deprived of their unhealthy food of choice. To that end I propose that the prison authorities switch immediately to an all vegan diet with the money saved on meat and dairy products being spent on extra fruit and veg. By my reckoning they could probably exceed the five a day requirement under such a system and teach the inmates a valuable lesson about playing the wide eyed victim in front of human rights lawyers.
All this is part of a wider phenomenon which seems to have gripped well intentioned, reasonably intelligent people working in the poverty racket. It is no wonder I've had bother with my mental health when I am surrounded by folk who are in complete denial of the evidence in front of them. Every night as I leave work I pass the chippy out of which snakes a massive queue of mothers and children buying their evening meal usually chips and curry sauce which will be consumed at the bus stop with the left over food and packaging thrown on the ground despite the presence of three large bins. This meal will be washed down with Coke or Irn-bru. What is peculiar about this is that the same faces are there night after night. I'm on nodding terms with most of them. If their diet is as a result of poverty then why are they spending more on an evening meal each night than I do? The bins are free to use so why is the rubbish thrown on the ground.
If I make this point to someone in the same line of work as I am they get upset and use the word poverty over and over again. If I really push it I am then told it's lack of education. I learned to cook by helping out my granny in the kitchen, doing the opposite of anything my mother has ever done in a kitchen and trial and error. I did get Home Economics for three years in school and learned to make stews, soups and salads. I attended a perfectly ordinary state school which as far as I'm aware offered the same curriculum as the others. I also know a bit about nutrition from being bombarded with government adverts about eating vegetables. So even if no-one in my family ever showed me how to cook I would have an idea how to get about a kitchen from school, a million government adverts, free recipes in supermarket magazines and hundreds of cookery programmes on TV to help me out. In addition were I living in the area where I work in I could make use of the subsidised fruit and veg on sale in one of several fruit co-ops that have sprung up in recent years or join up for the free healthy cookery classes on offer. I might even get myself a library ticket and read up on the subject. However I cannot conceive of anything that would lead me to think eating out the chippy every night is nutritious. Nor can I fathom why I would go chucking litter on the ground in my own district.
In my really bold moments I suggest to my colleagues that perhaps people who eat unhealthily do so through choice. If someone is behaving in a particular way when there are alternatives freely available then its hard to see their behaviour as being forced on them by circumstance. Needless to say this does not go down well. As to why I cannot say. It does strike me as peculiar that people who claim to be concerned about deprivation are so eager to deprive the poor of the one thing the do have, that is the ability to make choices, including bad choices. Why when someone is acting against their own interests does someone else always have to be to blame? I like a go at the government as much as anyone else but I really cannot see what else can be done to improve the diet of the poor short of force feeding them the 'right' sort of foods -a move that I suspect would lead to an uprising. School meals have been made healthier and the kiddiewinks have voted with their lunch money to the delight of fast food sellers throughout the land, cheap fruit and veg is sold in supermarkets, grocers and community centres throughout Glasgow. The government has killed countless trees producing, posters, leaflets and information packs about healthy eating but to no avail. Why then are people who know better lying? One wonders how many poor folk having swallowed this nonsense about the price of healthy food do not even bother to look at it in the supermarket and instead waste money on overpriced muck?