I’m slightly sad, but not surprised, to see the reactions to the chef’s latest talking point on our food culture. In a sense, he brought it on himself with the foolish framing of his message in terms of poor people having widescreen televisions. If there was a way to get the class warfare sirens ringing and the public to stop listening to you, that was it.
But if you read the rest of the quotes in that Guardian article, it seems clear that his core message isn’t one that anybody has reason to shy away from. It’s perfectly consistent with an endorsement of his position and project to rightly believe that factors far greater than any individual’s decisions contribute to a culture in which people eat badly. Blaming parents rather than social structures doesn’t have to be the takeaway here. All Oliver is asking us to acknowledge is that, yes, affluent people tend to eat far healthier food than poor people, and face less problems later on in life because of it. But the key point is that this is emphatically not down to healthy eating being expensive. As Oliver notes, Mediterranean nations have equally if not more impoverished social pockets, and yet they manage to follow traditional cuisines and cook good food on small budgets. So the problem is cultural, not financial. Education has a lot to answer for. Why, exactly, do the institutions responsible for raising us to maturity have nothing to teach us about food? Universities nowadays only exacerbate the problem by offering dining halls which delay further the arrival of the day on which people need to start caring for themselves. Other factors I can’t so easily spot are no doubt equally crucial here. But whatever they are, Oliver is only trying to call for a diagnosis of the real problem, whilst doing his best through his platform to tilt the educational balance on television and shift the public debate in the right direction. If only he could ditch the belligerent, counter-productive style, then perhaps people would start listening.