Mr John Band to the courtesy phone please, Calling Mr. John Band

This column is complete and total garbage.

I\’ve lost count of the number of rows I\’ve had about that, many in public, one live on telly, during which the broadcaster Jonathan Maitland said this was a problem of education: if she knew how to shop better she would have been able to afford a more balanced diet. This is total tripe (which, although famously cheap because it is famously disgusting, is still probably more expensive than a Big Mac); certainly, you could shop differently with the same money and win the approval of nutritionist Gillian McKeith, but if your aim is to avoid being hungry, you could not do that more cheaply.

I understand this strenuous avoidance of reality. Once you accept that crap food is an economic, not a moral choice, you have to accept a whole raft of unpleasant outcomes as a function of deprivation, not an illustration of a lack of backbone. You have to accept that with diabetes suffer avoidable death\" href=\"http://www.diabetes.org.uk/About_us/News_Landing_Page/Report-shows-each-year-24000-people-in-England-with-diabetes-suffer-avoidable-death/\">24,000 \”lifestyle-related\” yearly deaths from diabetes are related not to sloth but to poverty. Sure, it\’s still a lifestyle, but it\’s not a choice. You have to accept that the education agenda against obesity – vegetables and regular exercise – will never work (that should be obvious, just by looking at the data or, failing that, just by looking around).

It is vastly cheaper in terms of money to eat non-processed foods. According to t\’internet this is 540 calories. For £2.39. This being a Big Mac.

Which is hugely expensive when compared to what can be done with a bit of bulk buying/cooking. Rice, onions, garlic, peas, sweetcorn maybe, add some ham (Iceland does big packs of, what 800 grammes of good ham offcuts for £1.75?) and you could feed 4 people as much as they wanted to stuff down their faces of risotto (or risotto like at least) for well under a tenner.

There really is a reason that things like pizza, stews, risottos, spaghetti, curries, pilafs and so on exist. They\’re peasant food: lots of calories with enough (but not much more to be honest) protein and vitamins, some taste (the whole point of the cooking methods is to give them that taste) and above all, they\’re cheap.

What they\’re not though is instant. They\’re absolutely fabulous if you\’re cash poor, not so much if you\’re time poor.

But that\’s a very different matter, isn\’t it?

Damn, you can even make a hamburger, chips and beans with it, a soup and a pudding for what MaccyD\’s charges you for the Big Mac alone. And there\’s absolutely nothing at all nutritionally wrong with a hamburger made from real identifiable meat and bread that has actually been within sight of wheat.

There are parts of the world where bad nutrition certainly is an economic matter. This is simply not true of the UK.

53 comments on “Mr John Band to the courtesy phone please, Calling Mr. John Band

  1. “Iceland does big packs of, what 800 grammes of good ham offcuts for £1.75?”

    Icelansd also does very, very good frozen veg, lean meat, fish, and even pre-chopped onions, etc.

    The trouble is, you have to cook them as part of a balanced meal. And people are just too goddamn lazy.

  2. “bulk buying/cooking”

    Here’s the rub, surely. Bear in mind that things like risotto and pasta were originally peasant food because peasants had barns full of the stuff sitting around. If you’re not a food producer, you won’t have the built-in advantage of bulk.

    When I was poor, it genuinely was difficult to buy in bulk because of cashflow. And when I say “bulk” I mean the biggest, best value packet of pasta. I think what JB is getting at is the short-termist appeal of having a fiver to spend, and a fiver at MacDonalds getting you something resembling a meal, whereas a fiver spent wisely in Tescos gets you a large packet of pasta and an onion. Obviously, once you’re well stocked up with dry goods and tins, and only need to buy fresh veg, then it becomes a very cheap way to live. And that’s why canny middle class people do it. They’ve got the cashflow to get going quickly.

    Not to say it can’t be done on the lowest budgets (I didn’t eat MacDonalds when I was poor) but it requires medium-term thought and cashflow planning, and also some truly boring meals while you build your storecupboard. If these factors were included in the “education” we might make some progress.

  3. @Alix: having recently watched a friend shop, who is in financial straights at the moment, I would have to disagree. She bought for £10 enough food to feed her for the week. It was all the basics range at Sainsburys to be fair, but it was all stuff she would prepare into meals not ready made stuff.

    Thats the key – preparation and cooking. If you are prepared to cook from ingredients, food is cheap, and fairly nutritious. If you insist on buying pre-cooked/prepared food, of the ‘better’ brands, then its expensive.

    Just on your assertion – At Sainsburys 90p gets you a Kilo of loose onions, and 25p gets you 500g of Basics pasta. I’m sure its the same at Tesco and Asda.

  4. Alix,

    You may not be old enough to remember the Panorama report on the failing Swiss spaghetti harvest?

  5. “Another was that people battling food scarcity tend to overeat when food is available, and depending on what they’re overeating, a missed meal the next day won’t compensate for that.”

    Exercise will, though.

    And by ‘exercise’, I don’t mean putting down the remote for the day and switching over to ‘Jeremy Kyle’ by hand…

  6. On an economy drive a year or so ago I sat down and worked out what my chilli con carne costs per adult portion (with rice). It has a high ratio of kidney beans to mince (i prefer it that way) but then that makes it healthier. Total cost per portion of a high protein, high fibre, low fat, vitamin rich meal?

    60p, including gas.

  7. “It has a high ratio of kidney beans to mince (i prefer it that way)” – me too. And can we have some animal fat in the mince please, not the extra lean stuff.

  8. What JuliaM says about people being “just too goddamn lazy” is certainly part of it.

    I’m a pretty decent cook, and on weekends or when I’m on holiday (like now) I quite enjoy spending time cooking. But when I come home from work I’m usually hungry and tired and don’t feel like spending half an hour standing at the stove. It’s much easier just to bung a frozen pizza in the oven while I do other stuff.

    But another part of the story, an important part, is culture. When you are hungry and tired and don’t feel like cooking, what is it you fancy? Revealed preferences, if you like. And that preference is shaped largely, from research involving a sample of one (me), by what your mother cooked.

  9. When I was growing up in the fifties and sixties the kind of eking out of a low income which middle class lefties now think is either impossible or oppressive was an everyday experience. My mum was ( and still is ) a very good manager and a good cook too, she somehow utilised my dad’s low wage to its absolute maximum, we still marvel at how she did it. We had no feeling of hardship or want at all, quite the reverse it never occurred to me that we were in any way poor and we weren’t, although these days no doubt we’d all be whinging about how tough life is. The problem is neither economic or moral but simply one of social change, the working class have become more affluent and time rich and choose to spend their income and leisure in ways other than cooking and mending. If those who can’t afford to do this haven’t got the skills to revert to the older way of life they could acquire them and teaching such things would be valuable but no doubt dismissed by the left as sexist or condescending. However if they don’t want to learn and a lot of people these days don’t want to learn anything, then there’s nothing anyone else can or should do about it.

  10. And all this is completely missing the bit about exercise.
    Even if you can agree with the “processed food is cheaper” argument, the “poor can’t afford to exercise” argument really is rubbish. A run (or walk even) to the park really doesn’t cost much!

  11. Alix (#2) said “a fiver at MacDonalds getting you something resembling a meal, whereas a fiver spent wisely in Tescos gets you a large packet of pasta and an onion.”

    Tesco Value Penne, 25p for 500g. Cheap and small quantity.
    Trattoria Verdi Chopped Tomatoes And Herbs (see, we don’t even have to invest in the jars of herbs), 41p/tin (get 2)
    Tesco value kidney beans, 25p/tin
    Loose onions, 90p/kg (get 250g for 22p).

    That’ll feed 5 people for £1.54.

    And even I could put that lot together and make a meal from it.

    But we don’t want to be vegetarians, so 74p gets us 500g of Tesco Value Cooking Bacon (that’s enough for the government’s recommended maximum daily meat intake for 7 people).

    That’s 5 people fed a meat dinner for £2.28, 45p a head, and with half the bacon left over for later in the week.

    Hell, you could even posh it up with a packet of fresh basil leaves for 70p, and you’d still be well under the cost of a McMeal.

    Even if you’ve not got anything to cook it in, Tescos will sell you a saucepan for £2.29, which still brings our meal in under a fiver.

    And at £2.28 for the meat meal, we’ve got £2.72 left to start buying the longer-term stuff:
    - a bottle of olive oil for £1.39 and £1 for balsamic vinegar means we can have salads later in the week (lettuce 50p each).
    - to add a few more flavours, £1.98 gets us 50g of black peppercorns in a grinder, 39p buys a jar of wholegrain mustard, or 95p gets a jar of herbs which will last for ages.
    After a week of that, we’ll have a reasonably well-stocked larder.

    Having worked this out, the only thing I don’t understand is how my wife manages to spend so much on groceries.

  12. Admittedly I live alone (most of the time) but there is a pretty easy method of eating cheaply and healthily even when you can’t be bothered to cook some nights: make a big, fuck-off pot of something and eat it for 3 or 4 days. Then you can be a right lazy-arse for 2 or 3 days by bunging your dinner in the microwave. I eat out about once a week, the rest of the time I cook for myself, but I only cook about once or twice per week. When the wife is around it is a bit more often, and I imagine when people have kids it is a daily affair, but if there’s just two of you it’s easy.

  13. “The poor” tend not to attend to their personal hygiene or clean their clothes and homes.

    “The poor” have different priorities and low ambition which is why they do not learn at school, don’t work, or get low paid jobs that require little effort.

    Food is an incidental in their lives, and the less effort required to get it and consume it, the better.

  14. A Big Mac costs £2.45, you tell me, and the twice I’ve eaten the bloody things they were rubbish. Suppose you want to indulge yourself without cooking: messrs Marks Expensive will sell you a delicious pork pie for 99p.

  15. and a fiver at MacDonalds getting you something resembling a meal, whereas a fiver spent wisely in Tescos gets you a large packet of pasta and an onion.

    I can cook but don’t enjoy it and so usually don’t if I can find substitutes.

    When the wife was away last week I got 3 ready meals from Tesco for a fiver: Tuna Bake, cauliflower cheese and ham tagliatelle. I also had a £2.20 pizza on which I added my own onions, mushrooms and peppers for a total cost of about £2.30.

    Sometimes we treat ourselves to those £10 meal deals with meat and two and a pudding with a bottle of wine when they are on.

    I’ll buy the idea that some of the poor aren’t motivated but to claim they can’t eat good food cheaply is being disingenuous at best.

    And I’ll bet you couldn’t get deals like those if we didn’t have the likes of Tesco, but that’s another debate.

  16. “When you are hungry and tired and don’t feel like cooking, what is it you fancy? “

    I have a stir-fry. What’s quicker than that?

  17. “The problem is neither economic or moral but simply one of social change, the working class have become more affluent and time rich and choose to spend their income and leisure in ways other than cooking and mending.”

    And no longer use leftovers; the remains of the Sunday roast used to be Monday’s dinner. Now, it’s simply thrown out.

  18. something a bit odd about somebody who stresses the time-cost of recycling ignoring the time-cost of cooking. Plus if people have different preferences (i.e. they like hamburgers but don’t like home cooked chick pea stews) then changes in relative prices can absolutely affect diet for “economic” reasons. You just point out that in absolute terms you can still cook a risotto for less than a round of burgers costs, you need to look at changing relative prices.

    Tim adds: “What they’re not though is instant. They’re absolutely fabulous if you’re cash poor, not so much if you’re time poor.”

    Missed that bit did you?

  19. I stand corrected on the cost of big bags of pasta. Obviously being “not poor” for a few years has had a distressing impact on my relationship with reality. Not good.

    I still think I am on to something though TBH. If you’ve got no money, multiple calls on your purse and your choice is between starting a larder build-up project and shoving a pizza in the basket, guess which wins. The “education” as it stands doesn’t really help people think through that trade-off. It’s all very well wealthy TV chefs waxing lyrical about the delights of eking out a roast chicken and presenting healthy eating as a sort of promised land, but if the sunny uplands aren’t immediately obvious in Tescos I’m not surprised people carry on in the same behaviour grooves. I actually think something like Richard’s week-long plan would be much more practical as a suggestion – ok, dull meals for a week, but as you build the flavours your repertoire increases. To be fair, Jamie Oliver did try something like that with his £5 dinners, though a bit more disjointedly.

    By the way, I’m afraid I think “three ready meals for a fiver” is part of the problem. They may technically contain vegetables, but they’ll also be bulked out with all kinds of fattening sawdustery. I don’t imagine for one moment that every obese adult in the UK is actually stuffing themselves with MaccyDs every day. Distressing numbers of them will probably be buying processed food like this that markets itself as healthy.

  20. @Surreptitious, not old enough to remember it, no, but I did realise I had unwittingly invoked it! Best lies are the ones that could be true, and all that.

  21. Williams has a problem with maths, too. One Big Mac Meal feeds one person for maybe £4. Multiply that up for a family of six and you are looking at bloody expensive, actually. When I was a child in a rather hard-up family of six, my mother regarded fish & chips from the local chippie as a luxury, and wondered how on earth the people who lived in the council houses near us could afford it – because we couldn’t. But we were rich middle-class homeowners, of course.

  22. I have a stir-fry. What’s quicker than that?

    While the speed and cost arguments are all rational, they are also missing one absolutely crucial (and irrational) element: culture. Or, perhaps more precisely, preferences.

    Stir-frys (stir-fries?) are quick, cheap, healthy and nutritious. But if they aren’t on your usual mental radar, then when you run through your mental menu list and ask yourself what you fancy for your tea tonight, they aren’t likely to pop to the top of the list.

    That mental menu is shaped by history and experience, as well as by priorities. If nutritious and healthiness aren’t primary concerns, and pie ‘n’chips/pizza ‘n’ chips/egg ‘n’ chips is what you’re jonesing for, then guess what you’ll probably be having for your tea.

    Thornavis, brave man, introduced the idea of middle-class lefties to the discussion. He’s right. A lot of this comes down to the middle-class turning up their noses at working-class preferences.

  23. Zoe Williams, who wrote the Grauniad piece, isn’t me, and is a decent lifestyle writer who’d do well to avoid the world of evidence-based reporting. “John B” above is both not me, and a wanker.

    Tim’s title is referring to one of my first posts on Banditry, which I more or less stand by. It’s a fucksight cheaper, even if your local shop is shit, to buy meat-potatoes-and-veg than a Big Mac.

    Luis has a point here, but it’s not quite drawn out properly.

    If you go to Tesco and you buy a bag of economy pasta for 50p, two tins of economy tomatoes for a quid, and a bag of mince for gbp4, that’ll provide adequate nutrition for about six adult servings of food (or dodge the mince and use veg and mushrooms instead), and takes about 10 minutes longer to prepare than unwrapping a ready meal.

    On the other hand, it’ll be quite boring, and if you’ve got a shitty life and a shitty job, then eating may well be one of the things that you find is a massive comfort. If I were in that situation, I’d rather have a Big Mac or a Zinger than going for my sixth successive pasta-and-tomatoes meal of the week.

    That’s where our Zoe should be looking – how you can replicate the “cheap luxury” aspect of KFC and Maccas without replicating the “early saturated death” aspect.

  24. It is vastly cheaper in terms of money to eat non-processed foods.

    The comparison – Big Mac to spag bol – is a poor one. It’s be better if you replaced the former with the industrially processed products you’d find in the supermarket: white bread, cereal, biscuits, crisps, sodas, juice n’ stuff. Refined starch and sugar is incredibly cheap: I’m still haunted by the taste of 20p rice puddings I’d buy from Sainsburys.

    …it’ll be quite boring, and if you’ve got a shitty life and a shitty job, then eating may well be one of the things that you find is a massive comfort…

    Well, that’s the other part of the problem. Some healthy foods are relatively cheap but they tend to be a little bland. Others, like those above, are (a) cheaper and (b) more rewarding. But, nutritionally speaking, they’re also crap.

  25. Does anyone know what a Big Mac and chips actually costs? The assumption seems to be that it’s around a fiver – is that about right?

  26. john b (#27) – yes, the first week is a bit dull.

    But by the end of week 1 you’ve saved over thirty quid versus the cost of McD’s.

    With that you’ve bought yourself a range of herbs, spices, condiments and other zingy flavourings and the food gets much more interesting.

    In week 2 you could be running up curries, and even start making burgers (and will have your own jar of pickled cucumbers to put on them).

  27. I wonder if the real issue is a “time horizon” one.

    Are long-term poor people long-term poor because they don’t put in an effort now to get a future benefit?

    This could apply to education, work and cooking.

  28. This is terrifying:

    Tesco Value economy beefburgers, 8 for 85p.

    I’ve just looked up the ingredients in a Big Mac. To make something equivalent we also need:
    - Pack of 6 burger buns, 67p
    - Jar of pickled gherkins, 65p
    - Jar of Tesco spicy salsa sauce, 95p
    - Lettuce, 50p
    - Onion, 10p
    - Tesco Value 10 cheese slices, 59p

    So the makings of 4 double-decker Big Mac style burgers for £4.31 – just over a pound each. And you’ll still have plenty of gherkins and salsa (not to mention the lettuce) left.

  29. Your upbringing makes a huge difference, if you come from a thrifty working class background with parents who are open to new ideas you won’t be daunted by a bit of economic shopping and really quite simple cooking. That link with self sufficiency – in the true sense of the words – has been largely broken, not by the wicked supermarkets or evil neo-liberals keeping wages low but by the very people who would benefit from it most, that’s a cultural shift which no one can do much about on a collective level. However I remember listening to a short item on the radio about ten years ago about a project in Birmingham in which young women from poor estates were being taught simple cookery, the woman in charge spoke of one mother who was delighted at having been able to make a birthday cake for her daughter. The project was threatened by funding cuts but this seems money well spent and the kind of small scale thing that local authorities or charities could do, take the money from the re-cycling budget.

  30. something a bit odd about somebody who stresses the time-cost of recycling ignoring the time-cost of cooking

    But we’re supposed to be discussing the oppressed poor – surely the opportunity cost is no more than minimum wage? Possibly even JSA div whatever (somewhere between 40 and 80?). So the opportunity cost of the time spent still isn’t going to take you above fast food. Especially as many of the most suitable recipes don’t require much more that “stir occasionally” once the ingredients are chopped.

    Although, as not-quite-the-oppressed-poor, I quite enjoy the quality time – “I’m cooking” allows me to avoid quite a lot of less pleasant jobs and unwelcome visitors.

  31. @Richard (no. 33)

    This is terrifying

    Quite so. That you could consider that list of ingredients equivalent to a Big Mac really is terrifying.

  32. Pack of four birds eye frozen burgers, oven chips, backed beans – 2 quid to stuff yerself full of the essentials, both meat and carbs, easy to cook, little washing up. Really hang one out and put a fried egg on top – or some raw tomatoes – or both.

  33. not sure I get john_b’s point – eating more than one big mac a week is infinitely worse than a range of spaghetti with different sauces – pesto plus the Lloyd Grossman stuff…and still have money in the bank if you want to branch out on potatoes

  34. Richard // Dec 15, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    I wonder if the real issue is a “time horizon” one.

    Are long-term poor people long-term poor because they don’t put in an effort now to get a future benefit?

    This could apply to education, work and cooking.
    —————-

    I reckon you are spot on there. It applies to pretty much every aspect of life. With that kind of psychology, even if you start out rich, you will end up poor.

  35. I hate it when these people insist fresh foods are expensive.

    I’ve just made a big pan of lasagna, with fresh ingredients – including making my own sauce – for less than $15 and it will give me 7 1/2 pretty good sized meals.

    Going to McDonald’s, for the same amount of food, I couldn’t get out for less than $4-5 per serving. And the prep time was shorter than driving to a restaurant and back.

  36. General Pyston Broak,

    I’m sure it varies between schools, but certainly at my (good, state, girls) school in the 90s we were taught the nutrition pyramid as it then existed (carbs on the bottom, sweets on the top, veg and meat somewhere in the middle), and also how to “make” an Angel Delight pie. With ready-made pastry and, er, Angel Delight. I wish I was joking.

    My mother was horrified and has provided both tuition and inspiration in cookery to the present day. Other people may not be so lucky in their mothers, rather as Philip Scott Thomas implies.

  37. Does cooking take so long compared to buy a Big Mac?
    If you are poor you have to walk to the McDonalds
    (can’t afford a car) which for most people except the lucky (?)few who live beside one must take 10-15 minutes and the same coming back.
    But if you cook you don’t need to shop every day.

  38. How long does it take you to cook a baked potato (2 minutes to clean and skewer it, plus a 40 minute wait doing something else?), a couple of minutes to (say) grate some cheese. and a couple of minutes to (say) open a tin of baked beans and heat up? What would that cost? (Don’t forget a bit of butter.) Or replace the beans and cheese by coleslaw and home-made apple-and-tomato relish, and that was my dinner one night last week.

  39. Frances,

    > When I was a child in a rather hard-up family of six, my mother regarded fish & chips from the local chippie as a luxury, and wondered how on earth the people who lived in the council houses near us could afford it – because we couldn’t. But we were rich middle-class homeowners, of course.

    Absolutely spot-on, yes. My wife & I get quite angry when lefties start going on yet again about how people are eating from chippies because they’re poor. I earn quite well these days, but we simply cannot afford takeaways more than once a week, maximum, if we’re feeling flush and can’t think of anything better to spend the money on. These people who go eat at the same chippy every day, whatever they are, they ain’t poor. A fish supper is a fiver per person these days. I can only dream of that level of disposable income.

    Some fruit is expensive. Raspberries, for instance. But vegetables are cheap. And meat can be. It’s certainly cheaper uncooked from a supermarket than cooked from McDonald’s. And bread is cheaper than crisps.

    I have a theory that it’s all about having tasted decent cooking when you were a kid, so you have an ingrained idea of what it should taste like. If you have that, you’ll be able to figure out cooking, even if your parents don’t teach you the technical bits. If I’m right, then the key thing in fucking up the working class’s and underclass’s diets was to stop one generation cooking. This has been done. How do you get people who don’t even know what cooking tastes like to start cooking? I wish Jamie Oliver well on that quest. It’s a hell of a thing to attempt.

    One of my proudest moments as a father was when my four-year-old daughter simply assumed that we would use the leftover bones from a KFC bucket to make chicken stock. And I hadn’t even thought of it. Genius.

  40. And the Winner is: Aldi noodles ( chicken or curry)
    574 kcals for … 18p. The girl is not an idiot or self- deluded just clever enough to respond to her market and provide it with what it wants or needs.

  41. Squander Two is right: *If you know how to cook* it’s no effort and takes little time to make a decent meal out of inexpensive ingredients.

    If you don’t, can’t read well enough to make sense of a cookbook – and that’s supposing you have the energy and willpower to go out and buy one – and haven’t a clue what real food is supposed to taste like, because you grew up eating at the local chippie’s…

  42. “Parents of some obese children could save up to £6.58 each week by changing their shopping habits and opting for a healthier diet, according to research published in the latest issue of the British Journal of General Practice.

    The study in the January issue on the theme of obesity shows that healthier eating does not have to be more expensive, challenging one of the commonly cited barriers to dietary change.

    The research team, led by Professors Julian Hamilton-Shield and Debbie Sharp from the University of Bristol, analysed food diaries kept by the families of obese children and measured the costs of substituting healthy food options for unhealthy ones, finding that healthy eating can cost less than junk food.

    The figures showed that healthier eating could cost no more than £2.31 extra a week, and that in some cases, savings of up to £6.58 a week could by made by switching shops.”

    http://www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2011/8121.html

  43. “Professors Julian Hamilton-Shield and Debbie Sharp from the University of Bristol, analysed food diaries kept by the families of obese children”

    I’d love to see the results of that. Anyone got a BMJ subscription?

  44. Pingback: Take This Column With A BIIIIIG Pinch Of Salt… | Orphans of Liberty

  45. Well of course it’s possible to eat well and cheaply, although this is not of course in the interests of food manufacturers and retailers, whose premium prices rely on the processing and often the dilution of “raw” food with cheaper ingredients such as sugars. For obvious reasons food manufacturers do not generally like to draw attention to the processes involved.

    A simple solution, and one which does not restrict consumer choice at the point of sale, is legislation to ensure that foodstuffs are properly labelled and devoid of false claims.

    Unfortunately this is a solution to which Mr Worstall is implacably opposed (see many previous posts) for reasons never fully explained.

  46. A few simple calculations show that a Big Mac is about 10 times as expensive (in terms of calories per p) as things like bread, pasta, rice, beans etc. I don’t believe it is boring though. Fast food is all about the flavour of fat, sugar and salt. Rice with dal and vegetable curry, or egg-fried rice with vegetables in a black bean sauce are much more tasty.

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