Jamie Oliver’s sugar tax is an attack on the poor, not on obesity

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Jodie Pearce
Columnist

Jamie Oliver has recently made headlines amidst the stepping up of his campaign to introduce a levy on sugary drinks in order to combat child obesity rates. Speaking to the House of Commons Health Committee, Oliver urged the government to introduce a ‘sugar tax’ of 20% on products with the highest content of sugar. His calls have sparked fierce debate amongst MPs, within the health sector and across social media- his petition has thus far garnered almost 150,000 signatures in support of the motion, whilst many have condemned it as ineffective, and a tax on the poorest in society.

It is difficult to deny that the proposed tax isn’t inherently classist – countless studies have proven the link between childhood obesity and poverty, with the rising cost of food combined with low wages and welfare cuts creating an often impenetrable barrier to healthy eating for the poorest families. The National Obesity Observatory in 2013 published a graph that shows that for children aged 10 and 11 in England, the lower the household income, the higher the chance of the child being obese. To put healthy meals on the table in a busy family requires time, money and effort: planning ahead, being able to afford and then shopping for the ingredients, and having enough money on the meter to be able to use the cooker.

Take Jamie Oliver’s own recipes; in the ‘Cheap and Cheerful Recipes’ section of his website, he lists a curry for a family of four that takes an hour and 15 minutes to make. It also has 17 ingredients. Using the cheapest possible version of each, this totals £14.33 from ASDA. Compare this to a quick run to the chippy for a fiver, or a bag of frozen chips and chicken nuggets for £1.50, and it is easy to see how, if you’re counting the pennies, the latter is preferable. The long hours, low pay lifestyle that is so prevalent for the working poor in Britain dictates certain ‘choices’- if you’re exhausted from another long shift, sick with worry about money, and trying to battle the constant stress that accompanies grinding poverty, you could be forgiven for trying to source the cheapest, the easiest and the most filling meal. There’s not always a lot of ‘choice’ in it.

For Jamie Oliver, whose life is a world away from this, a world in which everyone eats wonderful, home cooked meals from scratch and poverty doesn’t exist, the notion that you ‘can’t afford to eat healthily’ is a ridiculous one. He has made his views on this perfectly clear, stating that he finds it ‘quite hard to talk about modern day poverty’, citing witnessing ‘a mum and kid eating chips and cheese out of Styrofoam containers, and behind them is a massive TV. It just didn’t weigh up.’ Aside from the clichéd self-righteous outrage used to demonise the working class, (‘oh, they can’t be that poor, they’ve got an iPhone and an XBox!’), it is crystal clear that he just doesn’t get it. He will never truly know the reality of being poor- the exhausting drudgery of each day when there is no way up or out. But for him, it’s simple – don’t grab a quick chippy tea and sit by the ‘massive’ telly, whip up a quick quinoa, feta and broad bean salad and play a nice game of cards. This massive oversimplification of modern day poverty is precisely where his ‘sugar tax’ falls down. He has named it as ‘the single most important change’ needed to tackle child obesity, completely oblivious to the fact that there are a myriad of complex reasons that become obstacles to healthy eating.

Where is Jamie’s outrage at the growing number of children reliant on food banks? The items they receive are largely non-perishable, tinned foods high in salt, and a distinct lack of fresh fruit and veg. If Jamie Oliver truly cares about the health of children, why isn’t he campaigning against welfare cuts and zero hours contracts that leave people in these positions? Why didn’t he add his voice to the tax credits debate? Why isn’t he addressing the lack of budgeting and cooking lessons in many schools? The several pounds a time it costs to go swimming, or to gymnastics or rugby sessions? The fact that the price of a small chocolate bar is almost as high as a family sized one, making it the cheaper option to go large? Why isn’t he shouting for cheaper and better breakfast clubs in schools so the thousands of children who go in hungry don’t spend their change on a bag of crisps and a can of pop to feel full? Instead, he has opted to campaign for a sugar tax, to make things that little bit more expensive even as the cost of a weekly shop continues to rise.

In some ways, I admire Jamie Oliver for the stance he is taking and the zealousness with which he speaks. But I find it so difficult to reconcile that boundless energy and passion with someone who genuinely can’t understand that for some, the diet he suggests as ‘cheap and cheerful’ is simply impossible. When he chirpily suggests that we should ‘make healthy drinks fun’ by placing freshly cut strawberries and oranges in a glass of iced water, the idea that the three or four quid for some fresh fruit to make drinks ‘fun’ could be unaffordable, is totally alien to him.

Denouncing the existence of modern day poverty and stigmatising the poor for their, often unavoidable, choices is not the way to promote a healthier Britain. Because at the very heart of things, we must accept that this is not just an obesity problem, but a class one too.