Opinion

Don’t tell Jamie! Sugar and snacks down to economics not poor choices

Published on 4 April 2016

I was recently invited to the launch of the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition’s new policy brief Managing Food Price Volatility: Policy Options to Support Healthy Diets and Nutrition in the Context of Uncertainty. The brief references our work on Food Price Volatility and shares our concerns around what can be done to anticipate and mitigate the negative dietary and nutritional outcomes of price volatility and market uncertainty.

British celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver, in Union Square. Credit: really short - Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Jamie Oliver, celebrity television chef and campaigner for a “sugar” tax

The Global Panel has conducted an extensive review of existing policies across the food system, from short term policy actions, such as fertilizer subsidies, to cash transfers, and long-term strategies shaping agricultural markets and trade in order to identify what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to buffering against price rises and dampening price volatility.

Its policy recommendations are based on a rooted understanding that spiking prices make life hard for both consumers and farmers.

During the event, Sir John Bebbington, co-Chair of the Global Panel, who coined the term ‘perfect storm’ to refer to the simultaneous fuel, financial and food crisis, gave an overview of the sorts of statistics that are often used to talk about nutrition (see Haris Gazdar’s recent blog on the subject), while Board member, Emmy Simmons, delved into the nitty gritty of life and food consumption in times of uncertainty.

Is a “sugar tax” short-term policy fix that does not address underlying poverty? 

On the same day George Osborne, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced the 2016 Budget, revealing how government money is to be spent in the UK for the next 12 months.

Importantly, Osborne unveiled the flagship new ‘Sugar Tax’.

The new tax, proposed and lobbied for by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver (above), will take 24p from citizens for every litre of fizzy drink they buy, and that money should be reinvested in sport activities in schools across the country.

Soft drinks on a supermarket shelf. Credit: Gilly Youner - Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Fizzy drinks on the shelves of a UK supermarket

In the past few years, Jamie Oliver has made a name for himself as a campaigner for healthy eating ‘for less’ through his school interventions, his ‘Money saving Meals’ TV show and the ‘Save With Jamie’ cookbook. While promoting his book and TV show, Jamie referred to “mums and kids eating chips and cheese out of Styrofoam containers”.

Jack Munroe, food blogger, poverty activist and single parent, who famously shares “austerity recipes for under £10 per week” on the blog Cooking on a Bootstrap (formerly A Girl Called Jack), has already criticised Jamie Oliver’s crusade stating that “his comments are not only out of touch but support dangerous and damaging myths that “poor people are only poor because they spend their money on the wrong things”, rather than constrained by time, equipment, knowledge, or practicalities”.

Indeed, underpinning Jamie Oliver’s campaign to get the precariat cooking and healthy, is a notion along the lines of ‘If only poor people were smart, then they would realise that there are lots of ways of eating well on whatever budget’.

Buy in bulk, cook instead of paying for take-out, buy more fresh foods and less of the processed stuff, etc.

The myth of poor and vulnerable people plagued by their own ignorance and bad choices stretches outside of the UK

In our 3 years of working on the Life in a Time of Food Volatility project, we’ve encountered a lot of people (about 1,500 participants per year) who have to make choices to put food on the table everyday. And, not unlike people in the UK, many of those choices are shaped by taste and pleasure, as well as structural constraints.

Photo by Maureen Didde entitled

Coffee and mandazi, a typical Kenyan breakfast

Here are some of the things I think Jamie ‘Eat Smart!’ Oliver would cringe at if only he knew:

  1. In Mukuru, Kenya, people eat mandazis (deep fried –delicious!- doughnuts) rather than bread for breakfast.
  2. In Indonesia, nothing will stop the rise of the instant noodle. AND kids’ snacking is out of control.
  3. Having a ‘mega’ (i.e. 3 litres) of fizzy drink on your table in Guatemala is a sign of social status.
  4. In Burkina Faso, the Maggi stock cube is king.

For each of these facts, there are very valid reasons.

  1. Mandazis are cheaper than bread.
  2. Everywhere, women working longer hours as a result of the pressure to earn more cash have less time to shop around, cook and eat traditional home-cooked meals. Besides, Indonesian snacks look incredibly appealing!
  3. Changing food cultures are as much to do with wallets, as they are to do with cultural and social aspirations.
  4. That’s what happens when no one can afford meat.

The K’dogo economy or only being able to afford tiny, itemised amounts

On that last fact specifically, in Mukuru, it is not uncommon to see people buying sugar one spoonful at a time, or just enough oil for one meal, the five leaves of greens that are needed immediately, all of these widely available from small shop keepers.

This is known as the k’dogo economy.

Indeed, in 2013, when most residents of Mukuru live on 300Ksh (£2) per day, few have enough cash in hand to pay for a 120Ksh kilogram bag of Unga (maize meal) that would last them longer and save them money in the long term.

This was also the case in Kaya, north of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, where the phenomenon was widespread and applied to most items, from oil to butter to charcoal, namelessly incorporated into the way of selling or buying things.

Shop in North West Zambia, near Luapula. Credit: Alex Berger - Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Shop in Zambia where oil and flour have been decanted and packaged into small, affordable portions. Zambia was also one of the research sites for the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility project.

Of course this means that the real price of the items in the k’dogo economy can reach up to twice their normal price, but in the short, immediate term, it certainly makes sense. But the k’dogo economy is only counter-intuitive if we fail to understand the fact that the challenge of keeping oneself or one’s family fed is a daily one, and the fact that a large proportion of the population in most low- lower-middle income countries live on daily wages.

In other words, it matters little if ‘in the long run’ it makes more sense to buy in bulk or to buy ingredients rather than eat out.

While for now the sugar tax only targets fizzy drinks, and not the chip shops (yet!), it is important to be vigilant of short term policy fixes, and make sure that policies are grounded in an understanding of how people actually live, and what leads them to make the choices they make.

In a few weeks we will be publishing our final global synthesis report with findings and indeed policy recommendations, after 3 years of research (Spoiler Alert: It won’t be written by Jamie Oliver).

Image credits: Jamie Oliver – really short (Flickr),fizzy drinks – gilly youner (Flickr), Kenyan breakfast – Maureen Didde (Flickr) and Zambian shop – Alex Berger (Flickr). With many thanks to all these photographers for enabling their photos to be shared via Creative Commons licensing. 

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