Charlie Clutterbuck continues the joint Culture Matters/Morning Star series on the future of cultural activities after the Covid-19 crisis, looking at what will we have on our plates afterwards. Image above: ultra-processed cheese production, photo by Matthias Kabel
Food is essential to live but has also been at the centre of our culture for centuries, with many a familiar expression like “eating humble pie” or “upper crust” showing our attitudes to class through food. Yet, in the last few decades of neoliberal capitalism, the production, distribution and consumption of food has changed radically, leading many people to take the availability of cheap, fresh food for granted.
As in so many other areas of cultural activity, the Covid-19 crisis has opened up the chasms in our food culture and shown that they need to be rethought and reimagined. This is part of the cultural struggle for a better world outlined by Mike Quille in the introductory article to this series, and as was illustrated by Keith Flett’s contribution on the subject of drinking. In outlining some of the problems of food culture that the Covid-19 crisis has brought into relief, I want to propose some potential solutions from a left perspective in the hope that the ideas stimulate further discussion.
The capitalist system has shown itself incapable of providing enough food of the right quality to everyone, even before the crisis. This has become most obvious in the runaway growth of obesity in the last 30-40 years, fuelled by food manufacturers’ drive for profits through adulterating food with too much sugar, salt and other harmful additives. In Britain, 50 per cent of the food we eat is ultra-processed and we eat more of this stuff and are more obese than any other European country.
There is also enormous wastage of food, at the farm, the factory and the supermarket, all because of overproduction to make a profit. These market failures have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis, with huge increases in food bank-use due to people on lower incomes losing their jobs and struggling to buy enough food. At the same time, the chasm between the haves and have-nots has become clearer. Just about all of the food-service sector has been shut down. Many thousands of people in the food and drink industries have been furloughed or lost their jobs overnight and many have found themselves dependent on food banks.
Some crumbs from the tables of the rich were given by the government to distribute to frontline charities, serving food for refuges, homeless shelters and rehabilitation centres. But for the most part it was local communities all over the country which set up emergency systems to get food to the most needy. New community delivery systems based on volunteers were set up. In Preston, our co-operative LARDER cafe had to close and instead we went over to collecting as much surplus food as possible, making it into decent meals and delivering it with volunteers and vans.
Within a few weeks our food culture—both its production and consumption—seems to be changing. We are asking: “Where has all the flour gone?” as we take to home baking. People are starting to learn and enjoy the cultures around home cooking, finding that it tastes a lot better and does you a lot more good. Will this continue afterwards or will we all be straight out to the takeaways and restaurants?
As a good example of how our food culture may be changing, John Lewis reported that they are selling out of all their ranges of egg cups. It seems families are making the most of the lockdown by sitting down and having breakfast together. It takes only a few minutes to boil an egg and clear up, yet before lockdown that was enough to stop many people sitting down and enjoying breakfast in the morning.
Under pressure from the relentless demands of the capitalist workplace, our food culture has lost the time and space for us to sit down and enjoy our food together. We used to have set lunchtimes in canteens at work, instead of grazing at our desks. I found out when running food programmes for the World Health Organisation in Africa and Asia that in these neoliberal times eating on the move instead of sitting down has increased all over the world,
So what might some solutions to improve our food culture look like? We should start with policies of much tighter regulation, aimed at eliminating waste. We should discourage and even ban the production, promotion and retail of poor-quality foods, instead encouraging and promoting healthier diets.
We need to limit the number of fast food outlets, and ensure the availability of an adequate supply of fresh fruit and vegetables for everyone because the market—by which is ultimately meant capitalist boardrooms—cannot deliver that to everyone. Beyond that, in order to achieve real progress in promoting a healthier and happier eating culture, we need to remove the profit motive from production and retail and fundamentally change ownership arrangements.
We need to discuss putting the land, food production facilities and retail outlets into different forms of social ownership. These might be community co-operatives and shops, municipal facilities instead of foodbanks and, in many cases, a measure of nationalisation of food production, distribution and retail.
In other words, a menu—pun intended—of policies which encourage and direct a change in food production, retail and the cultures around consumption towards need instead of profit and a move away from private ownership towards more social forms of ownership and control.
Charlie is the author of Bittersweet Brexit: The Future of Food, Farming, Land and Labour, Pluto Press 2017.
Charlie Clutterbuck Ph.D. was an Associate Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, and Honorary Fellow of the Centre for Food Policy at City University, London. He’s now Trustee of Incredible Farm, Todmorden, and of The Larder, Preston.