Food Banks, Farming, and Chips: How Eating Shaped the Election
As Britain prepares to go to the polls, we look at how issues of food poverty, agriculture, and that Theresa May chip photo impacted the campaign trail.
Bread, bananas, beef, and beer—they've all been hoofed around as political footballs. From the 1795 bread riots, to post-War rationing, to the 1993 BSE epidemic, to Nigel Farage's bar room diplomacy. In Britain, you vote what you eat.
This year's snap election is no exception. Which party will woo Britain's farmers? What does immigration reform mean for our Indian, Chinese, Thai, French, Polish, Brazilian, and Turkish restaurants? How will users of food banks vote on June 8? Who will tackle food waste? The election will not be decided by whether Theresa May can eat chips or Jeremy Corbyn makes his own hummus, but it might just be swayed by post-Brexit food prices, changes to VAT, or food poverty.
According to its latest figures, The Trussell Trust food bank network provided 1,182,954 three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis across the UK last year. Of this number, 436,938 went to children.
When asked recently by Andrew Marr about nurses being forced to rely on such services, May said that there were "many complex reasons why people go to food banks." According to Trussell Trust network director Adrian Curtis, who I spoke to via email, benefit delays and changes account for 43 percent of all referrals. There are other reasons people find themselves needing food banks, of course, but the underlying vulnerability created by low and no-income work plays a massive role.
"Anyone can find themselves in need of a food bank."
"People are referred to food banks by frontline professionals like health visitors and children's centres when something unavoidable stretches their budget beyond breaking point, leaving them with no money to buy food," says Curtis. "Anyone can find themselves in need of a food bank after unexpectedly being hit by something like redundancy, illness, an issue with a benefit payment, or even a large bill while on a low income."
According to the Royal College of Nursing, when inflation is factored in, nurses' pay has dropped by 14 percent in the past seven years, leaving some reliant on food banks because their wages simply can't stretch to cover household expenses.
"I have to be honest with you," says Curtis, "I'd love to see more policies that specifically address how we can stop more people needing food banks in the future—policies that ensure the UK has a robust welfare safety net and secure work that pays enough to keep people out of poverty."
While public service workers—nurses, doctors, teachers, care workers—may be negotiating politics according to the food they can afford and want to eat, for farmers the question is flipped: what food can they afford and do they want to produce? According to the 2017 National Farmer's Union (NFU) Manifesto, 475,000 UK jobs are in British agriculture. If political parties can appeal to farmers, they can go a long way to securing political success.
But the thorny issue of Brexit has torn through this community like a nail through butter. According to the NFU manifesto, farming needs "an ambitious bilateral trade agreement with the EU that delivers frictionless, tariff-free trade."
But as farmer and agricultural consultant Grace Nugent, puts it, "nobody truly knows what's going to happen" after Brexit. Speaking to Nugent over the phone from Malvern, it becomes clear that Brexit, rather than simple party politics, is at the top of many farmer's minds at the moment.
"Brexit split a lot of farming communities," she tells me. "There's a lot of unhappy farmers. There's been massive delays to getting subsidies. And a lot of people saw the Brexit referendum, perhaps, as a way of voicing that."
In Nugent's sector—sheep—farmers are reliant on selling into France.
"They're a huge market," she explains. "And that's all become quite uncertain, even worrying, after Brexit."
For Nugent, there is no single policy that would push her in favour of any political party. She'd prefer to see a better understanding of the farming industry as a whole, a less complicated approach to subsidies, and a politician with a real empathy and understanding of agriculture.
"They don't have to have been a farmer," she says , "but it's worrying how politicians are getting so removed from the sector."
"Brexit split a lot of farming communities. There's a lot of unhappy farmers."
Back in the concrete and convenience of Britain's major cities, issues of immigration, workers' rights, and taxation are all folded into food, and will play a huge role in how people vote on June 8. The Conservative manifesto policy of reducing net migration to less than 100,000 a year could pose a problem for restaurant managers wishing to bring in chefs and staff from overseas. The changes to UK visas that have seen the general salary threshold for experienced workers rise to £25,000 (with some exceptions) could discount a lot of people who would otherwise come to the UK to work in restaurants, shops, hotels, and food production factories. The proposed "barista visa" may be seen by some as a post-Brexit salve, while Labour's manifesto policy of no rises in income tax for those earning below £80,000 a year, along with no increases in personal National Insurance Contributions or the rate of VAT, seems designed to appeal to people starting up their own businesses or working in low-income jobs.
All of this may well influence the way food workers of London, Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh, and Sheffield vote.
In a not particularly scientific but hugely enjoyable trip, I went to Walthamstow Market to speak to my local Halal butchers, Turkish greengrocers, and Hindi-speaking supermarket workers about how they have experienced the recent election campaign.
Ahmed, a butcher with a silver front tooth and super-sharp crew cut, tells me he is going to vote Labour. So does his colleague, standing with the sort of elaborate facial hair and a strong forearms that speak to a clear ability with all sorts of blades.
"I like Labour, I always vote for them," says Ahmed, standing before a display of red, white, and blue carrier bags. "These things go in cycles and so I think every 20 years, Labour will win again."
Ahmed knows several people who are voting by postal vote, either, I assume, because their work schedule is unpredictable or they might be out of the country on the 8 June.
Across the road in Sainsbury's, I speak to Muni, a supermarket checkout worker who says she will choose who to vote for a few days before the election.
"It is hard to decide between them who is right," she says.
Although Muni always votes, she says it can be hard if you're travelling or working a long supermarket shift. I wonder how many casually employed or shift workers will experience this problem on polling day, and wonder again what it will take to introduce non-physical voting and allow people—many of them working in the food industry—to cast their ballot during unsociable and unpredictable hours.
Further down Walthamstow Market at my favourite international supermarket, the Romanian woman who serves me hasn't heard anything about an election. Had no idea it was happening. She is young, with a topknot and enough mascara to coat a spider; one of the migrant workers likely to be affected very drastically by the coming election. And yet she will play no part in deciding its outcome.
For food business owners—the restaurateurs, the cafe owners, the shop managers—much of the discussion during election time is around taxation. But, argues Sebastian Redford, founder of Peckham restaurant Forza Win, the impact of food on politics is far more wide-reaching than just that.
"There's a crisis looming and everyone is steaming into it, blissfully unaware," he says. "As long as there is meat in every meal and they can see how shiny their shrink-wrapped apple is, people assume all is well in the world. What nobody is addressing is the fact that their post-gym handful of blueberries and chicken breast contain man hours, and lots of them. Those man hours aren't worked by the white middle classes—they're worked by low paid workers who are happy to be doing whatever job they can get their hands on. When Brexit comes around and it no longer makes economical sense for those people to come and work here, our fields of fruit and vegetables will rot."
When it comes to notions of Britishness, it's very easy to fall into some P.G. Wodehouse village-green-preservation-society, cricket-teas-and-ham-sandwiches fantasy of nostalgia, patriotism, and food. The truth, however, is that what we eat has always been part-and-parcel of immigration, international trade, agriculture, politics, and economics. Who grows our food, how we pay for it, where we live, and what we believe will play out across the ballot paper as surely as on our plates. We need factory workers, farmers, butchers, and shelf stackers. We need fair wages, less wastage, and better education. We need international agreements, domestic policies, environmental strategy, and social justice. We need politicians to build a society where everyone can afford to eat. Who you think is most likely to deliver that is entirely up to you, of course.
Politics is bread and butter, cabbages and kings, tea and biscuits, milk and money. It's what you eat but, most importantly, how you vote. So please, vote.