Junk food has become the mainstay of poor families' meals

pop tarts
© Mark's Postcards

The divide in overweight rates between poor and wealthy children is growing in the U.K. and comes down to diet.

Rates of obesity and overweight continue to rise in the United Kingdom, but the increase is not equal across the country. A recent report by the Health & Social Care Information Centre states that the poorer you are, the more likely you are to be obese or overweight: “In 2014-15, obesity prevalence for children living in the most deprived areas was double that of those living in the least deprived areas.”

Double the prevalence is a huge difference. In other words, poor British children are twice as likely to be overweight than better-off British children. It all comes down to diet, and the fact that the poorer you are, the more junk food you are likely to eat.

In an opinion piece for The Guardian, writer Barbara Ellen argues that a major shift has occurred since junk food became the mainstay of poor families’ diets. It no longer inhabits that outer category of “treats” but now comprises the meals that are prepared to fill children’s bellies three times a day.

“Shifts in fundamental food culture (the creep of junk into normal meals) appear to be a much more profound problem than merely overindulging in signposted treats. Kids eating rubbish has always been with us but it is only now that the staples, the dietary cornerstones, are also unhealthy, that their weight problems are escalating.”

Ellen cites the usual arguments for why poor families can’t eat more healthily – expensive electricity and gas needed to cook food from scratch; time spent working several jobs takes away from cooking time; the high cost and limited accessibility of fresh ingredients; the quest for calorific foods; the total exhaustion of being poor and working so hard to make ends meet. It’s so much easier to rip open a package and toss it in the microwave.

“This is why, however well meant, the ‘why not buy some veg from the local market and make a lovely stew?’ rationale so often takes on the shrill ring of Marie Antoinette’s fabled suggestion about the poor eating cake.”

While I agree with Ellen that junk food has crept into the main meals of far too many families, I don’t agree that cooking well is such an impossibility for poor families. Thankfully I don’t fall into the poor category, but I am a frugal shopper who pays very close attention to price tags, and I know that prepared food and convenience meals are relatively expensive for what you get. Usually only a few servings with little nutritional value, excessive packaging, and no leftovers, you’d be further ahead making larger quantities of the same thing from scratch.

It comes down more to lack of education about how absolutely crucial it is to nourish children adequately from a young age (and how it will save on health costs and repercussions down the road), and lack of knowing how to pull together cheap, frugal, healthy meals using minimal ingredients. Few people learn those skills anymore because they’ve been utterly lost over the past half-century.

As one commenter wrote: “I think the reluctance to cook comes mainly from those who don't know how easy it is. You don't need to do anything elaborate, and most things can be done in less then half an hour of preparation time and you will often find yourself with enough to last you for the next day too, thus saving you some time.”

People seem to think they’re being asked to make a roast beef dinner every night, but that’s hardly logical. A vegetable pasta sauce takes 10 minutes and can be prepared while the pasta cooks. Omelets, grilled cheese, chickpea-spinach curry, fried rice – these are a few of the quick and inexpensive meals I pull together at the last minute when my three kids are starving and it’s 6 p.m.

If only public schools would introduce cooking classes as part of the regular curriculum so at least the next generation of children could grow up knowing how to cook quickly, frugally, and healthily. Then children over the age of 10 could pitch in at home to lessen the burden on overworked parents and help put good food on the table.

Once you prioritize good nutrition and feel the physical benefits, it’s difficult imagine slipping back into less nourishing meal habits.

Junk food has become the mainstay of poor families' meals
The divide in overweight rates between poor and wealthy children is growing in the U.K. and comes down to diet.

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