Food, waste, and hunger

On a blog I frequent, the regulars have come up with a new method of reacting to a racist troll. [New? Though I had not seen it before, I was told it originated on Usenet.] When he posts his crap, they respond with recipes. Or sometimes detailed descriptions of food they’ve eaten, or occasionally cute-dog stories. But mostly, recipes. It can seem disconcerting to go from a vile comment which argues that George Zimmerman was in the right to murder Trayvon Martin, to a lengthy explanation of how to make a vegetarian chilli, but the odd thing is, it seems to be working: the troll isn’t getting the angry, outraged response he lives for, and the regulars can turn what might be a distressing thread about American racism and injustice into a pleasant discussion of smoked chipotles and beans. The troll tries again, and gets another recipe.

Today I saw two posts about food.

Cheeseburger stuffed crust pizza - promoshotFirst, the Observer article by Jay Rayner on what the existence of a thing like the cheeseburger stuffed crust pizza says about our food industry:

Most of the diners here today are going for the £6.99 all-you-can-eat buffet deal. Not me. I am ordering a large double pepperoni pizza with cheeseburger crust. I am consigning myself to my very own grease-stained, cheese-slicked gastronomic hell. I am doing this to shine a light on the way a deformed model of nutrition has come, in the past year, to play a key part in the debate around global food security.

Quickly it arrives. It’s certainly not misnamed. The middle is standard Pizza Hut: a soft doughy base as sodden and limp as a baby’s nappy after it’s been worn for 10 hours. There is a scab of waxy cheese and flaps of pink salami the colour, worryingly, of a three-year-old girl’s party dress. What matters is the crust. Each of the 10 slices has a loop of crisped dough and in the circular fold made by that loop there is a tiny puck of burger, four or so centimetres across and smeared with more cheese. It looks like a fairground carousel realised in food.

In a way, a pizza like this is Pizza Hut being a troll. It exists not because anyone thought a mini-burger at the crusty end of a pizza slice was a yummy idea, but so that food reviewers will write about it. As Linda Moyo noted in Manchester Confidential last October, Pizza Hut is a great place to take kids for a reasonably cheap, reasonably filling, and only moderately unhealthy meal out. (And when I was a broke – and vegetarian – teenager, Pizza Hut was just about the only sit-down restaurant that sold cheap hot meals I could actually eat.) But it’s not that thrilling for two adults:

The all-you-can-eat buffet can be handy I guess, but overall there’s never a time when Pizza Hut is top of the list. A bottomless trip to the Ice Cream Factory doesn’t entice me not being seven and all, and on the whole I find their pizzas utterly average.

To be honest, Pizza Hut would have to do something wacky like squeezing mini burgers into the crust of their pizza and calling it ‘all the fun without the bun’ to get my attention.

Oh, hang on a minute…

The cheeseburger stuffed crust originated in Middle East Pizza Huts, and Serious Eats, the website for fans of fast food, had a trial taste a couple of years ago – and discovered at first bite that it was a troll:

If I took the antonym of “delicious,” strapped it onto a rocket and blasted it twenty thousand light years away, I may begin to get close to my experience with the burger patties. They were advertised as “juicy,” though its questionable what sort of juice Pizza Hut was referring to. The only juices I tasted were suspiciously reminiscent of those plastic-wrapped airline cheeseburgers that get brutally microwaved to explosion point. One entire patty and another toxic forkful of a second patty later, I gave up attempting to discern what creature could have flesh that tasted this way.

This is food that was created to get a reaction, not to be eaten: food created to be wasted, just as a troll creates waste. (Even if we disallow the waste of the troll’s time and energy in creating wordage for the sake of getting angry responses, there is also the waste of time and energy and emotion in responding to a troll’s provocation. Recipes, from this perspective, would appear to be a seriously constructive reaction…)

But what Jay Rayner goes on to point out is that food created to be wasted impacts on the environment and therefore our future ability to feed ourselves.

It’s easy to dismiss the wretched cheeseburger crust pizza as a mere food curio, a tragic example of the terrible things done to perfectly innocent ingredients by those operating at the bottom end of the market. And it’s certainly that. But it’s also something much bigger: a rallying point for those talking seriously about the challenges of food security in the 21st century. ….. The impact of climate change on our ability to feed ourselves really is going to be huge, and we need to be serious about taking measures to mitigate that.

In the past year … a second debate has come to the fore, and this one is all about the demand side. It’s not just about how we produce the food we eat; it’s about how much of that food we’re consuming – or not actually consuming, as the case may be. In the past year, for example, the volume of the debate around food waste has been turned up and up. In September 2013 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization released a report, Food Wastage Footprint: Impacts on Natural Resources [PDF], which revealed that the 1.3bn tonnes of food wasted globally each year caused $750bn worth of damage to the environment. The water wasted is equivalent to the entirety of the flow of Russia’s Volga river. The waste food adds 3.3bn tonnes of greenhouse gases to the planet’s atmosphere and uses 1.4bn hectares of land, or a full 28% of the globe’s agriculture area. All to grow food that will never be eaten.

The other blog, posted yesterday, is by Masuma Rahim, a trainee clinical psychologist based in south-west London, who was supposed to visit a client who has learning difficulties for a therapy session: only to find that he and his partner had no food, no money, and no phone credit.

In fact, this person has little support, despite needing quite a lot, because when they moved area they didn’t know how to get that support moved with them. As a result, there is a constellation of difficulties: mental health, physical health, financial. I took the referral for a distinct mental health problem and am probably the professional they know the best. I seem to have become a demi-care co-ordinator, telling the actual care co-ordinator what the problems are. Which is fine – I’m happy to do it, but it makes me furious that I am the best option this person has, because it’s not my area of expertise. I don’t know about district nurses or benefits. But at previous appointments, this person has been worried by ATOS assessments. There is no way this person could work, but ATOS sent a letter with an appointment for an assessment. This person forgot to go and was terrified their benefits would be cut. I dealt with that, and it seems to be fine for the moment, but suddenly this person had no food.

They would have been entitled to a crisis loan, but you can only apply for a crisis loan by phone or online. (I stopped talking to a clutch of Americans I actually used to quite like when they collectively poo-poo’d the idea that anyone could be so poor they had no access to the Internet. That may well have been true for everyone they knew who was “poor in the US”, but I suspect that even in the US, access to the Internet is not quite as universal as they think.)

Masuma Rahim did what she could, and then wrote:

This makes me furious. This person has a learning disability and a mental health problem. They are vulnerable. They find it hard to access services. They cannot fight without help. To them, the system seems impenetrable. If neither I nor my colleagues had been there when Social Services called, who would have dealt with it? Who would have called the Council? Would they have slowly starved over the next five days, a little like this gentleman, who died as a result of ATOS and their ghastly assessments?

In my line of work, we see people who need help in all sorts of areas. People with mental health problems are more likely to have a whole raft of other issues, such as poor physical health and social isolation. They are less likely to be able to work; more likely to be dependent on the decency of the State. Unfortunately, the State does not treat these people with much in the way of decency. The Bedroom Tax, the cuts in Housing Benefit, the scum at ATOS; all of these are making life Hell for vulnerable people. Half a million going to food banks! In Britain! It’s a a national disgrace. And somehow we’re expected to treat depression or panic attacks or help people with the voices they hear. How? If you’re cold and hungry, panic attacks become rather less of a problem in comparison. But the dilemma is this: we can say such people are not ready for therapy and reject the referral, or we can accept it knowing that we can’t do much about the mental health element but that we can do something about the other stuff they’re having to manage. And, actually, that shouldn’t be the choice. There needs to be a decent system of support that can help with housing and money and forms.

There was, once. My great-aunt worked there for forty years. It was called the “Department of Labour”: she specialised in helping people who had a disability find work. (She retired about the time I was born: but from all I knew of her, she must have been the kind of fearfully-effective civil servant for whom it is easier to do what she wants than to find excuses for not doing it.)

Now it’s the Department of Work and Pensions, and they conceive their role now is to ensure that no one gets the help they need, because anyone in need of help deserves to be punished for not being independent.

Meanwhile, the cheeseburger stuffed crust pizza uses wheat and cheese and meat to create a meal that no one will eat, so that people will talk about Pizza Hut. And to be sure, ATOS has now moved on from running “tests” to ensure people in need of help would have their benefits cut, to managing the data from the NHS that’s to be sold to private medical research firms. That just means the DWP will need to find some other big company to do it – G4S, presumably.

ATOS - Sauron


Filed under About Food, Poverty

4 responses to “Food, waste, and hunger

  1. Thanks for writing this post. It so aptly sums up so much of what is going wrong in the UK right now. A horrible read – I mean that as a compliment.

  2. A depressing and difficult article to read. It’s important to talk about it and take action though.
    re: Americans being so poor as to not afford phones or internet, I wondered if you had seen this article and although she has a smartphone, you can easily imagine people who don’t, and of course, whose voices we never hear on the internet.

    Would be very surprised if the story wasn’t the same in the UK

    • Thanks for the link. That’s just the kind of situation many people I know have been in at one time or another – or in some cases are still in. Internet-poverty.

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