Once again, an issue has arisen and rages on social media, forcing us to align ourselves to one side or the other with total disregard to the complexities of the underlying reality.
This time it’s the footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign to extend free school meals over the school holidays.
On one hand you can take Rashford’s side, in which case you will find yourself being lectured on personal and familial responsibility. On the other, you can stand against him and his carefully-curated campaign, in which case you will be accused of being cold-hearted and caring more about your tax bill than starving children.
For me, neither of these positions really holds water. I think we’re all at fault because we failed to stand up for our communities when the chips were down.
When I was a child in the 1970s, the area of Tyneside where I grew up had a decent array of local shops. However the rise of the supermarkets with more exotic products and convenience foods for the busy working mother appeared as progress. Now, what were greengrocers, butchers, bakers are takeaways and ‘Stand and Tan’ parlours.
As local run family businesses closed, our councils and government did nothing to help and the supermarkets grew bigger and moved away from town centres, assuming access to a car in the kind of customers they valued. I see many comments from people who decry young women for feeding their children takeaways rather than cooking, but it’s easier to get a manicure on many of our high streets now than it is to buy a cabbage.
Of course, even if the cabbage could be found, many wouldn’t have the skills to cook it. When I was at school, the girls were taught to cook; not just how to make some chocolate eclairs or some pastry, but how to plan and budget. For my Home Economics O Level, I was expected to cook a three course meal and an additional item in three hours, including bread and pastry. It had to be costed and nutritionally balanced, the bins were searched for waste and we had to clean up as we went.
At some point these life skills were deemed sexist and, rather than spread those skills to the boys, they were cancelled and cooking became a mere hobby for the middle classes.
Our housing crisis, left to the free market, has also fed into this. When so much household income goes into rent, food becomes a secondary worry and many women go out to work, not because of exciting career opportunities, but to keep a roof over their children’s heads, reducing the time available to provide cheap and nutritious meals.
When you look at the housing estates that spring up around us, you’ll notice a few things. There are no shops, car ownership is assumed; also the way they proudly boast of ‘executive’ housing. There’s just no incentive to fix the issues with housing poverty for our national builders.
Our communities were also places of employment. Local factories provided jobs nearby and a sense of self-worth. Our addiction to cheap imported goods saw an end to many of these jobs at about the same time that we started our obsession with labels and celebrity.
It’s easy to sneer at young people who put new trainers over nutrition, but this is a world of our making. If a young man can’t have pride in his work, can you blame him for finding status in fashion? We’ve created a country where, for many young people, the only hope they have of success, a way out, is crime, a reality show or Instagram fame.
When our rulers, who we elected, chose to leave these things to the market, all of this became more or less inevitable, because the market doesn’t care about our young people. Why would it? Its purpose is to make money and nothing else.
The fact is that, until we begin to control the market’s excesses, to make political decisions that benefit families and communities rather than multinational corporations, these sorts of problems will continue to grow.
Marcus Rashford’s campaign and the issue of whether or not the state provides meal vouchers over the holidays will not change any of these fundamentals.