At a time when more people are eating out and newer restaurants are opening, an increasing number of people are finding it difficult to meet their basic needs.
Increasing numbers of people in Britain are having difficulty with finding money for their basic needs, including food. It is, of course, a reflection of serious economic problems facing the country. Inevitably, the fact that this difficulty exists is raised in the many discussions about governmental plans aimed at reducing some benefits. It is not at all a straightforward problem, and it is a constant reminder that the years of affluence, to which we have become accustomed, are over.
There is a curious paradox that impinges on my thinking about this issue. It is the fact that newspapers and television programmes devote much energy and effort, as they have done for many years, into describing and discussing food. There are regular columnists who tickle our palates with exciting dishes. We are encouraged to experiment with cooking, and we are encouraged to move into new culinary territory. Reviews of restaurants appear regularly, and open up to us prospects of ever more exciting meals.
In a way, there is nothing particularly surprising about this. Over the past few decades, attitudes to food choice, and attitudes to eating out, have changed greatly. So have the possibilities. A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I had an excellent dinner at a very good Chinese restaurant in our village. Our (adult) children would not find that at all newsworthy or surprising, but the possibility of eating in a good restaurant — and particularly in a good Chinese restaurant — was certainly not among the choices that we would have expected when we came to live here. Nor was it the sort of choice one would have expected in any small town, let alone a village.
Things have changed and, if I am honest, I think the changes are largely for the better. Better choices, better variety, offer improvements to one’s way of life.
Why, then, do I see a paradox? The answer is that at a time like the present, when so many people are struggling to pay for food, the contrast between their lives and the lives and choices that so many of us now take for granted is starkly underlined. In “the old days” too, there were of course people in financial difficulty and had to be content with pretty basic food. There were, however, relatively few opportunities for anyone to explore more exotic choices because they just did not exist. The contrast between those who were not suffering from food shortage and those who were, was, therefore, less dramatically obvious than it is now.
It is easier to identify the paradox than to decide what, if anything, ought to be done about it. It is clearly not a good thing in any society, in my opinion, to have huge disparities between the haves and the have-nots. All of us, I believe, should make a real effort to be conscious of the problems facing people less fortunate than ourselves. Some people, indeed, make real efforts to do something about it - by contributing to food banks, for example. The recently retired Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, now Master of a Cambridge college, works as a volunteer with a food bank.
Perhaps the thing that everyone ought to do is to become more conscious that the disparities exist.
During World War II and for seven or eight years after it had ended there was a serious food shortage in the United Kingdom. It was tackled by the imposition of food rationing. Everyone was in the same nutritional boat and, for many years, what filled that boat was basic. We certainly had adequate food but it quite often seemed boring.
Am I recalling all this to suggest that the present problems facing those finding it difficult to pay for sufficient food ought to be tackled by reintroducing rationing? No, I am certainly not. There was a clear reason for rationing during and after the war. The circumstances that we face now are completely different. I confess, however, that I am not happy about a situation where many people have no real understanding of the problems faced by growing numbers of their fellow citizens.
It is a challenge. We should surely all make an effort to understand others. We are, after all, members of the same society.