Category Archives: society

Review: Eating Between the Lines, by Rebecca Huntley

Eating Between the Lines has received a bit of media attention since its publication recently. I heard an interview with the author, Rebecca Huntley, on ABC Radio National and found the discussion interesting. I decided I should read the book, and then Neil over at At My Table wrote a great review that increased my interest further. You should read it.

I’ve now worked my way through the book and as you’ll read below, I wasn’t impressed.

Summary review

Eating Between the Lines claims to be “A different kind of food tour” and sociologist Rebecca Huntley certainly takes the readers on a journey. The book is a series of discreet chapters exploring aspects of food culture in Australia. From the subtitle of the book, “Food & Equality in Australia”, you might expect the focus to be on poverty, access to food, and perhaps the ability to cook. In fact, Huntley ranges over these themes and adds a sociopolitical agenda involving gender roles, racism, Slow Food and more. At times, the reader might feel that the author lacks much insight into deeper cultural and historical issues, leaving her argumentation a little popular-conscience rather than achieving insightful examination. Nonetheless, many interesting pieces of information come out of the interviews and stories and the footnotes are interesting. I found Eating Between the Lines very irritating, but it’s well written and designed to hit the right “how terrible” buttons with certain types of readers. Huntley might, however, have cast her net a bit too wide, because there are enough touches of sneering through the book that she might well offend even some of her target audience.

The structure of the book

The introduction paints a picture of inner-urban living with access to many food options in opposition to a decaying suburban environment with limited choice, most of it unhealthy. The author asks “how fair is Australia’s food culture?”. She then ventures into the contrast between a wealth of television chefs cooking fancy food and the supposed realities of eating/cooking in the normal population, using obesity, other writers’ commentary about British food, and some data about purchasing habits to get the ball rolling. Each of the next nine chapters covers an issue that Huntley feels is relevant: poverty and bad eating, child obesity, domestic cooking, men not cooking, single people and food, indigenous food and social disadvantage, ethnic food and racism, local food, ethical/rich-people food trends. Huntley concludes with an honestly ideological position about food, equality, empowerment, access and more.

The author

Rebecca Huntley is a social researcher, director of the Ipsos Mackay Report on social trends, and writes for Vogue Australia.

What is particularly good/interesting/new/special?

Eating Between the Lines serves as a window on food issues in Australia (and the rich world more generally) in the mid-2000s. That’s probably its greatest value. Its timing was good, though might have been even more interesting if written after consumers began to react to the global economic problems (that’s life).

The book is well written and stimulates readers to think, but because the author is quite definitely writing to an (at least loosely) pre-determined agenda, its value isn’t really as an objective assessment of issues unless you read between the lines of Huntley’s own perspective. The footnotes and bibliography are valuable inclusions which will give interested readers more paths to explore.

Huntley interprets “equality” more broadly than some readers might expect (extending it to food choices, urban sprawl driving out local agriculture, and more). This comes as a surprise as the book develops, and at times I really wondered how chapters were meant to relate to the overarching theme and the neighbouring chapters. Certainly, Huntley covers a range of interesting topics and illuminates many issues which are worth attention, sometimes very skillfully, but it’s difficult to work them all into a coherent thesis.

The author makes some interesting points, such as “If Jamie [Oliver] wants to encourage more family meals, why doesn’t he criticise those fathers who won’t shop, cook and clean for their families?”, raising the tricky issue of whether indigenous foods should be part of mainstream Australia’s diet, reminding us that food is about sustenance for many people, and highlighting the gulf between the dietary/cooking habits of the rich/empowered and other parts of the population.

What flaws/problems are there?

This book reeks of “I know what I think and I’ll paint you a picture that shows I’m right”. There are certainly many valuable points made and examples given. But Huntley seems to disrespect some of her subjects, sometimes moments after describing their plight or using their situation to prove a positive point.

On many occasions, Eating Between the Lines presents arguments based on nothing more than uninformed conjecture. There’s little serious data, but lots of social commentary to support more social commentary. Huntley is too comfortable generalising beyond her experience. Even the introduction shows a willingness to poo-poo something that doesn’t suit her: she provides a secondhand quote of London-based Australian reviewer Terry Durack saying “I grew up in a country where good food was available to all at a good price”. Huntley then writes “… I don’t believe we can be confident of the truth of Durack’s claim that good food is available to all Australians at a good price. Not all of us live in a lucky eating country. And the top-class food familiar to critics like Durack is not the kind of food the vast majority of Australians have the time, money or opportunity to enjoy.”

Excuse me for being blunt, but that’s just rank ignorance. If Huntley understood something about relative costs and quality of food historically (and now) between different rich-world countries she would hopefully have been more careful in dismissing Durack’s statement. The vast majority of Australians have had much better access to good, affordable basic produce than most people in many comparable countries for many decades (and Durack was writing about when he grew up). That doesn’t mean the same degree of access across the population (and has to exclude people living in extreme poverty and/or isolation) or that it applies to every type of produce in every place. But Huntley’s rejection of Durack’s slightly-too-broad statement is symptomatic of an impaired openness to different experience or possibilities.

Some readers will quickly tire of the author’s cynical depiction of men as kitchen chauvinists who can’t cook, won’t cook, or get treated with kid gloves when they do manage to step into the kitchen. I don’t for a moment deny that the vast majority of men don’t do much/any domestic cooking. It’s likely that it’s primarily because of established gender roles being perpetuated/enforced by various parties, including the men themselves. But Huntley dwells on men not cooking, or only learning to cook because of necessity, with limited consideration of other factors. I found it offensive personally, and on behalf of those men who do cook as part of their normal domestic roles. Huntley isn’t scared of moments of passing chauvinism about men, gay cooks, women in commercial kitchens, fat people, and more.

I could write much more on the flaws (I’ve bookmarked about 20 examples of particularly irritating stuff), but I think you get the idea. I’ll finish with one vaguely amusing example:

In the chapter called Basic Meals for the Ultra Rich, Huntley simultaneously derides people shopping at farmers’ markets (“Sucker prepared to spend a lot of money on not a lot of food.”) while admitting she’s one of them too. To prove how expensive it is she presents a short shopping list. This includes a bag of organic apples for A$5, half a kilo of organic coffee for $11.50 and two organic lamb shanks for $8. How strange that the coffee is actually cheap, the apples are only a little pricey (assuming it’s a kilo bag), and the lamb shanks are about the same for most Australians paying typical (non-market) silly prices ($3-4) for any shanks. She didn’t even get her “here’s proof” shopping list right. I’m sure many readers could have done better.

Target audience

Oh, this will appeal to all sorts of people riding the food-consciousness wave. Ironically, the ones who’ll probably like it most are the “Bobos” that Huntley describes and sneers so effectively at in the chapter mentioned above (though they might not like it if they make it to that chapter). It’s perhaps worth reading to make you think, but not necessarily because it’ll enlighten you.

As you can imagine, not everyone shares my perspective on this book. In addition to Neil’s review mentioned at the top of the review, you could also consider this and this.

ISBN 978-1-86395-263-7 – Black Inc.

Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food hits our screens

Jamie Oliver’s latest social project television program, Jamie’s Ministry of Food, hits Australian screens tomorrow (Weds 8 Sep) on Ten. I guess Australian commentators will be horrified at scenes of domestic deprivation of sorts, but I expect the stark contrast between the UK and Australia will make it seem a little unreal. I was horrified at the lack of food knowledge and the horrendous diets of so many people when I lived in the UK, not just poor working class. And that was despite functioning produce markets and often well-stocked supermarkets. Unfortunately, the hottest items in the supermarkets were preprepared, microwaveable meals. Sometimes they were quite tasty, but their flabbergasting popularity did nothing for encouraging cooking skills. Lower down the food chain, crap sausages and unspeakable budget-house-brand pork pies did nothing for nourishment.

Most of Australia is a long way from this, despite our regular breast-beating about the state of the nation’s eating habits. Jamie’s Ministry of Food should serve as a warning of a state of affairs which could happen here, but most likely wouldn’t.

There has been a lot of discussion in the UK about Jamie Oliver’s new series. Of course, some of this is gratuitous Jamie-bashing (and he can come across as an ignorant twirp at times), but the various commentators’ positions are quite fascinating… criticising Jamie Oliver for being everything from clueless to egotistical to self-promoting to arrogant to middle-class-arrogant to worthy to… phew!

Felicity Lawrence in the Guardian (01 Oct) — found via Limes&Lycopene
Word of Mouth in the Guardian (01 Oct) — and check out the comments!!
Rob Lyons at Spiked! (01 Oct) — a very different perspective

As misluck would have it, I’ll be working when the first episode screens here… but I guess footage will turn up elsewhere eventually.

Australian National Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey

The findings of the 2007 Australian National Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey were released today. There’s been a little media attention, and I guess this will ramp up as the dailies run it and the various ‘stakeholders’ start saying their piece. The results? Depends who you listen to.

To quote a key finding

72 per cent of children surveyed were at a healthy weight; 17 per cent of boys and girls were classified as overweight; 6 per cent were obese; and 5 per cent were found to be underweight.

Interesting stuff. I’ve written previously [1,2] about the exploitation of inadequate data or misleading studies to harass overweight people and everyone else too. The data in the present study can be spun as cause for concern, but I’m happy to look at it more optimistically. 17% of children were classed as overweight. That’s less than one fifth of children. If you include the obese children, that’s a little more than a fifth.

Given the absolute wall of ‘obesity epidemic’ noise we face every week (sometimes every day) in our newspapers and on the television, a finding that approximately one fifth of children are overweight does not leave me reaching for the emergency button. In fact, I’d say the number of chubby kids in my primary school years might not have been particularly different. (I should hunt out the old school class photos!)

I was also heartened to read this finding:

On the days surveyed, 69 per cent of the children met the National Physical Activity Guidelines (at least one hour of moderate to vigorous activity each day).

It could be better. It could be a hell of a lot worse. Almost three quarters of kids are reasonably active, despite having computers and televisions and mobile phones and game machines in their lives (and, presumably, being ferried around in 4WDs).

Measures of dietary intakes were much less positive, though I was surprised that total fat intake was within national guidelines. More depressingly, almost all performance on the various measures (activity, weight, diet) deteriorated with age (the oldest participants were 16 years old).

The survey covered 4000 children and on the face of it the methodology looks reasonable, although self-reported food information isn’t ideal. Nonetheless, the dietary results weren’t good, and it’s unlikely people were exaggerating how unhealthily they were eating. Of more concern is the overrepresentation of rich households (>A$78k pa) and the underrepresentation of poor households (<A$32k pa) in the study.

Most interestingly of all (I saved the juiciest for last), note these observations in the main report (my italics):

  • Underweight and obese children tended to have a lower physical activity level (Pal) than children of normal weight.
  • Obese children tended to report lower energy intakes than children of normal weight.
  • There was found to be no clear association between reported energy intake and level of physical activity.

(report page 2)

All up, this study appears to contribute some useful, clear information which is hard to massively misrepresent (unlike a heap of other studies out there). The demographic imbalance in the sample is unfortunate, and as far as I can see the report omits any demographic breakdown of the data, which seems irresponsible given the common claim that poor families are most likely to be overweight and have a poor diet. The full data are available for further analysis, so I hope we’ll see this gap in analysis addressed.

What role do supermarkets play in your life?

Once upon a time there were no supermarkets. Most people who have grown up in Australia have forgotten or never known a life without sheds filled with neat aisles of groceries and the ka-ching! (or bloop!) at the checkout. As tourists or concerned consumers, many of us love produce markets and some of us regard supermarkets as fairly evil, but we are still largely dependent on a lifestyle with supermarkets close to the core.

What role does the supermarket play in your practical life and in your issues-driven decision-making?

I’m going to list a few of the many issues surrounding supermarkets and my own feelings, then invite comments.

It can be argued pretty well that supermarkets in Australia:

(+) brought more variety into people’s lives
(+) helped people explore new foods and cuisines
(+) give some people access to better ethical choices, such as organic food
(+) often help consumers save heaps of money

(-) are greatly responsible for the pervasive consumer obsession with low prices
(-) strongly distort the retail market, imposing restrictive supply and pricing arrangements on producers/manfacturers
(-) make massive profits while claiming to be working in the consumers’ interest
(-) often charge much higher prices for fresh produce than small retailers or markets
(-) promote convenience and price, often at the expense of quality and, increasingly, variety

It could also be argued (though opinions are more likely to differ) that supermarkets:

  • promote a self-focused lifestyle of convenience (Gobbler pointed out in a comment recently that this can be more perceived than real)
  • reflect consumer trends or what manufacturers claim are consumer trends
  • reduce the amount of thought that consumers put into food choices
  • present consumers with too many unhealthy or unethical options
  • offer a picture of food which is too distant from reality (seasonality, cost, etc)
  • only react constructively to consumer issues when they see a profit opportunity


So what do I think and do?

We’re spoilt for choice and seduced by cheap goods, sometimes so cheap that you doubt whether the supplier actually gets more than a cent, gross, for each unit. None of this is transparent – I can’t know whether a house-brand item at $1.50 is of more benefit to the producer or manufacturer than the $1.95 other brand. I don’t know whether a cut-price special is a loss-leader for the supermarket or a massive discount extracted from a supplier. In general, I make my choice based on quality or a measure of price-quality-conscience based on my budget.

I try to buy Australian rather than imported products, except where a local equivalent is too poor to compare. (A difficult decision, and different people will have different thresholds, of course!)

I have no loyalty to a particular supermarket chain because I’ve heard enough stories from suppliers about how each chain controls the availability of products and makes it hard for new products or small suppliers to make it onto the shelves (shelf space is often bought by manufacturers).

I try not to buy fresh produce of any sort from the supermarket.

I would like to be able to buy more fresh produce from quality suppliers with a good approach to their livestock, their producers and/or the environment. Often this isn’t possible because I can’t easily buy bulk. My work schedule frequently gets in the way of going to markets. And my budget often makes it impossible to go for the choices I would prefer. (For those of you with the space for bulk purchasing or looking for alternative sources, A Goddess in the Kitchen has a good post which mentions in the comments some suppliers worth considering (Rutherglen Lamb, Aussie Farmers Direct).)

So what about you?

Do you try to avoid supermarkets or embrace them? What solutions work for your ethical, environmental, or personal perspectives? Remember, the focus here is on supermarkets.

[Note: A few valuable comments on this theme after a previous article may have been drowned out at the time, so those readers are welcome to repeat themselves here if appropriate.]

The harangued consumer can’t navigate SOLE food, ethical eating and the ‘simplicity’ of cooking

The cauldron of ethical, responsible eating has been bubbling away for a while. Advocates of various issues throw in their own chunk of passion while others try to package this pot au feu in a pastry case, as if consumers could carry it around as a dish of good conscience. The thin broth and pieces of irreconcilable ethical directions make for an impossible dish. A lid of statements about correct lifestyles and how people should comport themselves when it comes to their food life leaves consumers in justifiable trepidation about what lies in this pie. All the while, the pie leaks its broth through the many fissures in the increasingly soggy pastry.

Many concerns about ethical eating and food/cooking knowledge have been receiving attention in the Australian blogosphere and some recent posts revealed both common goals and some tensions between the experiences of a diversity of bloggers and the broader eating population. [Purple Goddess: 1, Stickyfingers: 2, The Gobbler: 5, 6, 7 all contribute opinion, wisdom or personal experience (and the comments on their pieces are interesting too).] [UPDATE 27/07/08, 20:42: links 3&4 were removed as the person in question objected to being referred to in this article. They insisted that my reference to other bloggers here is insulting. That was not and is not my intention. I thought that linking to relevant posts by Australian bloggers would help readers to understand what SOLE is and what many of the issues arising are.]

Issues love advocates and advocates love bold statements. Consumers endure a number of conflicting causes that clamour for their support and most of these use a good dose of punitive rhetoric to make the consumer act.

A slightly exaggerated summary of the SOLE (sustainable, organic, local, ethical) or Ethicurean issues, plus a few more:

  1. Eat organic because anything else is poisoning you and the earth (only the fewest consumers will be enticed to spend considerably more on produce just because it might taste better)
  2. Eat local because anything else is unpatriotic, bad for the environment, economically or socially irresponsible
  3. Eat seasonal produce because anything else is unnatural, environmentally irresponsible, ignorant
  4. Eat Slow because anything else is part of the evil multinational fast-food complex
  5. Eat unprocessed because anything else could make you obese and/or kill you
  6. Eat non-GM because GM might cause you to grow scales, extra limbs or have deformed offspring, or because it’s just a perversion of nature which must be a bad thing
    And we can add to this:

  8. Cook with unprocessed ingredients because anything else means you’re a gormless fool who is either lazy, ignorant, incompetent, irresponsible or stupid.
  9. Don’t buy produce at supermarkets because it means you’re a gormless fool who is either lazy, ignorant, incompetent, irresponsible or stupid.
  10. Don’t eat simple food when dining out because it means you’re a gormless fool who is either lazy, ignorant, incompetent, irresponsible or stupid.

Most normal consumers haven’t a snowflake’s chance in hell of navigating these issues and chastisements successfully. When confronted with too many challenges people stop caring. Issue fatigue. You lose them. Many more intelligent consumers will also be lost if they can see that a cause is not as cut-and-dried as the campaigners choose to claim (GM, local, organic) — a situation often exploited cynically by reactionary opponents of ethical eating.

There has been valuable writing recently of how little it can cost to make great food and how unreasonably restaurants get away with charging a premium for simple dishes (see links in the second para). But what seems simple or absurd to one passionate commentator may be quite the opposite to another, and to the average consumer. It’s easy to forget Jo(e) Eater when writing about one’s passions for a largely likeminded food-enthusiastic people. Let’s remember what many cooks/eaters/diners are like:

Many people cannot cook very well because they:

  • didn’t learn to at home
  • find the combining of ingredients conceptually challenging
  • may be poor at understanding textual instructions
  • were discouraged by better cooks who had no sympathy for them

People may choose not to cook because they:

  • may not enjoy food enough to get beyond a food-as-fuel perspective
  • have little time spare for cooking
  • need to clear their head before preparing food because it isn’t something they find simple
  • may actually prefer to eat out with friends for the feeling of community
  • live alone and don’t find joy in cooking for one
  • prefer to eat food which requires a minimum of effort
  • live in modern shoebox apartments without enough storage space for a range of ingredients or implements
  • hate washing up so much that even takeaway is preferable

Consumers shop largely/exclusively at supermarkets because they:

  • have little choice locally
  • do not have the time (whether objectively or subjectively) to shop at multiple places
  • only have alternative local access to overpriced or poor quality greengrocers or butchers or other suppliers (Hawthorn or Daylesford in Victoria, or many parts of London, and numerous places in North America, spring to mind as occasional examples of this, either now or in the last ten years)
  • find shopping unenjoyable or have enough other chores in their life
  • find the neat, structured supermarket environment easier to deal with (physically, logistically, psychologically)
  • don’t have a freezer large enough to hold bulk purchases from distant suppliers
  • find farmers’ markets overpriced, hypocritical, class-ridden, or impractical

Many people do not convert to local or seasonal because they:

  • have been exposed to largely unseasonal variety for so long and have not grown up with a seasonal mindset
  • have little concept of local food and rapidly realise that ‘local’ can only ever be a partial change, so why bother?
  • perhaps actually know that local isn’t necessarily better for the environment (the ‘food miles’ concept is flawed in many of its basic assumptions about environmental impact, except in the most simplistic scenarios)

Consumers are so bombarded by scaremongering, warnings, confusing marketing and aggressive campaigning that they are lost. They are misled by TV cooks and food media that make out that expensive or fancy ingredients are necessary for the lifestyle self-image. They’re chastised for choosing shortcuts (‘cheats’) or fast food. They face more decisions on every level than is humanly manageable: issues, product choices, status validation.

And, increasingly, there’s the household budget to worry about, as petrol prices and food costs creep upwards. Fear, difficulty and helplessness will challenge the habits of a decade of food-as-status consumerism.

Now look at whether any of this applies to you. I know many people for whom the above would not apply at all, but their numbers are insignificant in comparison to the broader population’s understanding, fears, experiences, preferences or opportunities.

The passionate food world can encourage consumers to cook more, make wiser food and nutrition choices, and think more about what types and sources of food they could prefer. Encourage, not insult. Help, not cajole. (Thankfully this is another strength of many food blogs.) If we forget this, we just add to the noise, pushing Jo(e) Eater down the road of confusion, frustration and further manipulation by vested interests.

Are restaurateurs bad at maths?

Last week saw the announcement of a significant increase in the minimum wage in Australia. The lowest paid workers will, from October 2008, receive a 4.15% pay rise, equivalent to 57 cents per normal working hour. Bang! Restaurateurs have been complaining about how this sort of increase would hit really hard and the flow-on would be large increases in costs to diners.

… on average their next main course will increase by $1.50 …

– Con Castrisos (Restaurant and Catering Australia)

Restaurant and Catering Australia (site) whipped up a press release and the papers lapped it up without analysis [1, 2, 3].

… the increase in minimum wages is felt more harshly in the restaurant industry as many employees are working less than full time and subject to penalty rates that magnify the increase …

– John Hart (Restaurant and Catering Australia)

… yesterday’s decision by the Australian Fair Pay Commission will cost his business up to an extra $50,000 a year, leaving him considering introducing weekend surcharges.

“Soon people are going to be paying $4.50 for a cup of coffee and wondering why,” he said.

The Australian newspaper, quoting Perth restaurant manager Warwick Lavis (see link 2, above)

This sounds almost as stupid as the incessant griping about the GST in the restaurant industry (now in place for eight years).

Why introduce weekend surcharges? The rise in costs affects every day of business. He doesn’t understand his own business model? And what’s with the cup of coffee? Mr Lavis thinks the result of a 4.15% pay rise for some people will cause a 29% increase in the price of a cappuccino? (I’m assuming a current $3.50 price.)

All employment factors (penalty rates, multiple employees, admin) are already built into a restaurant’s menu pricing. Restaurant and Catering Australia’s argument is solely about employment costs, so there would be no reason to assume that this pay increase could result in more than a 4.15% increase in menu prices (that’s $0.83 on a $20 main, say). And even then, they’re pretending that the menu price is entirely based on wage costs.

Amusingly, their complaints actually overlook the possible higher flow-on effects from their suppliers. Assuming produce is bought from low-wage suppliers, with one low-wage intermediary, the increase could hypothetically be as high as 8.3% (two layers of 4.15%) on food costs. But wait…

Reality is that not every supplier in the restaurant chain is subject to uniform application of the adjustment of the minimum wage. Only the lowest income employees are benefiting from the full increase, while those on an Australian Pay and Classification Scale benefit to a lesser extent. This means that for each layer of costs, the maximum cost increase is considerably less than 4.15%.

So let me see… (1) wages are only part of total costs, (2) the full increase applies to only a tiny part of the workforce, and (3) food costs won’t increase by as much as I hypothesised above because not all suppliers will be affected. I can only see a final menu price rise of 2-6% (that’s A$0.40-1.20 on a $20 main, up to A$0.21 on a $3.50 coffee).

Have I missed anything?