If you came from a family on a modest income at any time before the 1980s you ate what was put in front of you. You also tended to be a fast eater, because there might occasionally be seconds, and quite enjoyed school dinners.
Happy days, when food choice was much more limited, supermarkets were in their infancy, the only takeaway was fish and chips and olive oil in tiny bottles was only used to ease earache.
That thought occurred while watching a TV programme on what food was like in the 1950s and 1960s. Did sliced bread and breakfast cereals really not appear until then? In 1962 only one third of homes had a fridge. Remember how quickly milk went “off”? Now there are many different types of milk to choose from and modern processing means a carton will last at least a week before going off, probably longer. About 10 million chickens a year were eaten in the mid-1960s. We now eat about 800 million a year, half our total meat intake while beef and particularly lamb sales have fallen.
From farmers’ and the food industry point of view that was also a time when about three quarters of our food was produced in Britain and the average family spent almost 30% of income on the limited choice available. The average spend now is about 10% and choice, thanks to supermarkets, is vast – as are many of those spending and eating as a check on the number of overweight people on any high street near you will confirm.
This dramatic change within a generation or so from most of us being pleased to eat what we got to far too many of us being overweight and binge eaters of the wrong types of food has happened at the same time as interest in cooking programmes has soared and slimming diets have multiplied exponentially. The contradictory effects on farming have been equally dramatic. Intake of cheap processed gunk and the horsemeat burgers scandal runs alongside the fact that compulsory identification of animals and traceability of meat has never been so strict. Fruit and vegetables that used to appear in greengrocers on a take it or leave it basis are now strictly graded on quality and uniformity on supermarket shelves.
At the same time as demand for cheap chicken, pies, pasties and takeaways of all kinds increases remorselessly about one fifth of Britain’s fastest growing mid-market businesses are food companies, many “artisan” and organic. Supermarkets loom large for many farming businesses, directly or indirectly, as final destination for what they produce. Meeting the standards at the price supermarkets are prepared to pay is a continual challenge even for the most established business relationships, and one that can be ended overnight.
Our much greater choice of food, much of it cheaper than we had 50 years ago, should be seen as a good thing. I wonder.