Potatoes and Poverty

famine-sculpture
Most people know one thing about the history of potatoes. In Ireland, in the early 1840s, millions of farmers lived narrow and impoverished lives, involved in a symbiotic relationship with a monoculture. They only grew potatoes, they only ate potatoes, and the potatoes gave them enough energy to continue cultivating potatoes. In the late 1840s, the Irish crop failed and the resulting famine sent wave after wave of starving immigrants to America.

Almost 80 years ago George Orwell, famous for Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, published a lesser-known book titled The Road to Wigan Pier. It was basically a work of investigative journalism, in which the author reported what he saw while traveling around northern England by train and bus, and on foot.

He described the desperate housing shortage and the unbelievably squalid circumstances in which people lived. Potatoes were the mainstay of their diet, along with white bread, margarine, corned beef, and sugared tea.

Observing and interviewing coal miners, Orwell learned that a heavy meal before starting would impede their ability to work efficiently, and since their pay depended on how much coal they actually removed from the ground, this made a difference. Each miner had a flat tin container called a snap-can and would carry along bread spread with dripping (fat left over from cooking meat) along with a bottle of cold tea, and that was lunch.

The miners would have their main meal in late afternoon, or in the morning, or maybe even in the middle of the night — whenever they got home from working one of the three shifts. Orwell describes their incredibly fit physiques with “not an ounce of waste flesh anywhere” and compares them to iron statues.

Of course these underground laborers were coated with coal dust, inside and out, and had short life expectancies. They were in fact living proof of the Fat Acceptance principle that a good-looking body isn’t everything.

Orwell added a health-conscious note:

Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even […] saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots.

Regarding the effect of poverty on food preferences, the author made very astute remarks that ring true today. The less money people have, he said, the less inclined they feel to spend it on health-promoting food. When people are unemployed, malnourished, bored, and generally miserable, it is difficult to convince them that their limited resources should be spent on wholesome groceries. They want something with a bit of pizazz.

For this and other reasons, he believed that diet would be the most important area to work on when trying to improve the lot of the impoverished masses. He wrote:

A man dies and is buried, and all his words and actions are forgotten, but the food he has eaten lives after him in the sound or rotten bones of his children. I think it could be plausibly argued that changes of diet are more important than changes of dynasty or even of religion.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Great Famine,” Brittanica.com, undated
Source: “The Road to Wigan Pier,” Gutenberg.net.au, undated
Photo credit: Tim Sackton via Visualhunt.com/CC BY-SA

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