The Politics of Food: Modern Sumptuary Law?

The politicisation of food by Boris Johnson’s government has proved to be a highly controversial issue. Whilst the necessity of what has been described as an “obesity crackdown” has been supported by Public Health England, there has been backlash surrounding the government’s strategy. In particular, the lack of meaningful support for the most financially-disadvantaged have led to accusations that the government is tone-deaf in its approach. The abandonment of this group of people by food policy is far from a new phenomenon, and the parallels with early modern sumptuary law is compelling.

A family watching British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s coronavirus address. (Credit: AFP.)

Sumptuary law is defined by Black’s Law Dictionary as, “Laws made for the purpose of restraining luxury or extravagance, particularly against inordinate expenditures for apparel, food, furniture, etc.” These laws impacted everyone in society and were considered vital for maintaining the social hierarchy in the face of increased social mobility. They had a strong moral element: it was believed this hierarchy was mandated by God; refusing to adhere to this was therefore defying Him. Therefore, these laws were seen as essential for the good of society, just as the current government policy regarding obesity aims to lessen the impact of Covid-19 and the strain on the NHS. 

Whilst sumptuary laws set limits upon all, just as we are all to be affected by this new health drive, it was – and is – the financially disadvantaged who experience the greatest restrictions. Legislation and poverty meant the poor of Tudor England were allowed no more than pottage, vegetables, and bread. With the rigours of life at that time, the number of calories that needed to be consumed was much higher than the recommended 2000-2500 today, though even this would be out of reach for many. 

Today, the converse seems to be true, and it is far easier to over-consume on a lower budget. According to the statistics, half of the 10 worst areas for childhood obesity in the UK are also the 10 poorest. Yet the government seems to think the solution is as simple as signposting the healthy options and restricting those high in calories, going so far as removing multi-buy offers. The government does not seem to recognise that choice and control over diet is often a privilege. As Kieran Morris writes in The Guardian, the ability to eat healthily and exercise needs “time, money and space”, all of which have been have become increasingly inaccessible. 

Elizabeth I wearing the “superfluities of silks, cloths of gold, [and] silver” many were not allowed to. (Credit: the ‘Darnley Portrait’, Public Domain.)

Annunziata Rees-Mogg typified this privilege in her tweet on July 27, in which she stated “Tesco 1kg potatoes = 83p, 950g own brand chips = £1.35”. What the daughter of Baron William Rees-Mogg fails to recognise is that it is not ignorance or laziness that is the problem. According to the Trussell Trust, between April 2019 and March 2020, 1.6 million people were estimated to have used a foodbank, which are only able to provide non-perishable, carbohydrate-heavy foods. The average full-time employee in Britain works an average of 42 hours a week, which the TUC claims is “robbing workers of a decent home life and time with their loved ones”. To claim that personal choice is the sole reason behind the obesity epidemic ignores this. 

So, just like sumptuary law, we are all being asked to do our bit for the good of the nation. But this policy, just like the legislation 500 years ago, will disproportionately affect the poorest in society. Whilst we do need to tackle obesity, the government needs to provide support for these people, rather than remove and criticise their already limited choices.

Georgia Greatrex

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