Whatís my beef? Food Politics & Community in Brixton
by Virginia Nimarkoh
Every week, I recycle numerous items of junk mail for veg box schemes, meat box schemes, take-away delivery services, restaurants, street food events, supermarkets special offers and so on. Is it just me, or are we eating more?
Various salespeople have come to my door offering deals on the latest veg box, meat box or recipe box scheme. If you havenít had the honour yet, these schemes pre-select the best ingredients for you and deliver it straight to your door; some even provide pre-measured ingredients and recipes for a weekís worth of meals.
One salesman, selling a meat box scheme, told me a heart-warming story about how they source the highest quality, organic, meat and fish direct from the farmer/fisherman. Itís all about provenance and traceability, and costing just £40 for the smallest box. To me, thatís a lot of money.
ďThe thing isĒ, I explain, ďI go to Mash & Sons fishmongers at Brixton Arches; they get their fish from Billingsgate.Ē Iíve bought from them as long as Iíve lived in Brixton and theyíre lovely people who know their stuff. I doubt Iím going to have that kind of relationship with the salesmanís delivery people. Obviously, I am not his target customer, mainly because Iím not particularly wealthy. I also prefer to choose my produce in person. Iíve got my own recipe books or I look online. I like to use my local street markets, supermarkets and independent shops. I know the traders in the markets and the staff in the supermarkets and shops.
Many people will have had to deal with these kinds of salespeople. The thing is, I live in Coldharbour Ward in Lambeth. It is epicentre of a foodie explosion with many fashionable new eateries emerging around Brixton Village, Pop Brixton, Market Row and so on. The area is firmly on the map as a food tourism destination. At the same time, Coldharbour Ward is the most deprived ward in the borough. So, this emphasis on food as a leisure activity, and the relentless stream of food-related junk mail and flogging of food box schemes, feels more than a bit unsavoury.
At the time of writing, Mash & Sons fishmongers have just been evicted from their shop in Brixton Arches after 85 years. Network Railís planning application to refurbish the iconic railway arches received over 900 objections. 30,000 signed a petition to for them to offer their tenants affordable stepped rent increases, ensuring they could return following the works completion. The campaign has been unsuccessful. Like many people, I am sad and angry at the demise of Brixton Arches. If another coffee shop, gourmet burger joint or champagne parlour opens on the site, Iíll be even more sad and angry. The irony is that businesses like Mash & Sons were an example of how to successfully run a sustainable, profitable, local enterprise over decades. The opposite of the Ďpop-upí business model consumers are being sold as exciting and novel.
Itís hard to overstate what the loss of Brixton Arches current traders will mean to the local community. Unfortunately, itís a familiar story across the capital.
I donít have an answer for the wave of gentrification sweeping London. Iíll have to sit it out along with everyone else. And, for the record, I enjoy a nice meal out as much as anyone. But, surely we can each, in our own small way, resist the incessant marketing designed to part us with our cash and spend it on over-priced food. We can rediscover the joy of cooking and eating at home with our friends and family! We can support our local independent shops and markets! We can teach our young people to cook simple, inexpensive, wholesome food! We can teach them how to shop for food! Letís not outsource these basic life skills to companies that charge us a premium for the privilege. And we need to support our local shops that are the heart of our communities. Mash & Sons are gone. Long Live Mash & Sons!