Let’s call fast food by its real name – cheap food

is it time to rename fast food? Does “fast” adequately represent the core appeal of this kind of food? Are people going to fast-food outlets to buy greasy burgers, glutinous pizzas, buckets of chicken, heaving kebabs and sweaty punnets of chips because they admire the amazing speed with which they are made?

Do people tend to stand in takeaways, stopwatches at the ready, timing the arrival of their burgers, pasties, kebabs, saying to each other: “Wow, did you see that – did you see how fast I got my food? The sheer velocity of delivery – it’s all I care about!” No, of course they don’t, because, while it sometimes matters that fast food is fast (quick, easy, convenient), what really matters is that it’s cheap.

It seems that it could be helpful to start calling fast food by its true name – cheapfood. According to new figures, in the last three years, the number of fast-food outlets in England has risen by 8%. Blackburn with Darwen has the most fast-food places (38% of all retail food outlets), while the national average stands at 26%. The highest concentrations of fast-food outlets is found in deprived neighbourhoods. And while some councils have tried to counter the trend, once the outlets bed in, so, frequently, does competitive pricing, with reports of “burger and chips for a quid” deals in Blackburn.

The figures are drawn from the new Food Environment Assessment Tool (Feat)from Cambridge University’s Centre for Diet and Activity Research, where the definition of fast food includes everything from the usual high street burger/chicken/pizza suspects to bakeries such as Greggs and takeaways. None of these options could be condemned when an occasional treat – it’s the regularity, the habit, the lifestyle, that makes it a problem in terms of health, obesity and even academic underachievement in children. Often, the problems continue inside the home, with many ready meals effectively being “fast” in terms of cost, quality and low nutritional value.

Wherever they come from, whatever the content, two major things link these foods – price (financial cost) and convenience (time cost). The latter counts when people are returning, exhausted, from ill-paid strenuous jobs and quickly need to feed themselves and their families. However, while convenience is key, in deprived areas it’s unlikely to be Waitrose ready meals being pricked with a fork and popped into a microwave or organic burgers bought from artisan takeaway establishments.

Even if the prep time is as fast, the cheapest option is going to win. Which is how fast food gets chosen over a (fairly quick) nip to a supermarket to buy ingredients for a more nourishing meal. While, to some people, “burger and a chips for a quid” sounds disgusting, to others, it sounds like their three hungry children are going to be fed for three quid.

It’s important to remember that, for those on very tight budgets, cheap is king. While “fast”/“convenient”/“easy” are still in the mix, they’re mere courtiers to “cheap”. So why persist with all the painful, censorious euphemisms; why not just rebrand it and call it what it is – cheap food?

It matters because the term fast food hints at a lazy, feckless attitude – people who just can’t be bothered to source or prepare their own food, or even wait for it; people who don’t care what they put into their bodies, or their children’s bodies, so long as it can be done briskly.

Fast food denotes automatic judgment and stereotyping of the consumers – it becomes their fault for choosing fast over quality. By contrast, cheap food tells a fuller (fairer) story and one that at least acknowledges a harsh economic truth – this type of food (fast, junk, but above all cheap) could be all that broke, harassed people can afford.

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