Food for thought

October 7, 2008 at 3:53 pm | Posted in British Politics, Celebrity, NHS, Working Class Britain | 1 Comment
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I haven’t found the time to sit down and watch Ministry of Food yet, so I have no idea whether I’d be repulsed by Jamie Oliver’s supposed ‘patronising’ of the working classes or impressed by his idealism. I do agree with this comment that for all the cynicism about a wealthy celeb ‘slumming it with the chavs’, his intentions seem good and his approach – however meddlesome, intrusive & embarrassing it might be for the show’s subjects – seems considerably more effective than the hand-wringing warnings of health ministers. On the question of whether it’s freak-show TV, I think it’s wise to consider someone’s past record, and on that basis I think Oliver deserves a pass: his Fifteen restaurant chain, which sprang from a show where he hired 15 kids from deprived backgrounds and taught them how to work in hospitality, was an impressive achievement. Very few people in his industries have made a fortune for themselves whilst trying to persue some measure of positive social change, and for that he deserves credit.

I’m writing solely from favourable reviews here, but the show’s concept appears to be as much of a social documentary as ‘Breadline Britain’ ever was, and by occasionally panning away from the core focus on unhealthy diets, you’re made aware of the kinds of connected issues about education & deprivation that simply don’t get the kind of serious discussion they deserve. Going even further, it also raises more esoteric issues about the role of the state in tackling obesity, the future of the NHS, and whether the progressive left has the answers for any of the above.

I suppose a fairly boilerplate left-wing response to obesity would be that economic opportunity is a silver bullet, and something like a living wage could improve a family’s circumstances in many ways, not least the ability to afford to eat more healthily. This is broadly true, but insufficient. It is possible to eat healthily on a budget. You can’t go organic or cook anything in Jamie Oliver’s cookbooks, and the supermarkets certainly don’t make it easy for you, but you can still get basic healthy ingredients like pasta, potatoes, chopped tomatoes and vegetables for a decent price at your nearest Netto. So whilst poverty is certainly a factor in obesity, so are the time constraints on young families (particularly single mothers), a lack of knowledge about how to do it, crafty supermarket marketing and the fact that they’re just more used to the taste of a fish supper than a plate of pasta.

So how proactive should the state be in trying to tackle the problem? For me, this is pretty straightforward. Assuming the NHS is unlikely to receive even greater funding than it’s had in the last decade, we’re faced with two choices: either national & regional bodies make a concerted effort to help people stay fit & eat better, or the NHS buckles under the strain of treating the millions of people who develop health problems caused by obesity. I think it’s safe to say that the first option would be more popular.

So we need to do something, but what? Government regulation always tends to be the first option, but you can’t ban supermarkets from selling different types of food any more easily than we’ve been able to stop people to stop buying it. You could ban the use of hydrogenated ‘trans’ fat as they have in California, but the major food manufacturers make a point of not using it anyway, and there’s plenty of equally unhealthy foodstuffs that don’t contain this demon oil.

Oddly, my ideal approach wouldn’t be too dissimilar to Jamie Oliver’s. I’m a huge fan of Surestart, but I always thought the government’s ambitions for this programme were too low; rather than being the centrepiece of the government’s commitment to helping families, it should’ve been just one part of a more wide-ranging commitment to building the kinds of community centres that don’t just provide early learning, but provide somewhere to go for the kids who stalk the streets at night because there’s nothing else to do, the elderly who might not have anywhere to meet in the afternoon and the young parents who’ve never had much knowledge of how to raise their kids because their own parents weren’t much good. In such a place, you could have all manner of adult education programmes and workshops, and this could quite easily include cookery classes that try to balance the need to eat healthily with the fact they live on very modest means. Sure, it’d be expensive, but so are the costs of obesity, poverty, social exclusion & crime. If we’re already paying for the consequences of these ailments, it makes sense to also invest in programmes that might one day inch towards a cure.

At least Oliver’s programme has got people talking about this, and whatever flaws we might find in his own practical response to the problem, he remains just about the only person in the public eye who’s come up with one.

Photo by Flickr user iandeth (Creative Commons)

1 Comment »

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  1. As with Secret Millionaire I was pleasantly surprised by a show that on the surface sounds potentially cringe-inducing, patronising and shallow.
    Whilst at times one worries that Jamie’s chief weapon in engaging with working class folk from t’up north is swearing a lot, he does seem to genuinely engage with the complex realities of poor diet and relative deprivation without forgetting the people behind these realities.
    The programme has made a promising start as part social-experiment and part social-documentary. Oh, and like Secret Millionaire, its damn good TV.

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