Why Freedom Fries are only for grown-ups

Salford town hall has decided to ban takeaway stores selling to schoolchildren before 5pm. An outrageous intrusion into personal freedom? Or just good governance?

I wish someone would stand between me and the chip shop door, barring my entry. Sadly, as an adult, I have to take responsibility for my own terrible dietary decisions. The schoolchildren of Salford are much luckier. The local council is stepping up to take responsibility for their health, and in an area where 35 per cent of children are overweight or obese before they leave primary school, it’s about time someone did. In an effort to steer kids towards healthier lunch options, they propose that fast-food outlets near schools be banned from selling hot food during school hours.

Legislatively speaking, the proposal is about as sophisticated as a battered saveloy. As local takeaway owners have been quick to point out, it means they’ll miss out on lunchtime trade from adult customers and it won’t stop children buying “lunch” from the local sweetshop instead.

Crucially, though, Salford’s proposal is not acting in isolation. It’s part of a cheering policy trend which has been championed by Jamie Oliver and picked up by local councils nationwide. These attempts to legislate for better childhood nutrition are all laudable, if, admittedly, of varying success, so why have they been thwarted at every turn? Most recently, Michael Gove courted Oliver’s fury by allowing academy schools to ignore national standards on school nutrition.

It’s easy to see how a 14-year-old might confuse eating chips for lunch with a daring expression of personal freedom. Fourteen-year-olds also commonly believe that wearing Topshop clothes is an expression of individuality and smoking Marlboro Lights is an expression of exquisite good taste. It’s harder to see how voting-age adults could fall for the same, but apparently they do. “Nanny state” intervention in the unhealthy habits of grown-ups will remain a red flag to controversy, but can’t we agree that children do need some nannying?

In fact, with flamboyant exceptions such as Julie Critchlow, the mum who famously sold burgers through school gates, the most active opponent of healthy eating is neither schoolchildren nor parents, but the fast-food industry itself. In New York, it was a beverage industry coalition that successfully sued to overturn the Mayor’s ban on super-size sugary drink sales. In Salford, it’s the treasurer of the National Federation of Fish Friers which is calling out the move for “penalising business unnecessarily”.

At some point post-2008, “what’s good for business is good for everyone” became economic orthodoxy. While no one wants the local chippie to go under, it’s time to admit that the one group whose health truly is synonymous with the nation’s future well-being isn’t business owners; it’s children.

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