Deborah Orr: Should we tell people what to eat?

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The estimable Jamie Oliver has managed what the political classes seem unable to do, and has realised that poverty is too complex an issue to be tackled through school, and through children. Having had limited success in his attempts to change the nation's eating habits by attacking the poor quality of school meals, he has followed his nose into the homes of their parents.

When mother of three Julie Critchlow led an assault on his attempts to introduce healthy school lunches, by organising a group of like-minded mums to pass pies and chips through the school railings, no one but Boris Johnson spoke out wholeheartedly in her defence. The poor and the ignorant, argued Johnson, should be as free to spend their money as they choose as anybody else.

There is something splendid in Johnson's instinctive libertarianism. Except that the flipside of this sort of attitude is that having made those free choices, the poor then have no choice at all, except to agree with David Cameron, when he breezes through town to tell them that they alone are responsible for their obesity and their ill-health.

Oliver, in his new series, Jamie's Ministry of Food, explores the really hard political question. How do you help adults to acquire the skills and the knowledge that ensures that their choices are informed, so that they can pass that on to their own children? In the first episode of his series, a co-opted Critchlow at his side, Oliver showed just what an uphill task such education really is, by exposing adults did not know how to boil water in a pot, let alone cook, to the nation's glare.

Oliver's new and revised theory is that hectoring people doesn't work. "They have to own it," he says, and to this end is trying to introduce "pyramid cooking" to Critchlow's home town of Rotherham. The idea is to train community members, and get them to pass the message on to family and friends, in the manner practised by societies that we like to consider less civilised and sophisticated than our own.

Oliver has run into opposition again, already. The good people of Rotherham are lining up to insist that the celebrity chef has portrayed the entire town in an undeservedly negative light. Self-righteous and narcissistic as these objections can seem, they are worth taking seriously. Now that Cameron has refined his "broken society" riff, to assert that some parts of our society, in some places, are broken, he should bear in mind that even the most deprived communities can view targeted help as targeted criticism, and make people feel tainted by association.

Oliver, perhaps, has to bear this in mind as well. This week a report on the state of Britain's children, from the UN, singled out the deployment of children in reality television shows as being an integral part of a negative culture that sees children as a fearful problem. Oliver most definitely holds the welfare of children close to his heart. But just as some people in Rotherham feel unfairly singled out by his show and its format, one could argue that the people he has selected to illustrate his thesis are similarly exposed.

Oliver is in an odd situation. It is the popular reality format that lends his attempts to publicise his concerns such immediate verity, and – he presumably assumes – pulls in the viewers that he wishes to reach. But just as cheap and plentiful food is not the no-brainer enemy of lack of nutrition that one might assume it to be, so cheaply produced entertainment is not necessarily the marvellously simple vehicle for education that it seems to be either.

Just as one is free to choose to buy wholesome food or toxic food, one is also free to dismiss Oliver's campaigns as the interfering paternalism of a multi-millionaire do-gooder, and switch over to some less wholesome reality show. One wonders whether the people Oliver wants to watch his experiments might prefer to watch something less discomfiting, while the concerned voyeurs who have eaten with their children, supervised their homework, then got them off to bed nice and early are the people who are lapping it up.

It feels sinisterly anti-democratic to question whether piling stuff high and selling it cheap is ever quite the panacea that it is assumed to be. But all of it, from the disastrous experiment in the flogging of cheap mortgages to poor Americans, to the expectation that a flight covering thousands of miles in a few hours should be "low cost", does seems to exact a crippling cost, somewhere.

There is much talk, on the political scene, of the erosion of "values", and that talk usually refers to moral values. Yet maybe it is all pretty simple. Perhaps what is wrong is that as society strives to ensure that all natural resources, including the natural human resource of labour, are cheap and plentiful, the value ends up being drained out of much else besides.


It has to be said that Boris Johnson's "instinctive libertarianism" is easier to discern when he is being a journalist, than when he is being a powerful politician. His first act on becoming Mayor of London was to ban alcohol on public transport, which was hardly a decisive break from the nanny state. As leaving institutions to run themselves, without endless political intervention, well ... Few can be too sorry or surprised to see the back of Sir Ian Blair, the outgoing Metropolitan Police Commissioner who has been so unwilling to take any responsibility for the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes. Yet Johnson's "pleasant but determined" refusal to work with him just doesn't seem so very "hands-off".

Ah, the rural bliss of the apple harvest – and the reality

Though we live in the city, my family spends a lot of time with our friends who run a farm near Birmingham. We have become accustomed over the years, therefore, to sitting round the kitchen table as the passing of traditional rural ways is bemoaned.

Not so long ago, for example, the families of the farmhands would harvest the apple trees dotted around, as a matter of course. More recently, the apples had been left to rot on the ground, a casualty of changing population and working patterns. There are no empty barns to store the apples in any more, because they have all been converted into weekend homes.

This autumn, we decided to get off our butts and tackle the problem ourselves. We would make a surgical assault on the trees over one weekend, take them to the local agricultural college, and have them all pressed into juice, a snip at 80p a bottle. How smug we were, as we picked merrily, declaring that this horny-handed-son-of-toil stuff wasn't as tough as it was cracked up to be.

A brief conversation with the local pomologist dashed all of our hopes. We'd thought perfect ripeness wouldn't matter, as the apples were all to be pulped anyway. We didn't mind if our juice turned out a little astringent. It was ours, and we would love it anyway. But it does matter. Unripe apples have starch in them, not sugar, and pressing unripe apples leaves an unpleasant and custardy sediment. Our apples would have to go into storage, until they all were ready. But because we hadn't planned for storage, we'd also picked apples with little bruises. Those few bad apples, as the saying goes, are now likely to despoil large chunks of the whole barrel.

We are presently telling ourselves that next autumn will be much more productive, because we will be older, wiser and better organised. We fear, though, that we are more than likely to be utterly sick of our horrible apple juice, if we get any at all, and perfectly relaxed with the idea that abandonment and rot is too good for such ungrateful and unco-operative fruits.

Even Samantha Cameron's well-publicised love of high street fashion may not be as cosy and woman-of-the-people as it is assumed to be. The electorate is invited to warm to her lack of pretension in wearing clothing from Topshop, or even mid-priced Reiss.

Yet, again, the explosion in highly seasonal throwaway fashion has rendered the ownership of a wardrobe full of garments almost meaningless. Stuff is purchased, worn a few times, then thrown away. The conditions under which such clothes are manufactured, of course, come under regular humanitarian scrutiny. Yet even a few decades ago, people who were modest earners regularly made their own clothes, buying patterns and using skills that were thought

of as normal and domestic, just as simple cooking was.

As for wealthier people, they often ordered clothes made by the most skilled of such artisans, who ran flexible businesses as seamstresses, from their homes. Perhaps if Conservatives really do value local entrepreneurship, they should start to rethink their attitudes to globalised bargain finery. Christopher Furlong/getty images