I love junk food - but that's my choice

Many poor people are trapped in 'food deserts'; there just isn't any fresh food on sale within travelling distance
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The Independent Online

If the "nanny state" were going to "attack junk food" - as several newspapers have reported this week - I would be the first person to waddle to the barricades. My idea of gourmet eating is a KFC bucket (just £9.99!) with Hot Wings. And those funny little chicken strips. And chicken popcorn (don't ask). I wept - literally wept - the day the McPizza was phased out (1991-4; may it rest in peace). I want to be buried in an immense polystyrene Big Mac box.

If the "nanny state" were going to "attack junk food" - as several newspapers have reported this week - I would be the first person to waddle to the barricades. My idea of gourmet eating is a KFC bucket (just £9.99!) with Hot Wings. And those funny little chicken strips. And chicken popcorn (don't ask). I wept - literally wept - the day the McPizza was phased out (1991-4; may it rest in peace). I want to be buried in an immense polystyrene Big Mac box.

Oh, stop scowling. Food snobbery is as ugly as every other kind of snobbery. Yesterday, on the Today programme, a reporter was despatched to Newcastle - as though to an African wildlife reserve - to inspect the contents of Geordie shopping trolleys. And - what do you know! - the proles eat biscuits and frozen hamburgers. This was explained in the disturbed tones normally used to describe Serb atrocities.

It has always seemed depressing to me that the people who claim to sympathise with the British working classes have such contempt for their culinary habits. I saw a demo outside a McDonald's this summer that seemed to be based entirely on the fact that the food is "disgusting". Enough with the aesthetic arguments against junk food: plenty of people enjoy it, and to dismiss them all as thick or vulgar is offensive.

If people want to abuse their own bodies, they should be free to do so. Smoking, drinking, over-eating, under-exercising? It's your own business - provided you are aware of the risks and you have genuine choices. It's the job of the government to make sure you understand what you're doing to yourself, and to make sure alternatives are available if you want to stop. That's exactly what John Reid was proposing yesterday: not some Stalinist attack on our freedoms to pig, but a programme to make sure we all have a real option to make ourselves fit too.

As soon as the Government gears up to help us, the Tories (and their press lackeys) howl that they are "nannying" and trying to control us in some devious way. The post-Thatcherite British right now espouses a strange brand of libertarianism that sees freedom as synonymous with government inaction and market supremacy. In fact, real libertarianism has always been about maximising the actual choices people can make in their everyday lives. It usually requires a mixture of robust markets and active government.

That's why the political row about healthy food is so interesting: it demonstrates a rare and tangible philosophical difference between the parties. In the blue corner are the Tories, adopting a throw-them-all-to-the-markets mentality that refuses to see any flaws in how markets operate. In the red corner is Labour, arguing that government action is needed to help you cope with and understand markets. Labour is now openly acknowledging that - left to their own devices - markets will not guarantee the conditions for a reasonable life.

This becomes clear when you look at specific examples from the real world. Class is the flabby elephant in the room in this discussion. All the research indicates that poor people are disproportionately fat, and it's not - as the Tory press implied yesterday - because they are somehow congenitally lazy or greedy. The reality is that many poor people in Britain are trapped in what sociologists call "food deserts". Since very few poor people have cars and most of them have kids who can't be dragged on 10-mile bus journeys with piles of shopping bags, they are dependent on the nearest food retailers. In disadvantaged areas, the nearest food store is usually a corner shop with no fresh food. The rise of out-of-town supermarkets has made these nutrition-free zones even larger and decent food even harder to get to.

I've seen this where many of my relatives live. If you can't afford a taxi back from the supermarket miles away, it's literally impossible to do any decent shopping; there just isn't any fresh food on sale within travelling distance, so you settle for stacks of frozen and tinned food from the local corner-shop. It's like being trapped in a sea of lard. You go and live there and try to stay thin.

This is the old story of what happens when markets are not properly regulated: they screw the poor. How is that a meaningful form of libertarianism? In this instance, markets deny the choice of healthy food to the very people who need it most.

Labour has been slowly articulating an alternative: they have considered offering government subsidy to supermarkets if they agree to open stores selling cheap, fresh produce in the heart of food deserts. This creates meaningful choice as opposed to the chimerical choice offered by the markets. As with all their good policies, the Government has been too slow and too halting in its implementation - but it contains the roots of a decent social democratic policy.

Let's look at another area where government action can make choice more meaningful - and healthy living possible. At first, the idea of the Government warning you about the risks involved in a poor diet sounds patronising. Everybody knows non-stop kebabs are bad for you; who needs John Reid to remind them? But how many of us know that even a healthy sounding breakfast cereal can be as full of sugars and salts and fats as a quarter-pounder with cheese? How many of us know that fruit juices can often be more sugary and bad for you than a can of Coke? Tons of research shows that people often assume their diet is far more healthy than it actually is. That's what happens in a raw, unhindered market: unclear and even deceptive labelling.

The Government is proposing instead a simple, easy-to-follow classification system for foods. Really unhealthy foods will be marked with a red dot. Moderately unhealthy foods will be marked with an orange dot. Healthy foods will be marked with a green dot. Once this is introduced, you will know, unequivocally, how risky your diet is. No more scanning the incomprehensible nutritional details on the back of a packet. No more denial. The market on its own gives you a choice. The market regulated by government gives you an informed choice. That's the difference between the Tory and Labour approaches.

There are dozens of other small, impressive innovations in the Government's new health package that remind us why active government is better than market failure. Starting in the poorest areas, free personal trainers will be provided by the state. It's easy for the rich to stay thin when they have a beautiful, toned trainer to motivate them. Soon, the poor will have that option too. Don't moan about the expense - it saves money in the long term by bringing down NHS bills.

Of course, some people - like me - will have the choice to eat healthily and work out with a personal trainer, but still opt for being a fat bastard. That's our right in a free society. But the option has to be there. At the moment, for too many people lower down the income scale, it's not: they are trapped with a decision between McCain's Oven Chips and Bird's Eye Oven Chips. Labour is trying to spread real choices across our society; the Conservatives want to restrict them to those who are rich enough to pay, while accusing everybody else of "restricting choice" and "nannying".

All this discussion of oven chips is making me hungry, and I think I can feel my arteries unclogging. If you'll excuse me, I believe there's a Double Whopper out there with my name on it. I shall chuckle as I stroll past the gym I can afford to join and the personal trainers I can afford to hire. It's called choice - shouldn't everyone have it?

j.hari@yahoo.co.uk

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