Scotland has a childhood obesity problem, and Nicola Sturgeon is – quite rightly – worried about it.
Unfortunately, rather than undertake a serious analysis of the various nuanced socioeconomic factors at play in order to create a considered multi-pronged approach to tackle it, she’s been bitten by the Jamie Oliver bug, which has manifested over and over again as a shockingly thoughtless reaction along the lines of “This looks unhealthy! Let’s make it really expensive so that stupid poor people don’t eat it!”
It was unfortunate that she unveiled her plans while meeting with Oliver, and that her quest to end two-for-one pizza deals has taken centre stage. It’s easy to see why – it’s not going down particularly well that a celebrity chef from Essex worth £400m, who owns a chain of fairly mediocre and overpriced Italian restaurants, is telling people in Scotland what sort of pizza they should and should not eat.
This is part of a wider plan which will be published later this summer with the aim of halving childhood obesity by 2030, by cracking down on low pricing and two-for-one style promotions on food high in sugar, salt and fat. Such policies effectively dictate what low income people are allowed to eat, because increasing the price of something fairly minimally will have little to no impact on people with a certain level of wealth, who will be able to absorb the extra cost, but will completely change the lives of their counterparts on less hefty salaries.
The idea that making certain food products more expensive will stop people from consuming them (or at least stop them from doing so excessively) clearly ignores the possibility that anyone wealthy is ordering Two For Tuesday Domino’s, and suggests that the obesity crisis is primarily an issue affecting low income families.
It also implies that the people who will stop ordering pizza because it’s too expensive for them to afford have other – healthier – alternatives, which they are intentionally avoiding, and we need to help them see the light by removing their ability to make those choices for themselves.
In fact, as has been argued over and over again, income relates to health in a number of complex ways – yes, the affordability of junk food over healthy alternatives is part of it, but the solution clearly is to make healthy options cheaper, not raise the prices of the products people are forced to buy because they can’t afford the alternative. Think for a moment about where that leaves a family who is struggling to feed their children.
Hopefully, Sturgeon’s plan includes less headline-grabbing but undoubtedly more effective measures, such as subsidising healthy food options, offering proper education around food and nutrition from a young age, and making PE in schools more inclusive and varied (it took me about 10 years to get over the trauma of gym class humiliation to the point where I was able to actually enjoy any form of exercise). But still, a government deciding to make certain food unattainable to poorer people is problematic in principle and illogical in practice.
The way in which we define “healthy” is arbitrary and in constant flux. When I was at school I was told to only eat three eggs a week; now apparently you’re supposed to eat them every day for breakfast. The generation above mine was told cereal is the best thing to feed your kids, and we now know it’s packed with sugar and not much else.
Yes, salt and sugar measurements can be a good indicator, but so-called “healthy” recipes (including some by Oliver himself) have been shown to be less objectively healthy than ready meals. Class snobbery means we judge a parent who buys a cheap frozen pizza for their children’s dinner, while admiring those who go out to a premium Italian restaurant such as Oliver’s, regardless of the fact that the actual nutritional value of the two meals may be incredibly similar. The difference is the latter doesn’t offer two-for-one deals, because its target audience doesn’t need them in order to be able to afford to eat.
If child obesity is driven primarily by poverty, the issue needs to be addressed at its roots. Welfare cuts in the UK such as the two-child benefit cap, bedroom tax and a system designed to make it as hard as possible for people to claim what they’re entitled to have proven over and over again to affect low income families the hardest. As a result, 4.1 million children in the UK are living in poverty, and 43 per cent of people are struggling to make ends meet on a monthly basis.
Bearing in mind that Britain is the sixth richest country in the world, the fact that we consider this level of financial hardship inevitable is absurd. There are a plethora of ways the government could address this issue, and if we decide that obesity is linked to income inequality then this should be considered an immediate health concern.
Sturgeon’s choice to make food she has deemed unhealthy unavailable to people who she thinks are only consuming it because they have no other choice is patently ridiculous. Instead, she should focus on making sure every family has the means and the information to feel their children a healthy, nutritionally varied diet. And if now and then some of us want to order a two-for-one pizza instead of the more middle class, socially acceptable option of going to a fancy Italian restaurant, then so be it.
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