We are fat. Our children are fat. And our Prime Minister is fat. But not as fat as he was. We are, alas, a nation of fatties. And this is problem begins before we even start school. 9.5% of reception age children (4-5 year olds) are obese, rising to 20.1% by the time they leave primary school aged 11. If you add to that 20.1% the add 14.2% who are overweight but not obese you have a staggering 24.3% – almost a quarter of all eleven year olds – who are, quite simply, too fat. And of course it’s not just the children; the most recent statistics put 28.7% of our population as obese, with another 35.6% overweight. The cost of obesity to society as a whole is estimated at £27 billion pounds a year, with a projected rise to £49.9 billion by 2050. £9.7 billion of that sum is made up of the cost to cash strapped, overstretched NHS.
9.5% of reception age children (4-5 year olds) are obese, rising to 20.1% by the time they leave primary school aged 11. – Sophia Waugh
We are not in the business of fat-shaming, but we must be in the business of raising awareness of the problem and Johnson, after his recent brush with death, is doing just that. He is not the first Tory Prime Minister to promise to change the way we eat – David Cameron suggested a “fat tax” on unhealthy foods before he became embroiled with Brexit – but, with luck and the fear of Covid-19, he might finally be able to have some effect.
It is not just coronavirus which attacks the overweight; we already know that obesity can lead to diabetes and coronary heart disease. We know that joints are weakened along with our hearts. We know that obesity not only affects the quality of your life, but also your life expectancy (by a matter of three to eight years).
Enter Jamie Oliver. It is 15 years since his documentary, School Dinners, succeeded in changing the food our school children were given for ever. 15 years since, frustrated by the lack of support from the parents in the school where the series was set, he followed the children home and begged their parents to back him. 15 years since I cried at the boy who ate salad for the first time in his life. But what, apart from the menus in schools, has actually changed? A glorious side note to Oliver’s campaign came when a school banned chips and the parents lined up outside the school, pushing packets of chips through the fence to their not so little darlings, complaining that their human rights were being breached.
Because the problem is, in fact, with the parents. While it is fair to say that obesity often goes hand in hand with poverty, it is nonsense to say that you can’t eat well cheaply. You just need to know how to do it. Which means that school cooking lessons should not be about how to “design” a sandwich (which I have seen to take up a lot of time in cooking lessons) or even about the percentages of major food groups in a meal, but about how to cook. Stew cheap cuts of meat, make a stock, a white sauce, a pasta sauce, a soup. Schools now call the subject “Food Technology”. Can’t we just call it “Cookery” and teach it in kitchens rather than computer suites?
We are not in the business of fat-shaming, but we must be in the business of raising awareness. – Sophia Waugh
Jamie Oliver understands that and, even though that seminal documentary was made over a decade ago, he has never given up on his campaign to improve the nation’s health. This week he was lashed by various commentators for having put on weight himself even as he praised Johnson’s anti-obesity drive. Interviewed by the ever-slender Jon Snow, Oliver did look more substantial than when we first knew him – but then he has been with us since he was a mere slip of a boy. And does his few extra pounds mean he is not allowed an opinion? If his children were fat, that would be another thing altogether.
Left to their own devices, children will eat bizarre food at bizarre times. Once introduced to salt and sugar – chocolate and crisps – they are bound to choose them over carrot sticks and apples. At school they will often raid the canteen for snacks at break, and then eat nothing in the lunch hour. They will eat nothing, or crisps, for breakfast. But they are children. Is it not for us to educate them in more than maths and science and gently lead them toward the joys of home cooked food, experimenting with taste – even eating cheap, healthy offal (or if that’s a step too far cottage pie) rather than chips, chips, and chips?
Sophia Waugh is a freelance journalist and writer. Her most recent book is Cooking People: The Writers who taught the British how to eat
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