No recipe, no photos this time, just an opinion piece. Unfortunately I’m not in a position to offer romantic advice – the relationship I’m talking about is with food. That’s right, a relationship that previous generations would never have even thought of as such. Unless you could afford extraordinary luxuries food was dealt with very matter of factly – you either did or didn’t have it. There was simply little to reflect on, discuss or study. These days food is at the heart of many a heated debate, certain obsessive types blog about it, some people even read those blogs and thousands of studies, some with astoundingly large private or public funding, have been carried out on the subject. Fascinating as they are, the reasons why such a massive shift took place are far too complex for me to discuss in this post. Recently the issue often discussed by writers in the niche subject of gastronomy was confirmed by a number of major studies, and concern over the nation’s diet and eating habits was voiced at the highest level. I have little faith in the powers that be, yet you know something has to be seriously amiss when it gets debated in the House of Commons.
It is the defining (and fascinating) feature of modern society that no issue is ever black and white, or simple – a thought confirmed by a brief reflection on any given topic in 20th century sociology. On the face of it yes, we should be eating a more varied diet, more vegetables and less deep fried junk. However, upon scrutiny this simple statement breaks down into a complex system of reasons, links, preventing factors, business agenda, marketing harmful or otherwise, prejudices, habits and stereotypes. Even writing this found it hard not to stray from my argument to another one of my supermarket hate rants. Amazingly, considering they had a lion’s share in derailing our relationship with food, they have the potential to use their immense influence to put us back on the right track. It is impossible to place the blame for the nation’s poor diet on supermarket chains solely, no one could have predicted fifty years ago what effect supermarket shopping would have on people’s eating habits. However, knowing what power supermarket chains wield over what we put in our shopping baskets it would be criminal not to use that ‘superpower’ to try and revert the situation.
Whether there is anything to revert back to, whether there was ever a time when we simply ate better is anyone’s guess. Modern notions such as RDAs, five portions of fruit or vegetable per day or two portions of fish, one of which oily per week have not been around for that long for their benefits, or even the hypotheses behind some of them to be empirically proven. These modern notions were in turn preceded by the two wars and a time when nutrition was never a subject of scientific inquiry. I remember reading an interview with a nutrition scientist who admitted that the five in five a day was pretty much plucked out of thin air after a period of deliberation and efforts to come up with a figure that would strike a balance between tangible health benefits and what is humanly possible. Five is such a nice, round – and achievable figure, and so the random became the canonical. Please don’t misunderstand me here, I’m not trying to say that this is wrong or bad. I’m not disputing the benefits that millions undeniably get from making 5-a-day their habit. The lesson to take home is that arbitrary actions and dubious methods can sometimes be justified if they bring about an improvement in the overall life standards of the community.
In short, we may not know whether the diet situation was ever good, however we all know in the deepest of our hearts that the status quo is simply not sustainable. I was originally prompted to write this following an article in the Guardian, lamenting the fall of vegetable and fruit consumption by poorer families by as much as 30% as we reach the brink of second recession. This announcement came shortly after Labour dismissed a government initiative to incentivise participating supermarkets for fairer pricing on healthy but less popular foodstuffs in a discount scheme as result of a supermarket lobby agenda that would only financially benefit supermarket chains in the long run. Really? Those who supply vegetables to the supermarkets have been the most vocal proponents of the scheme. Whether they see it as their last chance to get a fair price for their produce is anyone’s guess. It however must mean that a portion of the incentive would end in the farmer’s pocket, otherwise there would be little support for the initiative from their rank.
And what if supermarkets did actually benefit from the scheme? Cynical as this sounds no one expects altruism in an environment ruled by cutthroat practices. They would never get on board if there wasn’t a pretty penny to be made there. Back to the point about the complexity of the issue I do think this is something on which we ought to turn a blind eye. There is no simple miracle cure for the problem where everybody benefits and no one is a profiteer. Wouldn’t it be nice if the two political forces finally recognised the gravity of the issue and put their differences aside in the name of the nation they are supposed to serve? After all, it might be that we just need a little top-down nudge to get us started.
Which brings me to my final point: education. This is perhaps the single most important piece in the puzzle, but one that can backfire the worst. Knowing our ingredients and daily cooking from scratch seems to be something of a lost art. How do you acquire this important skill if you couldn’t learn by observation during your childhood because your parents simply did not cook? Celebrity chefs on TV have no doubt done a great deal to popularise an activity that was once seen as a chore. Cooking is fun and easy, we are told constantly. But what if it isn’t? It is fun and easy to someone who enjoys it, a tedious means to an end to those who don’t. And I can understand that there are people who do not care for cooking and, potentially, the effect of celebrity chef propaganda here is only guilt-inducing. ‘I’m meant to find this easy, something must be wrong with me because I just don’t.’ This may result in a feeling of disenchantment and giving up on the whole thing.
In my opinion things need to change at community level first. Take Jamie Oliver’s TV programs. His large scale campaigns were never particularly successful, however when he sets out to help individual families he generally strikes a chord with them through his personal approach, as he did with the tearful single father who just wanted to sit down with his sons to eat a good meal at the end of the day. I am not a big fan of Jamie’s, and I understand where the backlash against some of his activities is coming from (Jamie’s School Dinners). Nobody likes to be told they’re wrong, especially when it comes to bringing up your children. And nobody likes to be patronised by a man who says ‘greenage’ and ‘let’s big up mister bread’ on national TV. However through careful involvement with the respective local communities Oliver generally does manage to raise awareness and make a degree of difference. Our government might live to see that setting aside a smaller amount of money to support grassroots community education such as cookery workshops might bring more tangible results than splurging out on a massive marketing campaign promoting the aforementioned five-a-day. And I do hope things change, what is more important than keeping the nation healthy? Why would we need more jobs and healthier economy if we were too sick to enjoy these benefits? Our health must always be a priority, otherwise we live in a very twisted world.
Written by Expat Gourmet whilst munching on a fish finger sandwich.