Chips are really down

16th January 2004 at 00:00
They're choosing baked potatoes rather than fries in Burnley - thanks to the Good Food project. This has been set up to combat society's health inequalities that condemn the poor to long-term illness and early death.

Joe Clancy reports

Christine Smithson gained a good indication of the task that lay before her when she heard the answers to her question: "Where do chips come from?"

"The chip shop," one Year 3 pupil said. "The supermarket," another replied.

"Out of the freezer," was a frequent answer. Despite her prompting, not one of the class suggests that chips might actually come from potatoes.

"It is likely that none of the children has seen a potato peeled, sliced and fried," says Ms Smithson, a learning mentor at Barden junior school in Burnley. "They have no concept of certain vegetables and fruit."

She had taken 20 of her pupils to a local allotment as part of the Good Food project which is designed to wean schoolchildren off highly processed junk food. The pupils' ignorance of the life-cycle of a chip confirmed Ms Smithson's suspicion that many of them knew little about the food they ate apart from the picture on the packet which they glimpsed on its journey from supermarket shelf to microwave or oven.

Now, in a dramatic transformation, the pupils can identify a wide variety of vegetables, from squash to courgette to mange-tout, and they know how to grow and cook them, thanks to a programme of after-school gardening and cookery clubs.

The Burnley project aims to find fun ways to teach children to love good food. A diet of "energy-dense" junk leaves little appetite for proper food and is a big contributor to childhood obesity. The project also hopes to reach out to the community and begin to reduce the area's "health inequalities".

That subject hit the headlines back in 1998 when the former chief medical officer, Sir Donald Acheson, called for a 10-year attack on the huge gap between the rich and healthy and the poor and sick in Britain. The bare statistics then meant that a poor man was 68 per cent more likely to die in middle age than his richer counterpart. Among working-class men, 48 per cent said they suffered long-term illnesses compared with 17 per cent of professional men. Five years later, the gap is still widening. Last summer John Reid, the Health Secretary, launched a campaign to tackle these injustices, asking why we should tolerate the fact that a man born in Manchester can expect to live, on average, 10 years fewer than one born in Dorset?

"Why should we accept that manual workers and some ethnic minorities appear condemned to suffer worse health just through an accident of birth?" he said.

One reason is that the middle classes are more likely to heed health-awareness messages, more likely to take advantage of screening programmes, and more likely to give up smoking and to eat nutritious food.

Which is where the Good Food project comes in. By spreading the word in a deprived community, it is aiming to improve the health of the poorest people fastest. The initiative is funded by, among others, Sure Start, the government programme that aims to eradicate health and educational inequalities from the lives of very young children.

Nine out of 10 pupils at Barden are of Asian origin. The school is in an area that suffered race riots in the summer of 2001, the effects of which are still felt. The far-right British National Party has seven members on the local council.

Jenny Slaughter, the community dietician who heads the Good Food project, shows children where food comes from, how animals are reared, and how different dishes are cooked around the world. "This particular community has very bad health statistics relating to heart disease and diabetes in adults," she said. "Now we are starting to see them in children, which is really scary. Type 2 diabetes, linked to obesity, is very much on the increase.

"Typically, the Asian diet can be very healthy - vegetable curries and dhals made from lentils - but when they have more access to dairy foods, meat, and junk food, it becomes skewed in a most unhealthy way. Meat is considered a rich man's food so they have more meat curries because they can afford it. It is also considered very Westernised to provide snacks such as Coke, crisps and chocolate bars. They are seen as luxuries they should give their children."

Barden school now boasts its own allotment where potatoes, carrots, cabbage, different varieties of onions, peas, beans and herbs are grown. An orchard of 30 trees produces plums, apples, and cherries. The children do the planting and the harvesting at an after-school gardening club. Parents are invited in on the occasional Sunday to help with the heavier work, such as planting trees and putting up fences.

A gardening club session, under the guidance of Elspeth MacKenzie, a community gardener, has as many as 50 other children standing outside the allotment watching.

At after-school cookery clubs, children learn to cook what they have grown in traditional and ethnic recipes, such as shepherd's pie, falafels, and fish kebabs.

"Exposure to healthy food affects their likes and dislikes and we can then change their eating behaviour," says Ms Slaughter. "They can, in turn, affect the eating behaviour of the whole family." She believes the children are disseminating the healthy eating message around their community.

The project has also set up holiday and half-term activities promoting healthy lifestyles for children and parents. Adults were invited to take an NVQ level 1 in cookery, with the lure of a job at the end of it. Seven women were then hired as community food workers to assist with the cookery clubs.

Ms Smithson, Barden's learning mentor, believes that the after-school gardening and cookery clubs have been "an absolute eye-opener to the children". "Because they have grown the vegetables themselves, they are very eager to try them, both cooked and raw," she says. "They have been going home and asking their parents to buy and cook these vegetables, so the whole family is benefiting from a healthier diet.

"The mother of one boy has had to dig up the back yard and replace the concrete with soil so her son can grow things. After children have taken home food they have cooked in the cookery club, we have had several dads come in to ask for the recipe.

"We are trying to educate young people about the implications of diet and the effect it has on their bodies. We are trying to educate them to sample all those fruits and vegetables that are out there."

An independent evaluation of the project, carried out at Huddersfield university, reported a 44 per cent increase in the number of children eating at least three portions of fruit and vegetables per day.

But the school cook, Ellen Hardaker, sees the proof of the pudding in what the children are now eating at school. "Fish fingers and burgers used to be the first items chosen," she says. "Now they are the likeliest to be left over. The children choose baked potatoes and salads first. And instead of sweet puddings, they now want fresh fruit."

And Christine Smithson adds: "I don't think there are any children here who do not now know where chips come from."

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