Eat local, eat healthy

2nd April 2004 at 01:00
If ministers really want to give the nation a better diet they should start by serving up scrumptious food in schools, says Peter Wilby.

I am relieved to find from the Google search engine that my memory is not playing tricks. Schoolboys used to go "scrumping apples", and Google offers more than 200 hits for this phrase, most of them from men of a certain age who remember (I quote from one at random) "climbing over 8ft high walls topped with broken bottles".

So children did once crave fresh fruit, rather than (or as well as) crisps, burgers and the rest. True, they have always disliked greens (mainly because they are badly cooked in Britain) and sugar and salt have addictive qualities. But I do not think children have an innate aversion to fruit and vegetables. Never underestimate the power of advertising. Big business doesn't - that is why it spends so much, particularly on children's television, where 99 per cent of the food adverts are for products high in salt, sugar or fat.

The Government is whipping up a panic over obesity. Diet-related illness is now said to be as big a killer as smoking. You may argue that this is no business of the "nanny state", but you will still expect nanny to nurse you at enormous expense when you are sick, or to pay you a disability pension.

The talk is of taxes on unhealthy foods, restrictions on supermarket displays, bans on fast food adverts on children's television and new lessons on the curriculum. I have no principled objection to these solutions, but I have limited faith in their efficacy or in the likelihood of ministers implementing them with determination.

If I were a minister, I would start with the mote in my own eye. Why is the public sector not dedicated to healthy food? It is extraordinary that schools, hospitals and meals-on-wheels - services for the most vulnerable sections of the community, to whom a healthier diet could make a real difference - usually serve such grotty fare.

Privatisation and marketisation of the public sector prevent it from sending a clear message and achieving the "joined-up government" to which ministers pay lip-service. The return of nutritional standards for school meals and "school fruit" are among new Labour's unsung achievements. But good food is more expensive than chips and crisps - and when the emphasis is on providers giving value for money and devolving funding decisions to the lowest level, the public sector cannot pursue a consistent policy.

New research on school meals commissioned by the Department for Education shows that many schools in England, after the delegation of funding, have cut back on quality to make ends meet. If there is any healthy food in schools, it is mostly tired lettuce leaves and wizened apples.

I would introduce, for the whole public sector, a policy that favours locally grown, fresh food. Strictly speaking, this is against European Union rules, which prohibit public procurement policies that discriminate in favour of domestic businesses. But Italy, France, Sweden and Denmark have found ways round such restrictions. One region of Tuscany requires oranges in schools for the eight months of the year that they happen to be grown in Italy.

A "local first" policy would bring healthy foods that are attractive and tasty into schools and hospitals. It would be good for the environment (supposedly another government priority) as the food would travel shorter distances. And it would provide a guaranteed market to local producers and strengthen a sector of the economy for which, as the success of farmers'

markets shows, there is genuine public demand.

Perhaps schoolboys would then be able to scrump again. After all, the main reason they don't is that there are hardly any English apple orchards left.

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman.

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