From starving to stuffed to death

8th December 2006 at 00:00

Not so very long ago, I lived in a Nottinghamshire village where the butcher, Mr Barlow, slaughtered two or three beasts behind his shop every Thursday. When the job was done, Mrs Barlow made gelatin from the bones and baked pork pies.

There must have been thousands of villages like that once. Locally reared meat and locally made produce, locally eaten by people who walked, not drove, to the shop.

Nowadays, a very classy brochure drops through our letterbox from a gourmet foods company called Forman and Field. In it are advertised no fewer than three producers' pork pies.

One tickles the saliva glands with news that it is made from pedigree Gloucester Old Spots, which are "placid, friendly, loveable, laid-back creatures - a bit, well, porky and that's good in a pig". Another, made by a Mrs King, has picked up "more awards than The Lord of the Rings trilogy".

With a family size pie going for about pound;10 today, old Mrs Barlow would have retired to millionaire's row long ago.

Meanwhile, Jamie Oliver struggles to persuade children not to eat nutrition-free gunk, their loving parents lurking outside the school gates, anxious to take repeat orders for the familiar poisons.

The Jonahs may even be right. The generation growing up now amid plenty may suffer worse health and lower life expectancy than those brought up on short commons 50 or so years ago.

It's not a pretty thought, is it? The rich toy with Forman and Field's nourishing best and grow straight and tall, while the poor grow plump, pallid and dim, fuelled by garbage.

I exaggerate to make the point - I hope. One reason I'm not so sure is the work the Adult Learning Inspectorate does with the armed forces. It is the issue in close-up.

If you only have three months or so to make a raw kid into the beginnings of an infantryman capable of surviving duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, the pressure is on to work them hard. But if they have spent 17 or 18 years eating sugar and fat and only exercising their thumbs on games consoles and mobile phones, hard work tends to break them rather than make them fitter.

Think of all the similar teenagers who are not taken in hand by military PT instructors and nutritionists. Think of the effects of another 30 or 40 years of poor food and inactivity. The weaknesses exposed in the few at the age of 18 simply multiply down the years in the many. The results are likely to be sicklier and briefer lives.

We thought we had left behind life which was nasty, brutish and short.

I hate the idea that poorer people can have food in abundance but food which does more harm than good. It is a bitter con. I hate the notion that what once was simple, cheap and nutritious now comes either with a health warning or as a luxury item for the well-to-do.

There was an old saying when many people went hungry: "What doesn't fatten, fills." We have to rewrite it today. What fattens, kills.

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