Stephen Jardine: Tesco to the rescue on obesity

I admire a bit of brass neck. After all, I’m the man who got a table in an always-packed restaurant just by staying quiet when the snooty manager thought I was someone else.

Stephen Jardine. Picture: Jon Savage

Given that, I was very impressed by Tesco’s announcement this week.

A year ago it was at the centre of the Horsegate scandal. Twelve months on, it is setting out on a mission to save our children from obesity and poor health.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The vehicle for this is its new £15 million Farm to Fork project, which aims to take one million primary school kids around farms, factories and supermarkets to show them where food comes from.

So a company which sold horsemeat masquerading as beef is now lecturing us about provenance. That takes some chutzpah.

On one level, at least it is now engaging with the debate about children and food and accepting it has some responsibility for what we consume. Tesco addresses that in the new campaign: “We are now facing an overwhelming body of evidence which points clearly to the long-term health and social costs of our relationship with food,” said Tesco managing director Chris Bush at the launch.

The Daily Mirror this week echoed the crisis, quoting a study that showed a third of under-11s think cheese grows on trees.

The problem is, we reached this point thanks largely to the supermarkets. For years it suited their purposes to keep mass retail away from the messy world of food production. So huge stores were filled with piped music, ready meals and produce selected to look identical.

In the circumstances it is hardly surprising children being pushed up and down the aisles in shopping trolleys ended up with a warped view of food. But it’s more than just an educational issue, with 29 per cent of Scottish children overweight or obese and diabetes at record levels, it’s a health crisis too.

In the promotional video for this project, Tesco shows fit and happy children touring farms and learning about food production. The film ends with them picking items off the shelves in a Tesco store.

So is this a serious attempt to tackle the disconnect between the fields and the shelves? Or is it a cynical attempt by a supermarket with an image problem and falling sales to try to hook future shoppers at an early age ?

Normally time will tell with these things, but the health outcomes we are facing at this moment suggest the ticking clock is not on our side.

The Scottish Government will have to decide if this kind of commercialisation of the classroom is acceptable.

But it’s hard not to think that a £15m donation could have gone some way to make up for Horsegate. And a long way to pay for improvements to existing food education and provision in Scottish schools.